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Elderflower cordial is not enough


Edith Cavell

A week or so ago I was at one of those work conferences where everyone seems to know everyone else. Apart from me that is. Only ten minutes into the morning session and there had already been a couple of mentions of the “networking opportunities” provided by being in the same location as sixty odd other NHS bean counters. A chance to update your address book, a bit like collecting Facebook friends or Twitter followers. I’ve been attending events like this for donkey’s years but I’m still utterly hopeless at this glad handing, back slapping, small talking malarkey.

Unsurprisingly, by mid-afternoon my only spot of “networking” had enabled me to discover that the nice lady sat next to me had already chosen her food options for the office Christmas party. She’s not having turkey this year. But it’s soup for starters though. I also chatted to a bloke during lunch who spent the best part of twenty minutes telling me about how his job title had been changed recently without his permission. I felt for him, most office workers will probably be familiar with tales like this but, hey, there are perhaps more important things in life to get worked up about.

The Healthcare Financial Management Association’s new two floored conference centre, a stone’s throw from Victoria station in central London, ticks most of the boxes for the modern day event organiser. There’s high-res projectors, “modern space”, “a warehouse feel” and oodles of elderflower cordial. And the room where we spent most of the day was bathed in natural light. It’s a smart venue.

But what I find perhaps most admirable about the venue is that its four basement rooms are all named after pioneering figures in modern nursing. There’s the Nightingale Suite and the Cavell, Cadwaladr and Seacole Rooms. During one of the day’s “comfort breaks” I eschewed the chance to get my net working and instead perused a notice board that explained a bit about each of the four nurses.

Florence Nightingale is probably the most famous of the quartet and widely regarded as the founder of modern nursing. She served as a nurse in the Crimean War and, for a time, worked alongside Betsi Cadwaladr. Aware that many soldiers were dying of typhoid and wound infections the pair were intent on establishing access to proper sanitised medical facilities for the wounded and undoubtedly saved many lives. Cadwaladr’s name is synonymous with the Betsi Cadwaladr University Health Board in her native Wales. The Jamaican-born Mary Seacole also served as a nurse in the Crimean war and was voted the greatest black Briton in a 2004 poll.

Edith Cavell was from a later generation than the other three and, at the outbreak of the First World War, was a matron at a nursing school in Brussels. Her name is one that I recognise from my time working in the health service in Peterborough in the mid-nineties. My first proper, post trainee, job was for an NHS Trust that provided a range of community and mental health services across a large swathe of north Cambridgeshire and south Lincolnshire; the snappily monikered North West Anglia Health Care Trust. It never failed to amuse me that the Trust’s official correspondence was written on smart paper with “NWA” in large bold letters at the top. Anyone familiar with the Los Angeles gangsta rap scene of the early nineties will know that this abbreviation has a very different connotation. Indeed, twenty years on, if you type those letters into an internet search engine you’re probably not going to hit on something about access to chiropody services in Market Deeping. More likely you’ll get a link to Ice Cube, Dr Dre and the rest urging you to Fuck Da Police or launching into another track from the seminal album Straight Outta Compton.

Anyway, back in Peterborough, across town, one of the city’s hospitals was named after Edith Cavell in recognition that the Norfolk-born nurse did some of her training in the city. It was a new hospital, a mere handful of years old at the time, and located on an out of town greenfield site; a symbol of a rapidly modernising NHS. In hindsight, it seems apt that a brand new modern hospital should be named after the pioneering Cavell but at the time I hadn’t appreciated the importance and bravery of her work. She is celebrated for saving the lives of many soldiers from both sides of the First World War and helped around two hundred Allied soldiers escape from German occupied Brussels. Later, she was arrested and found guilty of treason and executed by firing squad on the morning of 12th October 1915.

Cavell is famous for the quote that “patriotism is not enough”, words that have been used to justify war in the past. But read on and you appreciate the humanitarian essence of her work; “I must have no hatred or bitterness for anyone”.

The afternoon session included a presentation on how to make effective use of the masses of financial and other data that are nowadays at the NHS’s disposal. This was set in the context of the technological revolution that sees many of us accessing data on the move via phones, tablets and laptops. And there was talk of making associative links between data items using the example of booking a skiing holiday. By this point, to be fair, my mind was starting to wander a bit. A combination of pasta for lunch and my low tolerance threshold for anyone equating the booking of a week on the piste in St Anton with providing healthcare. I started to make a few “associative links” of my own, particularly with regard to the nurses I’d read about earlier.

An hour later, bag packed, hands shaken and coat on, I’m wandering in a northerly direction through St James’s Park, round Trafalgar Square and up to St Martin’s Place. Opposite the entrance to the National Portrait Gallery and close to one of the ubiquitous French-sounding sandwich shops where most of the sarnies taste the same, is one of my favourite, under the radar, bits of London. It’s a simple stone memorial to Edith Cavell including a statue, the date of her death and her most famous quote. Above it all sits a single word; “humanity”. Sometimes all you need is one word.


From → London, Personal

One Comment
  1. Sharon Robson permalink

    Enjoyed this one – best to date!

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