When I was studying for my degree, we learned about the role of the nurse and it’s many aspects. Nurse as educator, as advocate, as leader. Never once did we explore the role of the nurse as ministering angel. Which is strange, no? Because it’s a term that keeps popping up a bit like a game of whack-a-mole and time does not seem to wish to dim it’s allure to politicians and patients alike. Even Mr Johnson, Prime Minister used the term in reference to our profession on International Nurses day this very year – not the first politician to do so and I’m willing to bet not the last.
So, what’s it all about this whole ‘ministering angel’ image and why is it a problem?
Now don’t get me wrong. Angels are pretty bad-ass creatures. The Biblical description of winged angels being placed at the gates of Eden with a fiery sword for example probably aren’t the sort of angel we’re talking about here. No, I think the image we’re talking about in this context is the one that portrays wholesomeness and subservience. Of someone who is super-natural in their capacity to deliver healing and care – mopping a brow with one hand and if you look very carefully you may even spot us pouring soup with the other! These “ministering angels of our time”.
That’s not to say that some patients aren’t genuinely grateful for what our profession has to offer. And not that I’m not proud of what we do and the way we do it. There are, however, problems with using the term “angel” in this context and here are just a few:
- It’s largely mysogynistic in it’s use. Yes, OK, we’re a profession with a lot of women. But I don’t think I have ever come across a non-female nurse who has ben referred to as an angel or called it directly to their face. For the record, I have. Many times.
- It dulls the professionalism of our role. Perhaps in some cases intentionally. It doesn’t recognise the work we do as normal, professional work. It’s super-human, it’s something out of the ordinary. And it is expected that this is what we will do time and time again. And those assertions that “we owe you more than words can ever say” remain just that. Because to some we are fantastical creatures so these whimsical phrases are absolutely acceptable to use in lieu of something concrete and tangiable.
- The description of nurses as angels has its roots in the past and really, that’s where it should stay. A grizzly look through the history books reveal some of the less than savoury descriptions such as this from 1948 by Lord Crook at a time where nurses were in short supply: “I stand here in the very difficult rôle of advocating the employment of male nurses while being quite certain that I like having had my brow smoothed by an administering angel of the female sex. So we share that view of nursing. I regret that the economic situation and the manpower situation of the country force me to suggest such outrageous things as taking away administering angels and substituting male nurses.”
I believe that some patients do really deeply and genuinely want to thank us and pay tribute to what we do – it’s understandable when we see them at their most vulnerable and we genuinely help them. The world we see as our day to day seems like something so extra-ordinary and so incredible that these terms are what they reach for, what comes to mind and what they use with real and genuine gratitude.
So, then, what should be done? Well. It’s not an easy way forward. It’s incredibly convenient having our profession viewed in this way for so many. We know this. We know that the image of the nurse has been misrepresented for a very long time, and not just in this particular way. Put simply the image the media and politicians portray doesn’t ring true to our professional experiences/roles and it’s infuriating.
We can do so much. But until the media and our leaders allow and suggest a different vocabulary then I think we will, unfortunately for us, struggle to shake this rumbling image for some time.