Tuesday, June 01, 2010
I am spending a holiday at home, not doing anything much; and curiously I find my thoughts turning to work, but in a positive, not-particularly-about-anything, not-stressed-out-at-all kind of a way. In fact, with appreciation for the privilege that is nursing.
There are many wonders to be experienced as a nurse. Being part of a caring, curing team; holding the hand of the distressed and dying; seeing new life come into the world; snatching glimpses of the miracles that lie beneath the flesh. Of course, along with all that goes the blood and the gore, the smells and the unmentionables. Every nurse has his or her limits, beyond which the stomach turns so much that caring becomes a struggle. But it is true that familiarity helps one to cope.
As a student nurse I worried about what my reaction would be to the sight of so much corrupted flesh on display: the human body under stress can have a bit of a road traffic accident effect - it's difficult to stop staring. However, one quickly adapts such that absolutely anything seems 'normal' - as, indeed, it is. Now, I enjoy the variety - not in some sick voyeuristic fashion, nor in order to make me feel better about my own imperfections (although I admit that can be an added bonus at times - I'm only human!). Increasingly I find myself delighting in the diversity of the human body - its various sizes, shapes, colours and abilities. Dear Flo Nightingale said it well:
"Nursing is an art: and if it is to be made an art, it requires an exclusive devotion as hard a preparation as any painter's or sculptor's work; for what is the having to do with dead canvas or dead marble, compared with having to do with the living body, the temple of God's spirit? It is one of the Fine Arts: I had almost said, the finest of Fine Arts."
As a dermatology nurse I am concerned primarily with the outer boundary of the body. To see skin is to see the person - their race, their shynes and discomfort, their age. To touch diseased skin conveys a tender respect that many patients have not experienced for years. Diseased skin inhibits an individual, shutting them off from life experiences, even from the touch of those they love the most. It is such a privilege to be part of their road back to accepting themselves, as well as hopefully towards healing.
I feel honoured that so many people have entrusted their own bodies, or those of their loved ones, to my care. However much we seek to become spiritual people, feeding our inner beings, we are also absolutely physical. We occupy the space around us, breathing its air, polluting and changing the small plot of earth with which we interact. And oh, we are beautiful: yes, even you!
I have perceived that to be with those I love is enough,
To stop in company with the rest at evening is enough,
To be surrounded by beautiful, curious, breathing, laughing flesh is enough,
To pass among them, or touch any one, or rest my arm ever so lightly round his or her neck for a moment - what is this, then?
I do not ask any more delight - I swim in it, as in a sea.
There is something in staying close to men and women, and looking on them, and in the contact and the odour of them, that pleases the soul well;
All things please the soul - but these please the soul well.
From 'I sing the body electric', by Walt Whitman.
Thank you, Walt: I have not heard it said better.
Some time ago I watched a programme celebrating the work of The Company of Elders, a dance troupe for older participants run by the artistic director for Sadler's Wells ballet. Many of the dancers had no experience in dance at all; but their age had encouraged them to become less inhibited as they got older, not more. As one of the more physically inhibited people I know (dancing and I are, if not total strangers, then distant acquaintances), I can only hope and dream. Perhaps it is when the tyranny of trying to stay young is forgotten that a true celebration of the body can begin.