Betty was lying on a gurney in a hospital corridor. She was elderly, frail and shivering with cold. More than that, she was frightened and alone.
I took her temperature — a low temperature being a sign of sepsis in the elderly — but it wasn’t extreme. She’d been admitted with chest pain and she clutched her chest, starfishing her hand. Betty’s heart wasn’t diseased but it was broken nonetheless: Her husband had died a few weeks earlier of a heart attack. I suspect she hadn’t been eating and was without home heating.
I didn’t do anything medical for Betty, though increasingly nursing requires such expertise: Nurses are cheap doctors. I carefully tucked a blanket around her. Her skin was paper-thin and she had bruises at different stages patterning her arms like late summer roses. I found her a sandwich, made her a cup of tea and held her hand as she told me about her husband, Stan. How they danced. What a privilege to hold a person’s hand at her most defenseless and extreme moments of life. To be a nurse.
Yet nursing remains the most undervalued of all professions. If how a society treats its most vulnerable is a measure of its humanity, then any nurse will tell you that humanity is in trouble.
It seems that in both Britain and the United States, care has become a dirty word. Compassion and kindness are just slogans to earn likes on Instagram, not career goals. Instead, our cultures promote isolationism and revere narcissism. We have abandoned empathy and community along with it.
While working as a resuscitation nurse, I was called to the hospital cafe where a man was in cardiac arrest. Visitors and patients around us continued drinking their tea; some recorded the event on their phones. Another day, a woman, clearly homeless, was lying in the entrance to the hospital bleeding and crying. People — hospital staff included —stepped around her.
A clear symptom of the problem is how the nursing profession itself is in crisis. The population is aging, and we need more and more nurses, but applications are down. People are leaving the profession and retiring faster than they can be replaced. Even if we could recruit enough younger people — people not expecting an executive salary for a first job, people who are willing to deal with the blood and bones of us — a new nurse cannot replace one with 40 years’ experience.
America has 3 million nurses. That is not enough. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates there will be more than 1 million vacancies for registered nurses by 2024. This is twice as bad as the worst previous nursing shortage. If there is no national and international strategy to build a work force of nurses, we will witness — very soon — crippled health-care systems across the world.
Betty, after a while, stopped shivering so much. She sat up straighter as she held my hand. She thanked me and said I had saved her life. Of course, I had done no such thing, but I had given her something important: dignity, peace, care. What greater gift is there?
Hospitals are full of patients like Betty. Any one of us might be like her one day, dependent on receiving care from a stranger. Or, we will nurse a loved one. And at that time, we will understand that the only things that matter in the end are the qualities that unite humanity, ones that are almost but not quite forgotten: compassion and kindness.
Christie Watson, a nurse for 20 years, is also a novelist.