Florence and the machines
July 27, 2012 – The opening ceremony of the summer Olympic Games in London illustrated the sweep of recent centuries, from Britain’s early agrarian history to the Industrial Revolution to the digital era, with a series of joyous, inventive, and amusing spectacles. Director Danny Boyle simultaneously emphasized the National Health Service and the nation’s contributions to children’s literature, which he linked with an 11-minute segment built around references to the work of Peter Pan author J.M. Barrie, who had donated the royalties from his books to a local children’s hospital. The segment included a group of real nurses and physicians who dressed in traditional uniforms and danced energetically. The nurses ministered to pediatric patients by pushing them around in big rolling beds, reading to them, and tucking them in. The kids bounced on their trampoline-beds and the nurses danced, while occasionally miming what may have been care tasks, such as giving medications and hand-washing. Finally, the children fell asleep and began dreaming. Cue the entry of huge literary villain puppets, including the Queen of Hearts, Captain Hook, and of course, Voldemort. But then a skyful of umbrella-toting Mary Poppins’s dropped in to the rescue! We were pleased that the nurses were presented as workers of value, right alongside physicians, with at least a suggestion of actual health care, but no obvious indication of subservience, the angel stereotype, or the naughty nurse. There seemed to be a lot more nurses than physicians—just as in real life! We saw no reference to Florence Nightingale, the British founder of modern nursing, who might have been mentioned in a long ceremony that found room for a lot of pop musicians. But we did appreciate the celebration of a national health care system that, despite its flaws, helps nurses care for everyone. The segment did underline the historic association of “nurses” with paid child care, and Poppins, the peerless nanny, actually seemed to be a more effective healer than the nurses. The nurses’ tucking and reading, while certainly good psychosocial care, probably did not enhance the public’s sense of them as skilled health professionals. But at least they knew how to read! Of course, there is only so much a brief historical depiction can say about nursing today. We were pleased that the ceremony presented nurses as vital health workers to a billion worldwide viewers, and we thank those responsible.