My prize for having the highest marks in my Grade 3 class at Joliette English School was a copy of the book Florence Nightingale by Jeannette Covert Nolan. At about the same time, my mother began to decide that I should become a nurse. Her sister was a nurse, as was her sister-in-law and my mother talked to me about their good salaries, their pensions and benefits and the fact that they could work part time. Being a nurse clearly had many advantages in her view.
The only problem that I saw with being a nurse was that there were not enough books. I had determined by Grade 4 that I wanted to have many books in my life and so I decided that I would prefer to become a teacher. My thought to become a teacher never wavered until Grade 10 when it became necessary for me to travel daily into Dunton High School, since there was no high school beyond Grade 9 in Joliette at that time. Once in high school, I discovered theatre and, for a while, I considered a career in theatre.
However, my mother had not given up. She noticed that I had won provincial prizes in biology and chemistry and, never having liked the idea of teaching and certainly having hated the idea of theatre, she began to try to convince me again that nursing was the profession for me. However, My high school English teacher and my Biology teacher Had another idea. They invited me to dinner. There I met my biology teacher’s surgeon husband and, half way through my second year of university, I was convinced to apply for medicine and law at McGill University. When I learned that I had been accepted into both programs, I chose by looking at the full scholarship available to me for each program. Law offered $4,000 per year and Medicine offered $6,000 per year and my choice was made. For some perspective, in 1973 my mother made $12,000 per year as the Manager of a small factory in Joliette.
Throughout my medical career, nurses have continued to play a big role in both my personal and professional life. While my mother and most of my family were bewildered by my becoming a doctor, my aunts who were nurses were thrilled. Many of my best girl friends in medical school were nurses I met on my various clinical rotations and some of them are still my friends today. I also had friends from high school who were in nursing school. I am convinced that one of the reasons that I did so well in my clinical rotations was that they helped me out with a lot of good advice about my patients. They also gave me good advice about the interns, residents and staff physicians. For example, they would tell me that Dr. Cameron was a stickler for detail at rounds and that Dr. Littman was always a kind supervisor for students who worked hard.
By the time I started my residency in Psychiatry, my closest friend was a psychiatric nurse. Margaret and I still keep in touch, mostly by letter but occasionally we have coffee when I am in Toronto. What I admire most about nursing is its versatility. I work in a hospital and nurses turn up in every conceivable area of hospital operations from clinical work to administration to policy-making. From those positions, they may also go on to careers in law, journalism, or health administration. My experience has been that you can find nurses in places where many doctors, including me, would never dare to go.
My favourite nurse of all time was my younger sister, who passed away almost one year ago. My sister was my touchstone for all nurses and she did a lot for me as a physician. From her, I realized what good nurses will help doctors to be, if a doctor is inclined to pay attention. They will keep you honest, humble and open to how your patients are really doing. They will remind you of what you’ve forgotten – thank goodness! They let you know about new developments with your patients, in case you missed that lab test or consult when it came back. They make sure you know about all the little quirks about your unit, such as this room leaks, or there aren’t enough chairs in that room, or the computers are too slow. They are always so grateful for any extra time when they are so busy. Like my sister, they are mostly so kind and compassionate that it makes your heart break.
“The Nightingale Pledge,” my sister would say when I would ask her how she always knew what to do for a patient, “The Nightingale Pledge.” Many nurses these days don’t take the Nightingale Pledge, but my sister and her contemporaries did. As far as I can tell, they all follow it…except for the part about “abstaining” from whatever is “mischievous”. My sister – and many of the nurses I know – can be a bit mischievous at times. Go figure.