There is one profession in Israel of manual labor and endless running around whose practitioners are required to undergo higher education. Nursing. They are of all different ages. Young women who just finished nursing school, full of energy and joie de vivre, work alongside older women who have been on the same demanding job in the same department for years. None will ever be promoted as a reward for dedicated work. The only thing they receive is a feeling of having served society and helped other people.
Schwarze schwester,” they used to be called in Jerusalemite Yiddish. Lowly functionaries working protracted, exhausting shifts, running silently throughout the long night through the patients’ rooms like angels in white, offering relief to aching body and soul. It is a noble profession, many of whose members leave their families and children to tend to others, only to return home to then tend to their families as well. Day and night cease to have meaning. Just running, endless running through the long halls of the different departments with their greyish fluorescent illumination, all day breathing in the bacteria of the hospital air.
I have such a nurse at home. I see her come home after a shift, wrung dry like a lemon, wanting nothing but an hour to recover from the day’s events. Sometimes she was yelled at by the agitated father of a boy she treated. Sometimes, because of limited manpower, she did the work of two nurses, because there simply was no additional nurse who could take the shift. Either that, or someone wanted to save money.
The savings don’t get passed on to her, although she and her family pay dearly for a nurse to come to their home, broken from exhaustion, but needing to get up again and start working as a mother. The monthly pay slip comes, and it is again obvious that the salary bears no relation to the effort. Without an accumulation of especially difficult shifts, it isn’t even enough to get by.
So what is it about this profession that attracts so many Jewish women?
Giving. Humility. Precisely the things that make it stand out against more glamorous career choices. It is a career without an ego. Just soulfulness, goodwill, and desire to help.
A nurse always receives her instructions from a doctor, sometimes one who just arrived at the department, a young person who still doesn’t know much. But even with all her accumulated experience, she has to do what he says.
Take the one in my family: a nurse who has been in the field for thirty years and has saved the lives of a good number of people. Just a month ago she rushed a patient to the ultrasound lab because, without any tests, with only her hard-earned expertise, she could tell that the patient was suffering from an abdominal hemorrhage. Even with her experience, she can’t administer certain medical treatments without a doctor, inexperienced though he may be, to say nothing of writing prescriptions or determining dosage.
She must always display the knowledge she has gained pleasantly and with humility. On many occasions she’s had to tell a young doctor—as gently as can be, so as not to insult—to change the treatment instructions already given.
The nurses are forever caught between a rock and a hard place, between the expert doctor, the intern on call, the national service girl, and the patients. Nursing is tough. But it is noble, pure, and all about helping others.
This is why the public has to take the side of the nurses who are on strike, more than it would have to side with striking doctors, for instance. Because of the dedication. Because of the humility. Because of the need to show some gratitude to those who chose a career that is so lackluster but so full of light, to which so many people owe their lives.
The Ministry of Health needs to enact the following measures:
Expand the pool of available nurses by increasing the basic salary. This will allow nurses to tend to their patients without arriving in the room out of breath, with another two or three patients already yelling “nurse!” in vain from the other end of the department.