Edith Cavell was a nurse in World War One in Brussels. I can’t imagine being a nurse during that time when there were no antibiotics, where men who were wounded beyond repair were often left to die, where amputations were performed without morphine, and the sound of gunfire rang in the background. This was the first war where nerve gases were used so men suffered horrible effects even if they wore their gas masks.
I try to put myself in Edith’s place. Dividing men into four groups: gas injuries, shell shock, diseases, and wounds. And I wonder how helpless she felt when she could do nothing to help the men in her care, save for the solace of holding their hand or giving them a sip of water. I wonder how many men were reminded, in their last hours, of their mother or a sister simply because she was there for them.
I have been a nurse for a number of years and I have many different ways of treating patients. When I go to work, my hospital is clean, and quiet, and my patients have doctors to oversee their care and nursing attendants to clean up their mess. I get my scheduled break and I’m paid well. But what did Edith have? She had scores of men who cried, who stunk, who were covered in lice, who had STDs, who begged for food, for relief from pain, for death. Often the soldiers were left waiting for the primitive medical care available and died, leaving behind corpses teaming with bacteria. Schools and churches had to be turned into make shift hospitals. Many treatments were in their infancy such as x-rays which were available but not for the bulk of the wounded. Imagine receiving a large facial wound, taking away part of your jaw and nose and having none of the surgical reconstruction available today and prosthetics only in it’s infancy.
Nurses had to learn to treat trench fever or trench foot caused by poor weather and dirty conditions. They had to learn new technologies which included ad hoc blood transfusions and administrations of new anesthetics, surgeries, and sedatives. A young, unmarried woman would join the volunteer nurse corps and have to learn about elixir of opium and morphine suphate, cocaine hydrochloride and camphor. This was the first war where nurses could administer these medications and it often saved lives or comforted the dying.
In all of my nursing training, I learned nothing about Edith Cavell. I wish I had one class where I could have done a presentation on a historic nurse. I would have chosen her. She is one of my heroes, she represents all that is good in the profession. Nurses at that time had to learn to work long hours with little time left for sleep, they were surrounded by pathogens, they were not afforded the status of officers and their authority could be undermined by any male of rank. And even the diligent care they gave did not stop the most deadly illness of the entire war, the Spanish flu.
All of the people in these images are dead. The person who took the photos are dead. And they died for us. All we have are the whispers of their presence and the vow that we will never forget.
I imagine what it was like for Edith Cavell and thousands of nurses just like her. I imagine looking down into the face of a man who was going to be executed and wonder how I could help him, wonder if I would be willing to sacrifice my life to save his. Could I face the terror that the Germans instilled like she did, the anger she no doubt felt that such horror existed in the world at the hands of man. As a nurse I would like to think I would help him escape. But I really don’t know what I would do. But she didn’t hesitate. After helping hundreds of men escape, she must have had some close calls, terrified at the near miss of being identified as treacherous. She must have known that helping those men would bring the punishment of death, she saw the horrors of what the Germans did every day. She knew, but she helped them anyway. She knew she would never see her family again, she knew she would never marry or have children, And she knew that what she was doing was right. So she sacrificed everything, like an estimated 16 million men and women did. She did it for us so that we would not have to relive this in our lifetimes. And I thank you Edith. I thank you for giving your life. I thank you for the freedom I have. Thank you. You are remembered.