Radical Nursing

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Seattle Women’s March. Photo credit: Josephine Ensign/2017.

(Note: parts of this Yale School of Nursing 2017 commencement speech were adapted from the chapter “Soul Story” included in my forthcoming book Soul Stories: Voices from the Margins.)

Good afternoon. Thank you Dean Kurth, and all the faculty, staff, students, and the friends and family members of today’s graduates, for this opportunity to speak to you about a topic I am passionate about: nursing. But not traditional nursing—not the Lady with the Lamp during the Crimean War—and not the white uniform-clad nurse angel of Hallmark moments. About that nurse angel, to paraphrase Virginia Woolf and her similarly stifling angel of the house: whenever you feel the shadow of her wings or the radiance of her halo, take up the inkpot or whatever modern equivalent is nearby and fling it at her. Because nurses are flesh and blood people. Nurses are not supernatural beings. We, as nurses, are human beings. Today, I want to talk to you about the real life transforming and transformational nursing of which you are all a part. I want to talk to you about radical nursing. And about the radical self-care it takes to be a radical nurse.

Radical. Not necessarily in the political use of the word. Instead, I mean radical, in the OED definition “of or relating to a root or roots—fundamental to or inherent in the natural processes of life, vital.” It is derived from the Latin radicalis, which referred to “the moisture or humour once thought to be present in all living organisms as a necessary condition of their vitality.”

What feeds and waters your soul? What draws you to the work that you do?

The question of what draws us to the work that we do as nurses is an essential one. It is a radical one. It is a question which demands from us the act of digging deep through the layers of our being, down into the root system. It demands from us the time and space necessary to examine and then continue to re-examine our answers as we move through life. It demands the use of the arts and humanities in order to explore fully. The tools necessary to do this digging are not included in your nursing science toolkit. They are included in your arts in nursing and creative writing awards program led by Dr. Linda Honan. They are included through the meditation, yoga, and other self-care opportunities you have had here at the Yale School of Nursing. They are included in the creative pursuits you brought with you into nursing and that hopefully you have continued to nurture.

Because if we don’t attend to the work of that question—of what draws us to the work that we do— it often becomes an Achilles’ heel, tripping us up, making us lame. If we are not careful, the root of our passion for our work can become the biggest source of professional burnout.

I know this from personal experience. I have burned out—flamed out—rather spectacularly at least once in my career as a nurse. I now know my own particular set of warning signals for when I am beginning to get crispy, and I have worked out an action plan consisting of a short list of self-care that for me includes creative writing, and “real” books (not textbooks), and libraries, and more time in nature and with my family and friends.

I’ll tell you a condensed version of my cautionary tale about my first and worst experience with burnout. I wasn’t able to really think about this episode of my life until more recently as I began to write about it—creatively and reflectively.

A few years ago, I was in New York for a week to attend the narrative medicine workshop at Columbia University. I was there to learn ways to incorporate the stories of health, healing, and the human condition into my work. After the workshop was over, I spent a Sunday walking the length of Manhattan in flip-flops, which was a very silly thing to do since I ended up with a badly infected blister on the bottom of one foot.

But as I walked through Manhattan, I pondered questions that had been flashing through my head like an existential version of the NASDAQ sign in Times Square. Why am I attracted to the suffering of others? Why have I spent the past thirty years working as a nurse with homeless and marginalized people? Would I be happier—and able to afford a better pair of shoes—if I was drawn to work as a shoe buyer for Saks Fifth Avenue? The latter question occurred to me as I hobbled past the wrought-iron festooned display windows of Saks’ flagship store.

In one of our last narrative medicine workshop sessions we were asked to, “write about the last real thing that happened to you.” My last real thing had occurred the week before, during my work in Seattle. I teach health policy to nursing students at the University of Washington. Together with colleagues in the Schools of Medicine and Dentistry I help train and precept groups of medical, nursing, and dental students in the provision of basic foot and dental care for homeless people. The week before my New York trip, we had done one of these Teeth and Toes clinics at Seattle’s largest homeless shelter.

