May 17 2020

Respect to Nurses

I’ll begin today if I may with a news story from a few years ago which you might remember.

A Scottish theatre company had put on a pantomime, I think it was “Robin Hood”, which included the comic character of Nurse Poultice. Nurse Poultice appeared on stage in a costume which had a red cross on it, to show that she was a nurse.

A supporter of the British Red Cross was in the audience. In our own congregation many of us will know that Diane is a very prominent and active Red Cross nurse, and that absolutely no implied criticism whatsoever is intended from what followed…

That member of the pantomime audience reported to the British Red Cross the fact that Nurse Poultice had a red cross on her uniform. Their lawyer wrote a two page letter to the producer of the pantomime, enclosing a further three pages quoting from the Geneva Convention, pointing out that the Red Cross is an internationally recognised and protected symbol, which is reserved for the work of the Red Cross alone.

An expert in international law representing The Red Cross was subsequently interviewed on the wireless about this response to a pantomime figure. From him we learned that any inappropriate use of the symbol, on toys, on a child’s nurse’s uniform (such as my daughter Jennifer had many years ago), was in fact illegal and could lead to prosecution.

Some radio listeners were so taken aback by this response, I’m sorry to say, that during the course of the broadcast listeners started to email the programme saying they were cancelling their subscriptions in support of The Red Cross…

It seems to have been a sorry case of one over-reaction begetting another. It wouldn’t happen today.

Because my late wife Annie had been a nurse for most of her working life, I came into contact socially with quite a number of her former colleagues. They were without exception all strong-minded and determined people, wonderful down-to-earth individuals. If I had to identify one quality which they had in common, I would say “capability”. To give you a quick idea how strong-minded they could be, I am still in touch with Annie’s wonderful old A&E ward sister whose name is Mary Hastings. I don’t think Mary would mind if I told you, she was known as “The Battle …“ The young nurses were very frightened of her to begin with, but all came to regard her with great affection.

Every Thursday evening at 8 o’clock we have opened our doors and windows, stepped out on to our balconies or into our front gardens, and joined in a National Clap of appreciation for our health workers. Kitchen pots and pans have added to the cacophony, fireworks have been set off, glasses of wine have been quaffed in the street, and music has played.

We have been saying thank you to those individuals who have been working so hard to sustain our health system and keep us alive.

The superheroes and superheroines of our time are not lycra-clad individuals in capes who literally swoop into human affairs to right wrongs, rather they are the NHS doctors nurses and ancillary workers who live on the front-line of the battle against covid19 infection.

I do in fact sometimes see them represented as supermen and women with the NHS symbol replacing the Batman or Superman logo on their clothing.

On the side of a prominent building near where I live a Banksy-style mural has appeared. It shows a massive shield-like background, on which the letters NHS appear in comic book style print, and standing beside this, and looking as if she has just finished painting it, is a nurse dressed in long skirts and blouse, looking like Florence Nightingale, and wearing a surgical face mask. She appears to have stepped out of a Victorian setting, but is carrying dripping paintbrush.

It is a powerful and unmistakable message. Many of those who have followed their vocation and sense of duty have put themselves in harm’s way for our sakes, and some have lost their lives as a result. We cannot thank them enough or properly.

It would be sad I think if it had really taken a pandemic and a threat to our individual lives and liberty, to reawaken a sense of respect and dignity towards those who are motivated to work for our good. Almost unbelievably we still hear stories of ambulance personnel, or A&E staff, being assaulted by members of the public.

A uniform today, that of a serviceman, a policewoman, even the clerical collar of a minister, is too often the target of derision or worse.

We have only just honoured the servicemen and women who fought for this country on the battlefields of Europe 75 years ago. We are rightly proud of all our heroes, and their uniforms are a badge of honour. May we never fail to accord them the respect they deserve.

Our concluding prayer today is taken from Prayers and Meditations, from the British League of Unitarian Women:
Eternal Spirit, we thank you for each day with its opportunities for life and service, and we pray for new strength to do each day’s work and to live its life…Teach us to bring our trials and sorrows to the healing power of your love… Help, O God, all those who suffer. Teach them how to find strength and endurance, and grant them comfort and release through the power of your spirit. Help us to bring comfort to those we care for, and bless all who tend the sick and infirm. May we be thankful for all the marvels of healing and medical science; and with your aid, may we find the blessing of healing, wholeness and faith. Amen.

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