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Serenading the unsung heroines in South Africa

May 12, 2005 -- Xoliswa Zulu's follow-a-nurse piece in The Mercury today is entitled "Have You Thanked a Nurse Today?" (subtitle: "The people who hold the health system together often go unacknowledged"). Its vision of nursing is largely limited to the "unglamorous" job's physical demands, the unpleasantness of some care tasks, and the nurses' connection with their patients. So readers will not get a sense that nurses are educated professionals with advanced skills. On the other hand, the piece is at least a strong portrait of the aspects of nursing it identifies. The author marvels at the nurses' endurance and their ability to tolerate things like foul-smelling wounds and bedpans, and concludes by paying "tribute to these unsung heroines whose shoes I could never fill."

Xoliswa Zulu's approach in describing a day on the hospital's cardio-thoracic ward is to let us know how difficult various aspects of the work were to endure, which obviously underlines the strength of the nurses who do it all the time. We hear about the 12-hour shifts, the "smelly bed pans," the dressing of "foul-smelling wounds," "the nauseating smell of disinfectant everywhere," and especially the sheer physical challenge of walking and doing physical tasks all day, which causes the author's feet to throb and back to ache. But the "real nurses were brimming with energy," they "didn't bat an eyelid when they had to dress foul-smelling wounds," and they appeared to enjoy a kind of "silent telepathy" with difficult-to-reach patients. Each patient got "individual care," was made "comfortable" and was even made to "feel special." This may be a little hard for some nurses and patients to believe in the current care environment, where cost-cutting and short-staffing are huge global problems. The focus on nursing tasks that the author finds grotesque is actually useful to the extent it helps people understand the mental strength it takes to handle such tasks on a regular basis.

Unfortunately, the author may have focused a bit too much on what seemed most difficult to her, rather than asking probing questions about everything the nurses were doing and why they were doing it. Aside from the passing note that the nurses checked heart rates, there is nothing in the piece to explain to readers about nurses' highly skilled monitoring or therapeutic care (including how changing dressings and bedpans improves outcomes), nothing to let the public know that the nurses are professionals who save lives. Instead, everything here is fairly consistent with the traditional "scut work saint" vision of nursing. And the references to "heroines" obviously do little to encourage men to enter nursing--in contrast to the famous South African soap opera "Soul City," which features a significant male nurse character. Even the author's portrait of the nurses' apparently effortless strength in the face of physical and mental challenges may be a bit of a mixed message, as it could support the notion the nurses are superhuman spirit beings who don't have normal human needs, such as safe working conditions, decent pay and so on. In fact, what nurses do is very hard, and it is very hard on the nurses, especially in the midst of the current crisis. But in fairness, the main point most readers will probably take away from this tribute is that nursing is an extremely demanding job that many people simply could not begin to do. And that is a valuable message.

See the article "Have You Thanked a Nurse Today?: The people who hold the health system together often go unacknowledged" by Xoliswa Zulu in the May 12, 2005 edition of The Mercury. Xoliswa Zulu can be reached at


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