The shelter is in the downtown core of Seattle, at the bottom of the original Skid Road, which earned its name from the frontier town’s cedar logs, public inebriates, and Gold Rush prostitutes that all rolled downhill together into the mudflats and salt waters of Puget Sound. Entering the building, I was hit by the smell of a horse stable, something hay-sweet mixed with urine. The smell took me back to my work at the Cimmerian warehouse of the Richmond Street Center in Virginia, where I began my work with homeless people in the 1980s, and where I rolled down my own version of Skid Road and was homeless for six months.

Later that evening, as I inspected various scars or open wounds on the homeless clients’ feet, my mantra to them became, “What happened here?” Some people had simple replies, such as, “I was in a bad car accident a year ago.” Others were more complex. One patient was a woman dressed in a stained orange t-shirt, her short red hair flying away from florid, puffy cheeks. She stared at the ceiling while mumbling to herself, as if in prayer, her hands held in front of her neck, fluttering. I had the impression she was trying to catch hold of her exposed and scattered soul. Her only reply, while still looking at the ceiling and twitching her hands even faster, was, “I get nervous with too many questions.”

What happened here? is a question I asked myself about my own spiral into homelessness. At age twenty-five I was a respectable Southern preacher’s wife and a newly graduated nurse practitioner, running a health care for the homeless clinic in downtown Richmond. In a photograph of me from this time I’m kneeling on the floor of the clinic, my long straight hair falling in my face, and I’m washing the feet of a bearded Vietnam veteran homeless patient. I mostly worked alone in the clinic, tending to the health needs of thirty or more homeless patients each day for more than three years. I have no photo of myself towards the end of those years when I became a severely depressed divorcee without a job, living in my car and in abandoned sheds. There is no coherent story of this time, no map recording my journey, no facile answers to the question of what happened, only a mosaic of metaphors: rolling down Skid Road, falling into the rabbit hole, exposing my scattered soul, eating myself with rage—and flaming out. In retrospect, I see that my descent was partially caused by an extreme case of professional burn out, something nurses are especially prone to.

The term “professional burnout” comes from Graham Greene’s novel A Burnt-out Case, set in a Colonial British Congo leprosy clinic staffed by an atheist physician and Catholic nuns as nurses. The physician explains that a burnt-out case is a leprosy patient whose disease has burned itself out: the patient no longer has active leprosy but has the scars such that he or she is unable to re-enter normal life. In a conversation with the Father Superior of the village, the physician tells him of the issue of a leprophil: a person who is attracted to the suffering of lepers—who loves suffering and poverty and illness—a form of schadenfreude. He states that leprophil nurses “…would rather wash the feet with their hair like the woman in the gospel than clean them with something more antiseptic.” He likens leprophils to people who love and embrace poverty. The leprophil “makes for a bad nurse and ends by joining the patients.” The physician tells the priest that a patient can detect when someone loves their disease, their poverty, their suffering, instead of loving them as a person.

Why are people drawn to work with the lepers, outcasts, and homeless of the world? Is it, as the priest states in Greene’s novel, dangerous to ask what lies behind the desire to be of use, for we “might find some terrible things”?  This virtuous work or calling or vocation or zeal, whether religious or secular, can feed the Hungry Ghost ego. It can become one’s identity; it can become addictive and destructive. I know this because I became my work and through it I became homeless.

The lesson here is: please do not become your work. That goes for all of us, whether we are graduates or teachers or administrators. In order for all of us to work together to help make our world a better, healthier place for everyone—which itself is a radical idea—it requires radical nurses who practice radical self-care.

Nursing is the largest healthcare profession worldwide, yet continues to have the least direct influence on health policy. Within nursing we have people working in four categories: 1) direct service providers; 2) advocates who help make systems work better for people; 3) organizers who bring people together to change or create new systems; and my personal favorite, 4) rebels—people who speak truth to power and who agitate for radical change. The key is to recognize your own strengths, where you are most comfortable working at any given time in your career—but to also see the value in the range of roles played by different people. Because an effective social change movement and an effective, compassionate, and equitable healthcare system, require people—require nurses—working together in all of these roles.

The Yale School of Nursing may be small, but its graduates have an outsized positive impact on the healthcare system, here in the US as well as globally—and even in terms of planetary health. Graduates: you don’t have big nursing shoes to fill, you have your own shoes, your own important career paths to blaze.

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