THE MU UPSILON CHAPTER of the Sigma Theta Tau International Honor Society of Nursing gave its “Outstanding Contribution to Professional Nursing Award” to Madeline O'Brien Murphy at the age of 95. That year, Madeline celebrated 75 years as an RN. She found joy in a career that took her from the hospital wards of Jersey City to jungles in the Pacific and back to an infirmary for merchant seamen on the Atlantic. What's more, Madeline used her nursing school education to strengthen the bonds of her community and become a mentor for many who would follow her example. I would know. Madeline is my mother.
While the nursing profession has changed since my mother became an RN, the values she exemplified remain immutable. This article contends that it is within the power of all experienced nurses, whether they work in a hospital or clinic, an administrative office, or academia, to inspire new nurses to remain committed to the values of service and sacrifice that first drew them to our profession.
Enriching the profession
Mentorship and personal modeling remain indispensable for advancing the nursing profession. Examples from history and the personal lives of nurses also provide rich resources for the profession. Each successive generation of students enters nursing in a society dramatically transformed from that of the nurses who preceded them. Nevertheless, the lived experiences of nurses who adhered to the profession's highest standards under difficult circumstances in any age hold the potential to inspire each new generation of nurses. We are obliged to each other and to the patients we serve to pass along these stories at every opportunity.
Heraclitus' famous declaration that “the only thing that is constant is change” is nowhere more apt than in the nursing profession.1 Nursing skills, procedures, and technology over the last 2 centuries kept pace with scientific developments. Nursing culture changed in step with the social revolution that began in the 1950s and continues today. Of course, this is a good thing. Nurses are now educated to exercise their critical skills and judgment as vital members of a diverse healthcare team. Moreover, RNs recognize that their ultimate professional and ethical responsibility is to the patient. As the team members with the most direct contact with patients, nurses are in the best position to act as the patient's advocate. Thus, our recognition and celebration of our nursing heritage will help individual nurses develop critical nursing values and empower the continuous, evidence-based renewal of the profession as a whole. We stand on the shoulders of those who came before us, nurses who also cradled the newborn and held the hands of the dying.
Ideas about service and social justice drive the aspirations of many of our new or aspiring nurses. My students represent the diverse, poor, and immigrant community that my school serves. Many students struggle to meet and surpass the rigorous standards of the curriculum while supporting themselves and their families. Often, anxiety creeps into their lives, leaving them doubtful that they are on the right track. To address that concern, I teach nursing skills in a manner that will engender self-confidence. Additionally, I am available to them as a mentor while they negotiate this path. However, showing how other nurses overcome great difficulties in order to serve the sick enhances these lessons immeasurably. For instance, the lives of Florence Nightingale, Clara Barton, and the first Black professional nurse, Mary Eliza Mahoney, provide insights into how society transformed nursing and how nursing influenced cultural change.2,3 My mother's life and career is another such example.
A wonderful life
Madeline was born in 1918, like 2020 a pandemic year and 2 years before women could vote, to a working-class family in Jersey City, N.J. Her young life was turned upside-down when, at age 7, her mother and newborn brother died during childbirth. A single father raised Madeline and kept his family of five children under age 11 together during the Great Depression. Managing responsibilities far beyond those usually shouldered by a child of her age set in motion a lifelong drive to care for others. Traits cultivated during this time of perseverance, empathy, and advocacy for others served Madeline and her patients well after she graduated from Saint Francis Hospital School of Nursing in 1941.
The day after the attack on Pearl Harbor, Madeline volunteered for the Army and became an officer in the US Army Nurse Corps. Eventually, she traveled overseas aboard the hospital ships St. Mihiel and Thistle. Upon arriving in the Pacific Theater, Madeline served as an OR nurse in a mobile army surgical hospital in Pearl Harbor, the Philippines, the Marianas, and Guam.4,5
One can imagine how severe the working conditions must have been under these circumstances. It was there that Madeline built upon her store of inner resilience. For the rest of her life, she responded to difficult patches with an expression she adopted during that time: each day, she was “one day closer to victory.”
Upon returning from the war, Madeline worked as an RN at Halloran General Hospital in Staten Island, the largest army hospital in the world, from its opening to its closing. After that, Madeline served in a major medical center in New York City as an industrial nurse and in the infirmary of a home for retired merchant seamen. When that institution closed, she volunteered to help relocate the seamen to another state by air and bus.
Madeline's advocacy on behalf of those in need of care transcended hospital walls. She volunteered in the local school as a school nurse and substitute teacher, checked up on and made meals for neighbors who were ill, and served as an informal community resource on a wide range of health problems. I remember one instance in particular involving a young child who was newly diagnosed with diabetes. The child's parents were having a difficult time dealing with this new diagnosis and spent many hours at our home. My mother would reassure them and their child and give them instructions on insulin administration.
Another example that I share with my students demonstrates how embracing difference can bring a community closer. When it became known that the state intended to open a group home for adults with developmental delays on her block, Madeline calmed local concerns and joined with others to welcome the new neighbors. In these ways and more, she combined the values of compassion and independent thought that mark the modern nurse.
A nurse's nurse
Why are Madeline's life experiences relevant to the nurse of today and tomorrow? She personified all the attributes of a competent and caring nurse: empathy, dedication, work ethic, respect, and critical thinking skills. What's more, she did it all with a sense of humor. In short, Madeline was a nurse's nurse. All nurses find themselves from time to time in a struggle to overcome extraordinary challenges. The brief but stress-filled life experiences of many new nurses often present challenges to their ability to cope with these tough times. Nurse mentors at school, in the clinical setting, or in the community can fill this vacuum by offering advice, solace, and, most important, the wisdom that experience brings.
In this way, we are all nursing educators. We should not hesitate to extol the experiences and character of those who came before us. The lives of our predecessors differ from the lives of contemporary students. However, we must transmit the values these role models embodied to those in our charge. If the nursing profession is to meet the challenges of tomorrow, we must not squander their legacy.
1. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy Archive. Fall 2019 ed. 2019. https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/fall2019/entries/heraclitus
2. Carnegie ME. The Path We Tread: Blacks in Nursing Worldwide, 1854-1994
. Sudbury, MA: Jones and Bartlett Publishers; 2000.
3. Hine DC. Black Women in White: Racial Conflict and Cooperation in the Nursing Profession, 1890-1950
. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press; 1989.
4. Burke FD. No Time for Fear: Voices of American Military Nurses in World War II
. Ann Arbor, East Lansing, MI: Michigan State University Press; 1996.
5. Norman E. We Band of Angels: The Untold Story of the American Women Trapped on Bataan
. New York, NY: Random House; 2013.