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The Wisdom of Nurses: A commentary

Updated: Apr 25


Note: I’m fortunate enough to know authors Sara Fung and Amie Archibald-Varley, as I was a guest on their Gritty Nurse podcast in 2021 and recently co-presented with Amie at CIHI.  This essay is not a review, but rather an enthusiastic commentary on their new book The Wisdom of Nurses.


The Wisdom of Nurses is the book that I needed when I was in nursing school in 1988. It would have provided me an authentic insight into the world of health care, and its wisdom maybe, just maybe, would have prevented me from dropping out of nursing halfway through my program. 


When I was in nursing, nobody talked about how it felt to be a nurse. Nobody talked about how to process the traumatic events that we witnessed (or sometimes were a part of). Sara and Amie refreshingly talk about the ‘feels’ of nursing. All nursing faculties should put The Wisdom of Nurses on their mandatory reading list to help the emerging nurses feel less alone.


The nursing stereotype of martyrs and heroes has only deepened since the beginning of the pandemic. This is not helping the nursing profession one bit. Understanding the experiences of nurses is the first step to solving the workforce crisis. In Canada, we don’t have a shortage of nurses. We simply don’t have enough employers committed to creating decent workplace environments for nurses to thrive.


That being said, The Wisdom of Nurses should also be mandatory reading for nursing faculties, health workforce policy makers, and health care administrators – and patients and caregivers too.  Heck, this is a book everybody should read, since we all will become involved in health care one day, whether we want to or not.


Authors Amie and Sara start off with a bang, tackling the myth of the most famous nurse of them all - Florence Nightingale. They begin with truth-telling about Florence, who they describe as flawed and complicated. Their call is for Florence to make room for current day nurses – and there are many. In fact, Amie and Sara use this book to platform the many nurses who could join Florence on her pedestal.


The Wisdom of Nurses skillfully mixes Amie and Sara’s own nursing student and professional nursing stories with historical nurses and tales of modern day nurses working in travel nursing, public health, pediatric oncology, ICU, long term care and as street nurses. The tone of the writing is warm but straight-forward. The subtitle of the book could be Nurses: Getting Shit Done. (Because nurses DO get shit done, both literally and figuratively).


The book adds flair with chapters about ghosts in health care – anybody who has worked in a hospital has a ghost story or two to tell (I do too!).  As Sara says, “When you become a hospital nurse, you operate under the assumption that someone has died in that bed.”


The true wisdom of this book comes from the unflinching analysis of nurses’ work environments. The authors directly address the abuses of power in the entrenched hospital hierarchy, and include this mic-drop statement:


“Nurses are the largest workforce in healthcare, but have the smallest say in how healthcare is done.”


This statement speaks truth to power, as does Amie and Sara’s experiences with micro and macro-aggressions in health care that can be tied directly back to one thing: the racism that’s baked into health care. They do not shy away from telling the important story of Joyce Echaquan, an Indigenous woman who died under an abusive situation in a Quebec hospitals. Nurses feature in this chapter and not in a good way.


I appreciated the honesty of this book. The authors carefully detail system issues like using nursing students as unpaid labour, unsafe staffing ratios, toxic culture and the rigid hierarchies that exist in hospitals and how these structures block nurses from effectively advocating for their patients.


There were many common threads to my own work in hospitals, right down to the description of the administrator’s heels clicking in the hall, a universal sign that a nurse on the unit was in trouble.


As someone who preaches about humanity in health care for all, I appreciated the excerpts that emphasized how patients know their own health best and expressed how the ‘little things that help a patient feel human,’ mean a lot, like washing a patient’s hair.  I particularly enjoyed the chapters about labour and delivery scattered throughout the book, for if I could redo my life, I'd have gone into midwifery.


The Wisdom of Nurses ends on the question: “Can you name a famous nurse?” After reading the book, I sure can now. Move over Florence Nightingale and make room for:


Debi Wade, Swardiq Q Mayanja, Nikki Skillen, Cathy Crowe, Natalie Stake-Doucet, David Metzger, Lindsay Pentland and Rachel Radyk, and authors + Gritty Nurses Amie Archibald-Varley and Sara Fung.


A deep bow to these nurses and all the nurses out there (including my own daughter Ella, who is a pediatric nurse). Thank you to Amie and Sara for shining a light from the lantern on nurses, who hold the most important element of health are - the heart of health care - in their capable hands.






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