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A pros-and-cons look at nursing through the ages

iStock | CSA-Printstock

iStock | CSA-Printstock

Sometimes I get really annoyed with my job. Staffing’s tight, hours are long, patients are sicker every time I turn around and there always seems to be a new crop of residents to deal with. When I get really frustrated and start thinking of going back to waiting tables, I read historical accounts of nursing. Then I feel better. Taking the long view, I don’t have that much to complain about.

PREHISTORIC NURSING
PROS: Not a lot of drugs to memorize. Pretty much everybody ate organic and breathed clean air. Industrial accidents unknown.
CONS: Trepanning, red ochre and rapid amputation were the state of the art. Nobody lived much past 30. Large, hungry animals were a hazard on daily rounds.

ANCIENT GREEK AND ROMAN NURSING
PROS: Observation and documentation were beginning to make a difference in treatment. Ethical considerations quantified by Hippocrates. Close collaboration between medical science and oracles.
CONS: Threat of execution of a high-ranking patient didn’t get better. Pigeon’s tongues considered a viable treatment. Lion bites a real concern in some patient populations.

EUROPEAN NURSING, 12th THROUGH 15th CENTURIES
PROS: New drugs, treatments and techniques filtering back via returning Crusaders. Ecclesiastical support for medical and nursing care. Improved nutrition for the masses.
CONS: Plague. Smallpox. Open sewers. Plague. War. Plague.

OLD/NEW WORLD NURSING, 16th THROUGH 18th CENTURIES
PROS: Professionalization of midwifery and wise-women led to greater social standing for female medical people. New discoveries in physiology and anatomy. General boom in European economies.
CONS: Humours, bleeding, plague, smallpox, war and that whole being-burned-as-a-witch thing.

AMERICAN NURSING, CIVIL WAR AND VICTORIAN ERAS
PROS: Speedy amputations. Plenty of work. Gin.
CONS: Cholera, poverty, speedy amputations, gin.

AMERICAN AND EUROPEAN NURSING, 1900-1920
PROS: New developments in trauma care and reconstructive surgery.
CONS: War that led to new developments in trauma care and reconstructive surgery.

AMERICAN AND EUROPEAN NURSING, 1920-1950
PROS: Increased independence of nursing professionals thanks to Second World War. Development of antibiotics. Cool armed services uniforms.
CONS: Second World War. Starched skirts and caps. POW camps.

NURSING WORLDWIDE, 1950-PRESENT
PROS: Scientific knowledge increasing by leaps and bounds. Widespread vaccination and sanitation improvements increase lifespan and reduce mortality and morbidity. Nursing takes its place beside medicine as a different, yet equal, discipline. Gin still available.
CONS: Pandemics. War. Plague. War. Political unrest. Short-staffing. The Joint Commission.

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Agatha Lellis

Agatha Lellis is a nurse whose coffee is brought to her every morning by a chipmunk. Bluebirds help her to dress, and small woodland creatures sing her to sleep each night. She writes a monthly advice column, "Ask Aunt Agatha," here on Scrubs; you can send her questions to be answered at askauntieaggie@gmail.com.
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