Kindness is the language which the deaf can hear and the blind can see – Mark Twain
During 2018 we marked the centenary of the end of World War One and I spent time reading the account of nurses during the World War.
Emily Mayhew in her book Wounded (The Bodley Head 2013) gave an account of the extensive research she had undertaken using public and private archives to produce an account of the men and women who struggled to save lives among the horrors of the Western Front. In doing so she has created a comprehensive account of the medical care and recognised the courage and determination of the men and women who saved hundreds of thousands of lives. The book is a vivid mix of the horror of war and the determination and kindness of humanity.
During the horrors of war, we saw nurses, medical staff, drivers and support staff take on roles which had not previously been theirs. There was courage and kindness.
In another nurse’s account I read the vivid image of mustard gas which hung in the air at the London railway stations where injured men were received off trains before being taken by ambulance to a London hospital. In one such account a nurse placed flowers on the pillow of the soldier seeking to take away the smell which added to his agony – an act of kindness.
Nurses, medical and healthcare workers find themselves again on the front line and we see this time the horror of a virus alongside the determination and kindness of humanity.
The government’s Chief Nursing Officer Ruth May has reassured us that while people cannot be with the ones they love when they are dying no one will die alone. In the midst of personal protective equipment and ventilators it is a reminder that the art of nursing is in the application of the science and that at its heart nursing is about kindness.
Mayhew in her book speaks about how the nurses in the First World War would place each soldier’s uniform and belongings into a bag, carefully pulled together the drawstring and then labelled it for the mail office to send it home. In the bag she would place a letter because it was up to her to hold each ending memory, for as long as she could, so that the families would have more than a drawstring bag and a tattered tunic as the last remnants of their loved one – courage and kindness.
In Dorothea’s War edited by Richard Crewdson (Weidenfeld & Nicolson 2013) there is an entry for Good Friday 1918 which speaks of it being a time of dust and ash where the past week had been an anxious one, and for the first few days, one’s heart sank pretty low.
I can only imagine that at times those working on our front line of our hospitals today will feel anxious, at times sink pretty low, and this Good Friday has been a time of dust and ash. I am grateful for their courage, kindness and determination in the face of such adversity. Which is why I took the very hard decision last week to ask clergy not only to continue the closure of church buildings but also to stop living streaming services.
It feels extremely hard to ask that of clergy in Holy Week, of all weeks, to do this. But if being in our churches to stream, even if it is accessed by a door in your home, is seen as encouraging others to want to travel to their church, and for others to ask for churches to be open to the public we had to stop. We would not want to encourage any laxity in the requirement to stay indoors, because this will save lives, and protect the NHS.
For this season church is not in our buildings and Christ in the words of the poem Easter 2020 by Malcolm Guite is away from church
‘To don his apron with a nurse: he grips
And lifts a stretcher, soothes with gentle hands
The frail flesh of the dying, gives them hope,
Breathes with the breathless, lends them strength to cope.’
This year is the Year of the Nurse and Midwife – and what a year! We are seeing the care and compassion of nurses which has always been there, we have heard stories of nurses determination and humanity and we are seeing nurses put others before themselves as they have always done – it is just that we are now paying more attention.
The First World War saw women in medical teams, on hospital trains, driving ambulances, but there were also large numbers of women recruited into jobs vacated by men who had gone to fight in the war. New jobs were also created as part of the war effort, for example in munitions factories. The high demand for weapons resulted in the munitions factories becoming the largest single employer of women during 1918. Some will argue that it was this contribution which resulted in the passing of the Representation of Peoples Act 1918 which gave the first votes for some women and paved the way for universal suffrage 10 years later. But others argued that after the war women returned and where not valued in their new roles.
I hope that we have learned that lesson and after the storm is past, we will continue to value those who have shown determination and kindness in the face of such adversity.