Militant angels of mercy
Christie Blatchford
National Post

The other night, a reporter friend asked, as reporters are wont to do, what my Saturday column might be about this week.

"Nurses," I said. "I think I'm going to tackle nurses."

"I'm sick of nurses," she barked.

She has an ailing relative, and as I was informed by my late uncle's brief illness, and before his by my late mother's lengthy one, so is my friend being informed by her relative's journey through the Canadian health care system. She has learned, as I did, that there are an unsettling number of nurses -- to be fair, even one such, encountered first-hand, would be unsettling -- who are outright shiftless or worse, just plain mean, as my friend said, "to people who can't fight back."

This is something shocking to contemplate, or say, or write, particularly now, as in Toronto and other parts of the world, the battle against Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS), which was fought in considerable measure by the bravest and most stalwart nurses, is just barely winding down. Even thinking it feels wicked.

And yet, despite a recent opinion poll which shows that most Canadians believe nurses need "more support" -- whatever that means -- it is curious how this particular group of workers, in a time of crisis and during their trial by fire, has failed to garner the sort of widespread affection which spontaneously arose across North America, post-911, for all firefighters, and, during the recent war in Iraq, for soldiers, who were embraced even, albeit in a lip-service sort of way, by the anti-war protesting left.

After the attack on the World Trade Centre, you couldn't find a fireman who had not been hugged by some grateful member of the public, who collectively had a new appreciation for the hazards of their work, and their courage in doing it. Ditto with the returning soldiers, all of whom were hailed as heroes, even, as it turned out, when their most heroic act was to simply to join up in the first place. This was so unmistakable that I remember getting an email from a firefighter, when the war was still going on, who remarked rather sadly that his breed's time in the sun was over, and now soldiers were the new beloveds.

Nothing comparable has happened with nurses.

The newspapers have been filled on and off for weeks now with stories of the toll taken on them by SARS -- the numbers of them who have been infected and fallen ill; the many more who have been in voluntary quarantine and spoken publicly of their ordeals; the many, many more who continue to log long hours in the oppressive new normal of awkward, hot protective gear which has then sometimes failed to adequately protect them; the many, many, many more who now live daily with fear for themselves and their families.

It is not that the nurses' remarkable role in the fight against SARS has not been told. It has been told, at great length and in a variety of places and ways. And it is not that in the ordinary course people don't appreciate nurses: There is simply no one more predisposed to a kind of free-floating quivering adoration, for doctors and nurses and orderlies and cleaners, as the sick and those who love them.

Merely visit someone in hospital once and you know this sort of thing to be true. Hold a sickup pan underneath an old chin once and you have a friend forever. Save someone from pain, humiliation or discomfort and they will cheerfully lie in their own urine a good long while before ringing the buzzer the next time. Most sick folks are inherently grateful for small kindnesses, particularly if they survive them: There is nothing quite like fearing you are going to die and waking up to find you have not to engender a sense of thankfulness. To my mind, there is a huge reservoir of goodwill that ought to be out there, blossoming now into a groundswell, for nurses.

Why isn't there?

The answer is in part that as nursing has come to be deemed a capital-P profession, as opposed to a calling, those drawn to it may be there as much because of the opportunities or pay or perquisites it offers as because they feel a genuine desire to help the ill. This change isn't unique to nursing. Practically every field in the world, from hockey to journalism to teaching, has in my view suffered similarly. There are reporters who want merely to be famous, not to ask questions or to write; there are athletes who are moved as much by money as by love of game; there are teachers who want school hours, but don't like children, or even teaching.

But a nurse who isn't kind or sympathetic can't be easily remedied, if at all. And not all of the disgruntled ones, or the mean ones, or the less-than-competent ones -- and anyone who has been in a hospital and seen the quality of nursing care, particularly on the general medical wards, can vouch for this -- can be attributed to the system being chronically under-funded or under-staffed, even if it's true, or to the bastard doctors who won't listen to them, which isn't. There are still many great nurses, but most of them work where the work is the toughest -- emergency rooms; critical care; intensive care. It's on the wards, where people are sent to get better, once the urgency has passed, where it's often a different ball game.

A story in last week's Globe and Mail captured some of what I mean.

It was about Kathleen Connors, the fiery retiring president of the Canadian Federation of Nurses Unions, who, the story said, has "forged a reputation as one of the most successful labour organizers in Canadian history" and led the way in replacing "the stereotype of the meek handmaiden" with that "of the self-assured militant".

Ms. Connors herself has battled cancer, and she sounds like an admirable woman, and I mean her no disrespect. But the victory the paper credits in large measure to her strikes me as rather Pyrrhic. That old handmaiden may have been meek, but by God, she was good, she was kind, and she was loved, if not always respected.

A reminder: Today is the day to buy a book at any Indigo, Chapters or Coles store across the country, or online. The stores are donating a remarkable five per cent of all book sales, with most publishers kicking in another five per cent, to Frontier College's literacy and after-school programs.

Christie Blatchford can be contacted at

 Copyright  2003 National Post

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