Walking through Cancer Valley: 3. Nurses and other Wonderful Human Beings

This is the text of a video on my YouTube channel entitled Walking through Cancer Valley: 3. Nurses and other Wonderful Human Beings.

“Hello. This is the third video in the set entitled “Walking through Cancer Valley”. The title of this one is “Nurses and other Wonderful Human Beings”.

Although I’ve been married to a wonderful and lovely nurse for 52 years, these recent times in hospital have given me fresh insight into what nurses are made of. I think I’m quite good at saying the right thing, the helpful thing, to people who are suffering but I’m not at all good at thinking of and doing the practical things that can make all the difference to them. Val is always able to combine care and compassion with leaping into doing the right thing for the suffering person.

And I found that this was also the case with many of the nurses whom I met in those times in hospital. They could relate to me as if I were the only person who mattered in those minutes and yet, at the same time, they could deal in the most matter-of-fact way with very intimate and potentially embarrassing matters affecting this old man in that hospital bed. I realised more deeply that this is what nursing is all about and that these are truly wonderful human beings. One of them on one occasion shared quietly with me that she had been a nurse in a Covid ward earlier last year at the time of peak hospitalisation in the first wave. And she said with, I think, tears that she regarded it as a privilege to be able to do that, to work in that ward and to sit with very ill patients and some who were passing away. I found that very deeply moving.

I also found that the doctors I met were truly caring people and they were not at all like a doctor that I’m going to talk about for a few moments. He is not one that I met. He is one that Parker Palmer talked about. Many of you who know me well know that I very often quote from Parker Palmer’s wonderful book The Courage to Teach. But this came from a recorded talk rather than a written book and he talked of a rather different experience of a hospital doctor that he had in hospital. He talked of an “externalised view of the human body and of medicine” which sees the doctor as being “like a mechanic repairing a machine” and he recounted how, when he was in hospital for a heart condition, he was treated by a doctor whom he described as an “Icelandic cardiologist freeze-dried at birth” to whom he, Parker Palmer, was nothing more than case number X in ward Y. He went on to say that, on the other hand, the “nurses treated me like a human being, not an object suspended by cables and wires”. And he said that doctors like his cardiologist are not healers because they don’t “evoke the patient’s inner powers of healing”. This was in a talk entitled Divided No More that he gave at Rhodes College, Memphis, back in September 2002.

And thinking about it now, I find it resonates with what I tried to say in the second video, the one entitled “All Real Living is Meeting”, when I talked about the distinction between I-You relationships and I-It relationships. For that cardiologist treating Parker Palmer, he, Parker Palmer was an It and the relationship was an I-It relationship. On the other hand, for the nurses who were treating him, he was a person and the relationship was an I-You relationship.

The doctors and the nurses that I met all treated me like a human being, like a person, not an object. None of them were like Palmer’s freeze-dried cardiologist! I was in a single room for most of the time on the two occasions that I was in hospital but on the first occasion I was for a short time, for a few days, in a ward which I shared with four other men. And I recall one occasion on which a doctor had to give the man in the bed next to mine some very unwelcome news and he did it in such a caring way. And the same was true of the nurse who came afterwards and sat with him and comforted him. She was also very caring and compassionate.

I’m so proud of and so thankful to God for the British National Health Service. Well, we say ‘British’ and we say ‘National’ but it is greatly enriched by nurses and doctors who have come to work here from countries in mainland Europe and in other parts of the world and I met several from a number of different countries. Now I know that some people particularly in some parts of the world would regard our NHS as being a ‘socialist’ system, often using the word ‘socialist’ in a very broad and undefined sense. I’m glad that we don’t have a privatised system rooted in an individualist ideology.

I think there are two extremes in approaches to matters like this. One extreme is that of individualism, that which values the freedom of the individual above everything else. That’s the supreme value. At the other extreme, perhaps found for example in Soviet Russia in former times, is that of a collectivism which devalues the individual and makes the whole, the collective, the group, of supreme value and therefore limits the freedom of the individual. I think that there is a third way, a way that is an alternative to both of these extremes, and combines that which is good in both, in one and the other. And that’s in the idea of community, community that values both the individual and the group, both the one and the many. And this resonates with what I was trying to say again in that “All Real Living is Meeting” video about ubuntu. I am because we are. Both the ‘I’ and the ‘we’ are important. It’s not one at the expense of the other.

And I think that this can be rooted in the Christian doctrine of the Trinity, of three persons and one God, of the one and the many being equally ultimate but perhaps that is a subject for a written blog or another video on another occasion but not for now!

Nurses and doctors and other wonderful human beings! Thanks in part to the nurses and doctors and other hospital staff whom I met on those two times in hospital, both times were for me quite unexpected but very real experiences of peace, of shalom – that lovely Hebrew word.  my doctors and nurses, the hospital ward proved to be a peaceful place for me. And that’s going to be the subject of the next video in this set, the fourth video which will have the title “The Shalom-ful Gift”. Thank you.”