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National Post's Blatchford: Bring back the handmaidens

June 26, 2003 -- Christie Blatchford's column "Militant angels of mercy" in the June 7 issue of Canada's National Post, mounts a bizarre attack on the modern nursing profession, as she yearns for the good old days when nurses were "kind" and "loved, if not always respected."

In support of her main argument--that nurses have not received much public support for their heroic work battling SARS because "an unsettling number" have become "outright shiftless or worse, just plain mean"--Ms. Blatchford offers startlingly uninformed generalizations. She feels that one reason for the lack of support is that nursing has "come to be deemed a capital-P profession, as opposed to a calling," so that people become nurses as much for "opportunities or pay or perquisites" as they do to help the ill. Evidently, Ms. Blatchford would rather have a system where people die because their nurses are angelic but untrained volunteers who cannot detect a declining condition, properly give a medication, or intervene to correct a medical error. Ms. Blatchford does not explain what lavish "perquisites" await the nurses she describes, but we feel sure the many real nurses now struggling with short-staffing and other front-line clinical challenges would be eager to hear about them.

Citing no evidence, Ms. Blatchford takes a general shot at the "quality of nursing care, particularly on the general medical wards," allowing that there are "still many great nurses" but most work "where the work is the toughest--emergency rooms; critical care; intensive care." In other words, most nurses in the great majority of clinical settings aren't very good. And not all the "disgruntled," "mean" and "less-than-competent" nurses "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." Ms. Blatchford is not content to question whether there really is short-staffing, which few if any serious observers dispute, she appears to assert that there are no physicians who fail to listen to nurses. This is a screamer that could be disproved with evidence of even one physician's conduct, but most nurses can cite many occasions when their attempts to advocate for patients' interests have been ignored or met with abuse, to the patients' detriment. And statistical research has shown that there is a direct link between physician disruptive behavior and nurse satisfaction and retention.

As an example of what's wrong with the wards, Ms. Blatchford refers to a recent article about retiring Canadian Federation of Nurses Unions president Kathleen Connors, who has reportedly sought to shift the nursing image from that of the traditional "meek handmaiden" towards that of a "self-assured militant." Evidently, the alleged decline in nursing care on the wards can be traced directly to nursing militancy. It is not clear how this supposed "militancy" can be reconciled with the current crisis in nursing, which includes a well-documented global shortage, chronic short staffing, relatively poor status and low pay.

Even assuming that Ms. Blatchford is correct that nurses have not received a "groundswell" of "goodwill" for their SARS work, and we have seen no real evidence that she is, she fails to consider other possible reasons. These include the lack of true recognition for the serious, life-saving work of the female-dominated profession--as exemplified by her own attitude and those of many others in the media--as well as nurses' own traditional self-effacement.

Perhaps the most unfortunate misconception of all is Ms. Blatchford's apparent belief that nursing, at its core, consists of being nice to sick people. In fact, whether Ms. Blatchford likes it or not, nursing has long been a serious profession in which university-trained professionals--in addition to providing crucial emotional and physical support--save and improve lives through critical thinking and timely action, through patient education and, at the risk of seeming "militant," patient advocacy.

See Christie Blatchford's article in the National Post: "Militant angels of mercy" (reprinted with permission).

See a response to the column written by health care journalist and Center for Nursing Advocacy board member Bernice Buresh.

To register your own objection, please email Christie Blatchford at Please make sure to copy the Editor of the National Post at and send a blind carbon copy of your letter to us at so that we can monitor the effectiveness of this campaign. Thank you for advocating for the nursing profession.



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