One of the most satisfying episodes in my life was when the US Department of State awarded my efforts with one of their highest humanitarian recognitions: the Florence Nightingale Award.
In the fall of 2002, congressman Cass Ballenger in Washington, D.C., and ambassador Martin Silverstein from Uruguay called me and asked, “How fast can you get away and travel to Uruguay to do your Needs Assessment Study and get some donated medical goods to that country before its economic crisis deepens into a political crisis that would be hard to reverse?” The congressman served on the International Relations Committee, where he was chairman of the Subcommittee on the Western Hemisphere.
I agreed to drop what I was doing and immediately travel to Montevideo, Uruguay. Thanks to the help of the embassy staff and the office of the congressman, the project turned out very successfully, and for that I was given the coveted award. But the thrill of the ordeal was greatly enhanced by the fact that from my childhood I had been a great admirer of Florence Nightingale. When she was a little girl, she wanted to be a nurse, but her family thought it to be less than dignified, considering the deplorable practices and facilities where nurses had to work at that time. But during the Crimean War in 1854, soldiers from England were sent to the front to fight. Many were wounded and had no access to hospital care.
Florence Nightingale offered to go to the front. She was given the opportunity to gather up some nurses and travel to a battlefield hospital near Constantinople in Turkey. There she discovered a most dreadful scene, where nearly 2,500 British combat men lay helpless and unattended in the very worst of surroundings. The unsanitary conditions were deplorable, with open sewers and filthy clothing and blankets. There were no medical procedures or provisions available to the men, and many were dying, not from their original wounds, but from rampant disease and infection spawned from the filthy conditions.
The calm but forceful nurse used her leadership skills not only to attack the problems of the immediate situation but to change the British health-care system altogether. The new female recruits organized themselves into a cleaning brigade. They cleaned out the rats’ nests, washed down the facilities, and scrubbed down the patients, even to their fleainfested scalps. Nothing escaped the cleanliness of the new brush brigade. Immediately there was a dramatic drop in the death rate in the field hospitals. The wounded soldiers began to respond well to the medical treatment. The morale jumped by leaps and bounds. The nurses’ approach had consisted of hard work and cleanliness. Even when there was no money available from the British government, Florence Nightingale went personally to donors and raised money for medical supplies and bedclothes.
Some believed that she was able to reduce the mortality rate of the wounded soldiers by as much as seventy-five percent.
All of Britain declared her a heroine upon her return to London. But Florence Nightingale’s own health was in shambles. Following the war she was pretty much homebound for the remainder of her life. Yet she never gave up the successful fight to radically reform Great Britain’s health-care delivery system. From her bed she continued to put the pressure on health officials and parliament to implement reform. As one person she was able to leverage her position and influence. She became an agent of change for the entire philosophy and protocol of the British health-care system.
But the part of Florence Nightingale’s story that so intrigued me, and made the State Department’s award so special to me, was the nurse’s own quote when questioned about her accomplishments:
If I could give you information of my life, it would be to show how a woman of very ordinary ability has been led of God in strange and unaccustomed paths to do in His service what He has done in her. And if I could tell you all, you would see how God has done all and I nothing. I have worked hard, very hard, that is all; and I have never refused God anything.