Every now and then we find a story of trial, tribulation and heroism which, when placed in comparison, our own problems and daily woes seem to pale by comparison. I’m a bit of a history nerd and the story of Irena Sendler in World War II is one of those stories that truly lifts my spirits as a nurse. As a dose of inspiration, here’s a recap of this extraordinary woman’s accomplishments as a caregiver and children’s advocate.
Sendler was born in Warsaw, her father a physician who died in 1917 of typhus, contracted while treating patients his colleagues refused to treat. She studied at Warsaw University and was working as a social worker when the Nazis invaded Poland in 1939.
As an employee of the Social Welfare Department, she had a special permit to enter the Warsaw Ghetto to check for signs of typhus, something the Nazis feared would spread beyond the Ghetto. Disguised as a nurse bringing in drugs and medical supplies, she smuggled infants in the bottom of a bag she carried and kept a burlap sack (for larger kids) in the back of her truck.
All told, Sendler managed to smuggle out and save 2500 children. In 1943, she was arrested by the Gestapo, severely tortured and sentenced to death. She was able to escape this fate, but for the remainder of the war, she lived in hiding, continuing her work for the Jewish children in secrecy.
In 1965, Irena was recognized by Yad Vashem as one of the Righteous among the Nations. She also received, among many other honors, The Audrey Hepburn Humanitarian Award-given to persons or organizations recognized for helping children. In 2007 Irena was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize.
It’s said that Irena kept a record of the names of all of the children that she helped to save and kept them in a glass jar, buried under a tree in her backyard. In 1999, a group of Kansas students produced a play titled Life in a Jar based on Irena’s story. It has since been adapted to television as The Courageous Heart of Irena Sendler (if you haven’t seen, it’s a must! One of my favorites!).
Irena is only one of the countless people all over the world who put everything on the line to save others from the horrific actions taking place all around them. Whenever I think about the story of Sendler, I always feel a twinge of pride that I’m a caregiver. It’s one of those things.
Most nurses who have been around for a while have learned to separate the ‘life and death’ issues from the not-so-significant, especially those who work in the ED or ICU. Still, we ask ourselves: Could I really risk everything, even my own life, for someone else, for a complete stranger?
As a nurse, the pettiness of the day-to-day and the grinding pressure of the long hours can keep us from staying in touch with the big picture. We all love what we do (Lord knows we certainly don’t do it for the money). I personally feel it’s important to stay inspired as a nurse — whether it’s from the actions of our dedicated peers around us or by cracking open a history book. There are so many stories of men and women who have gone ‘above and beyond’ the call of duty — do you have a favorite heroic caregiver story? Please share.
“Every child saved with my help is the justification of my existence on this Earth, and not a title to glory.” – Irena Sendler.