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What can nurses today learn from history?

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What can nurses today learn from history?

Monday 08 May 2017

Reading time: 3 minutes

Professor Laura Serrant has worked in nursing for over 30 years. Here she gives her personal reflections on the history of the profession she loves.

When I first qualified as a nurse in 1986, I couldn’t predict where my career in nursing would lead me. I was truly honoured and astounded to be recognised in the Powerlist 2018, and I feel incredibly privileged to be listed in the top ten alongside some truly inspirational people.

It seems an ideal time to contemplate the career I love and ask, ‘Why DO I do what I do?’

In the beginning, the answer was simple.

I wanted to do a job that made a difference and suited my personality. From an early age, I had a need to learn and a desire to improve things for others. My fascination for the human body as a complex physical and psychological machine drew me towards nursing and healthcare.

Being accepted here on one of the few nursing degree programmes in 1982 was key – it provided the critical challenge and academic rigour to meet my continuous thirst for knowledge. Four years later I emerged with a degree and a nursing qualification. I felt I had finally fulfilled my need to learn as well as to ‘do my bit’ for those in my care.

But I was wrong. Far from being the end, my nursing degree marked the beginning of not only a long career, but also a range of opportunities which taught me a lot about myself.

A career in nursing

I write this now as one of the few black female professors of nursing in the UK. How we identify ourselves makes a statement that ultimately impacts on ourselves, our chosen profession, and how both are shaped in the future.

Recent and past experiences – my own, in the profession of nursing, and in the wider world – have reinforced for me the importance of knowing yourself and your purpose.

I am often reminded of the importance of retaining pride in my black female identity and embracing the value of diversity in the 21st century. As a student nurse I was acutely aware of myself as the only black student, not least when patients refused to be touched by ‘that black nurse’.

As a qualified nurse academic I have since travelled to countries and cities I never imagined I would, working with national and international governments to inform policy, education and practice developments. I have also been fortunate to work locally with voluntary groups and individuals to ensure the voices of the less powerful are not silenced in the push for change and in the face of economic constraints.

My position as a clinical academic professor of nursing affords me the privilege of shaping the future workforce through my work with students. I also support frontline nurses in evidencing the unique and essential contribution we make to health care.

These nurses epitomise the answer to the question I asked at the start: ‘Why do I do what I do?’

The purpose of nursing

As nurses, our role is to ensure high quality equitable health care for all, irrespective of race, creed or social standing.

The science and art of nursing are equally important – without both we fail to evidence the work nurses do to reduce suffering and improve the experiences of people accessing healthcare.

Nurses are critical, reflective leaders, adding value to health services for people trying to manage their conditions alongside other aspects of their lives.

I am a nurse, I am black, female and proud. I cannot reduce my drive to prioritising either the academic ‘science’ or caring ‘art’ of my work. They are personally, professionally and contextually bound.

In me, and in nurses now and throughout history, they are one.

Inspired by Laura's story? Find out how you could make a difference with a career in health and social care.

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