I was seven when I first heard of her.
There was a short story in my Hindi language reader, about a young girl who nursed a sick puppy back to health. The illustration was of a little girl with pigtails, wearing a red dress. And the book said that she was on her way home after school when she saw a wounded puppy.
I was fascinated. And I promised myself that if I were ever in that situation, I would do what this little girl had done.
That occasion did not arrive until much later. I was seventeen when I actually came across an injured puppy. And while I was apprehensive about touching the weak little creature, my ten-year-old sister sat with the puppy and caressed it lovingly, wondering if it would live through the night. It did not. And my baby sister was heartbroken.
However, in her, I saw glimpses of this other little girl who had lived more than a century ago and had grown up to be one of the kindest, noblest, and most devoted servants of humankind.
Florence Nightingale was an embodiment of the proverbial Earth Mother. She bled for each scream of agony that was heard in the gloomy hospital wards that she worked in during the Crimean war. Her heart overflowed with the deep respect she held for life, and she nursed injured soldiers back to health, sometimes guiding their lost souls back to some form of familiarity.
But while she walked through dimly lit hospital corridors in the night, she also worked tirelessly to advance nursing as a profession. In 1860, she established the St. Thomas’ Hospital in London, which laid the first foundations of professional nursing. It was the first secular school of nursing and is today a part of the prestigious King’s College. She worked to improve healthcare across all sections of British society. She campaigned to end hunger in colonial India. She advocated for the rights of all kinds of women and called for the abolition of prostitution laws that were harsh and abusive. She believed that a truly prosperous society needed to have its women in the workforce.
Today, she is remembered as a mystical figure, a romanticized epitome of the woman’s role of nurturer. However, she was a real flesh-and-blood woman whose hands worked without fail to bandage injuries, clean cuts, set broken bones, write letters to influencers, instruct young nurses, and yes, to splint the leg of a little mongrel mutt.
Around the world, millions of nursing graduates take the Nightingale Pledge at their commencement ceremonies. They go forth into the world, unconsciously keeping in mind the principles she laid down for caring for the sick and the wounded.
Those who serve with such dedication, invoke her spirit everytime they bring relief and comfort to someone who has been a casualty of war. They do not ask who was the aggressor. They do not differentiate between the bloods of the Muslim and the Christian, the Caucasian and the Black man.
These are people who work in brightly lit hospitals of major metropolitan cities, and in the remotest corners of fractured countries like Somalia. They work in institutions like the Mayo Clinic, and in the makeshift tents set up by Doctors Without Borders in the deserts of Iraq.
These are the children of the Lady with the lamp. And she lives, in our efforts to fight for the right to care about our fellow human beings.
She was a woman that deserves her exalted place in history. Because she taught us to love a little more, and to go the extra mile to soothe someone’s hurts. She taught us that the humblest and weakest of us also count. And that no matter who we are, we do not need to be in pain. Because someone like her will always come for us.
Note: The featured image is a painting called ‘The Lady with the Lamp.’ I was unable to trace the artist. But this image was taken from the website of the Daily Mail