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In Ebola crisis, time to honor the nurses

Africa's frontline health workers against Ebola are nurses. Some have died while many have been ostracized by family or friends. They may find comfort in a new digital archive of Florence Nightingale's writings, freely accessible on the Web.

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    Nurses talk at a hospital in Abidjan, Ivory Coast, Aug. 14. Ivory Coast has recorded no cases of Ebola.
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If all the nurses caring for Ebola patients in Africa can ever take a break, they might enjoy a new online archive that has made the writings of Florence Nightingale freely accessible for the first time. Like her, the nurses are humanitarian heroes, working with courage on the front lines of a health crisis. Nightingale’s letters may be a timely inspiration.

Only in recent weeks have these nurses begun to receive recognition and gratitude for defying the fear and stigma of working with Ebola patients. Dozens of nurses, along with doctors and other health workers, have died after not taking proper precautions. Many have been abandoned by family or friends out of blind fright over the virus. And many foreign health workers have fled Africa.

For the nurses to keep working only fulfills one of Nightingale’s famous words of advice: “How very little can be done under the spirit of fear.”

In Liberia, President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf recently honored the workers for putting themselves at risk, saying they are like Nightingale. In Nigeria, a top government minister, Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, also praised nurses and others for their selflessness. In Ghana, Dr. Kwame Amponsa-Achiano asked health workers to keep providing a relaxed setting for patients so as not to “raise false alarm” about suspected Ebola cases.

Similar praise was heaped on Nightingale during her long career, first for her innovative care of wounded British soldiers during the Crimean War from 1853 to 1856 and later as the founder of modern nursing. Hundreds of books have been written about her. But only this year did three institutions that hold various collections of her writings finally create a digital version for the Internet.

Nightingale, who was known as “the Lady with the Lamp” for her nightly rounds to check on patients, wanted nurses to focus more on the well-being of patients than the sickness. She saw her “calling” in reducing human suffering. Here is how she put it in one of her writings:

“Apprehension, uncertainty, waiting, expectation, fear of surprise, do a patient more harm than any exertion. Remember, he is face to face with his enemy all the time, internally wrestling with him, having long imaginary conversations with him. You are thinking of something else. ‘Rid him of his adversary quickly’ is a first rule with the sick.”

One nurse at a hospital in Sierra Leone, Josephine Finda Sellu, has lost 15 of her nurses to Ebola. Instead she refuses to quit. “You have no options. You have to go and save others,” she told The New York Times.

Like Nightingale, these health-care heroes can find spiritual strength in their calling to aid others who are most in need. Their humane labors also deserve more support and thanks from a world still watching how Africa deals with the Ebola crisis.

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