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Wendy Williams, Ministry of Defence, UK — The Courage to Stand

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Extracts of the Keynote Address by Group Captain Wendy B Williams RRC PMRAFNS Defence Nursing Advisor, Ministry of Defence, UK at the 2007 Florence Nightingale Commemoration Service, organised by the Florence Nightingale Foundation, held at the Westminster Abbey:

"Courage and compassion are probably the two most important core values which epitomize nursing.  When we look to those values, there is no greater role model to nurses today than Florence Nightingale. I wish to reflect on Florence Nightingale's boundless courage and compassion, drawing parallels with acts of courage and compassion associated with military nursing, and how as nurses, whether we are military or civilian, we need to uphold the tenants of courage and compassion on a daily basis as the patient's advocate.

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Group Captain Wendy B Williams RRC PMRAFNS: Defence Nursing Advisor, Ministry of Defence, UK

Florence Nightingale demonstrated courage when she rebelled against her family who were strongly opposed to her pursuit of a nursing career; resolutely she stood her ground and took the initiative to study nursing on her own.  During the Crimean War, Florence Nightingale risked her life by going into a war zone and exposing herself to disease on a mass scale, but her focus was always on her patients. Her courage had its roots in her commitment to her cause. Because she was so committed, the cause was more important than the risks involved.  Her next battle was to overcome opposition from the army surgeons who initially resisted her interference. 

Undiminished, she courageously transformed the care and conditions at the military hospital; so much so that the mortality rate fell from 60% to 2% in just 6 months. This was achieved by providing the basic tenants of nursing care; improving the standards of sanitation, clean linen, wholesome food and providing compassionate care by trained nurses. A timely reminder of the importance of basic human needs in delivering nursing care. 

Florence Nightingale's courage and compassion were quite rightly rewarded by honours; One hundred years ago this November, Florence Nightingale was awarded the Order of Merit by Edward VII; the first time this honour had been bestowed on a woman. Her courage and compassion was also rewarded when she became the first nurse to be awarded the Royal Red Cross Medal by Queen Victoria in 1883. The Royal Red Cross Medal still exists today and can be conferred upon members of the Royal Navy, Army and Royal Air Force nursing services who have been recommended for special devotion to duty, competency in nursing care over a long period of time, compassionate nursing, and exceptional acts of bravery while engaged in nursing duties.

The history of this Award tells human stories of exceptional nurses whose courage came to the fore when working in great danger. Nurses like Sister Barbara Maunsell, an Army nurse serving in Burma in WW II who volunteered to work with a field ambulance right on the demarcation line. Nurses would not normally have to serve on the front line but volunteers had been requested to cope with increasing casualties. Despite constant bombardment by mortars and machine gun fire, Sister Maunsell tended to the wounded. She knew if she were caught by the advancing Japanese troops that she could face horrific treatment. Notwithstanding the risks to her own safety, she battled to save many lives by her diligent nursing and emergency care. Barbara Maunsell was awarded the Royal Red Cross for her devotion to duty.

"Acts of courage and compassion are not limited to the battlefield; they are repeated every day by the many unsung heroes throughout the nursing profession.  Now, more than ever, nurses need to be courageous to recognize and articulate the value of quality compassionate, nursing care and the difference it makes to patients and their families."

Those selfless acts were repeated numerous times over during WW II with many nurses sadly, paying the ultimate price by losing their lives. That is why, every year at this Service, we pay a special tribute and honour the memory of all those nurses, in the Nurses Roll of Honour, who gave their lives in World War II while caring for the sick and wounded.

Exceptional courage and compassion is not always recognised with honours and decorations, as it can often be difficult to single out an individual when the whole team contributed equally.

Acts of courage and compassion are not limited to the battlefield; they are repeated every day by the many unsung heroes throughout the nursing profession. Now, more than ever, nurses need to be courageous to recognize and articulate the value of quality compassionate, nursing care and the difference it makes to patients and their families.

We may have moved forward in advancing nursing practice over the last 150 years, but it does us no harm to reflect on Florence Nightingale's core values and beliefs and re-dedicate ourselves to those defining principles. 

Today a lack of financial and human resources impacts on that precious commodity - time. Nurses struggle to cope with the pressures, as time is what they do not have. Treatments, medications and procedures are being delivered by nurses, but often, through no fault of their own, there is little time to devote to giving more personalised care to a standard that we would want for ourselves and our families.  Florence Nightingale passionately believed that 'the nurse cared for a person with an illness, she did not care for a disease', that is why she recognised the importance of giving special attention to the psychological elements that improved health, healing and the person's peace of mind.

Florence Nightingale had the courage to do what her own heart told her was right, and to face the consequences. We can do her no greater honour than to emulate this great lady and have the courage to stand up for what we believe is right and the compassion to make patient care our priority."

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Group Captain Wendy Williams (right) with NIGH co-directors, Barbara Dossey (centre) and Deva-Marie Beck (left) at a recent meeting in London.


FN statue

At the Crimean War Memorial in London, UK with Dr. Susan Hassmiller, Senior Advisor for Nursing at the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, taken on her 2010 Nightingale Journey. This statue is one of only two of non-royal women in Central London.

Flo with Desmond Tutu

Archbishop Desmond Tutu at the 2010 Nightingale Centenary opening of the Florence Nightingale Museum in London, UK