Nurses and Curses

By Ashleigh Brilliant   |   June 21, 2022

Many of the titles of Ernest Hemingway’s best-known novels are derived from earlier literature. The Sun Also Rises comes from the Old Testament Book of Ecclesiastes, (one of the most pessimistic parts of the Bible, which begins by saying that “Everything is meaningless”). For Whom the Bell Tolls comes from a sermon by the English poet and Cleric, John Donne, whose theme is that “no man is an island,” and that we are all involved in, and connected with, each other. And A Farewell to Arms originated in a poem by George Peele, who, like Donne, was roughly a contemporary of Shakespeare, and whose verses were dedicated to a high-ranking military officer who was retiring from the service of Queen Elizabeth.

But in Hemingway’s novel, both the “Arms” and the “Farewell” have a variety of nuances. The hero and narrator is Lt. Frederic Henry, an American ambulance driver, sometimes in the thick of the fighting, in northern Italy, in World War 1. Getting wounded himself, and thereby being rendered hors de combat, is his ticket out of the war. But his escape from the arms of war transfers him instead to the arms of Catherine Barkley, an English nurse, who tends him in an Italian hospital. Their romance, however, is cursed. They manage to flee together to neutral Switzerland. But there, another sad farewell must take place, when Catherine dies in childbirth, losing the baby, and leaving Henry to walk out alone, into the rain.

Another instance of nursing in terrible circumstances, this time fact, not fiction, was the career of Florence Nightingale in the Crimean War (1853-1856), undoubtedly Britain’s worst-ever martial venture (as epitomized in the infamous military disaster celebrated by Tennyson in his “Charge of the Light Brigade”). This energetic heroine is generally credited with being the founder of modern nursing. Before her time, nursing could hardly have been called a profession at all, and, such as it was, the vast majority of its practitioners (apart from nuns) were men. She gave women a new role to play in society, which they did so successfully that, by our own era, the idea of male nurses had become almost laughable. (Indeed, it was laughed at, very heartily, by the comedy team of Mike Nichols and Elaine May, in their 1998 sketch about the son telling his conventional parents that his own great ambition is to be a registered nurse.)

Florence Nightingale (who, thanks to a reporter writing in the London Times, became known as “The Lady with the Lamp”) never got physically closer to the fighting than the western coast of Turkey, hundreds of miles away from Crimea. But conditions were bad enough in a base hospital there, at a place called Scutari, that she had an enormous impact on ideas of caregiving and sanitation, which, beginning in England (where fortunately she had influential friends in high places), eventually spread all over the world.

These changes by no means happened suddenly or smoothly. By the time of the American Civil War (1861-1865) army doctors on both sides were prejudiced against the whole idea of women volunteers tending the wounded, believing that they were simply not competent. Indeed, one of the most remarkable Civil War nurses was not only a man, but a famous poet – Walt Whitman, who spent several years visiting Union Army hospitals in and around Washington, D.C., and wrote movingly about his helping to tend the sick and dying; sometimes writing letters for them to their families.

But you probably want to know something about my own experience in this arena. I was fortunate to reach the age of 77 while still having had what my doctor called “a benign medical history.” But then my luck ran out. I was hit by a car while in a marked crossing near my home, and got a badly broken leg, which resulted in my first period of major hospitalization in nearly 40 years. This cursed condition was mainly relieved by the skilled nurses – and one particular nurse with a special skill – which, until then, I had never even heard of. She was called a “Wounds Nurse,” and I blessed and cherished her daily visits. She was apparently the only one highly qualified to remove the dressings on my mangled leg (when I could see the wound, which I always photographed), and to treat and re-bandage the injured area. Only then could I truly understand why nurses have so frequently been called “Angels of Mercy.”  


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