When I’ve thought about defence nursing in the past, what came to mind was the traumatic injuries of war, but what the exhibition has made me appreciate is the huge breadth of defence nursing and the nursing care that continues long after the end of operational duty. I’ve been reminded of the scale of the public health challenges in conflict situations throughout history, from cholera in the Crimea, to Ebola in Sierra Leone.
The exhibition illustrates many great examples of person-centred care throughout history.
Something that was new to me were the diaries started by nurses to document the critical care journey of military patients evacuated from Afghanistan. These diaries have been shown to help patients to process their trauma and reduce depression, anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
Further back in time, there are also some lovely photographs of nurses helping with the Christmas dinner during the Second World War.
My favourite item in the exhibition is a beautifully hand-carved wooden locket from the First World War. This locket is just one example of the handmade gifts given to nurses that demonstrate just how strong the nurse-patient bond can be. The locket has what appears to be a small peace dove with flower garland on the front and must have taken the carver many painstaking hours to produce. Inside the locket reveals a sepia photograph of a young man. A brooch pin has been attached to the back of the locket at some point, which makes me hope that it was indeed treasured by the nurse who received it. The exhibition invites us to consider the story that this object could tell us. Are we looking at the face of the locket-carver in the photograph? What became of him?
Before viewing the exhibition I hadn’t heard of blueys and their modern equivalent eblueys, but it turns out that these are Forces air letters (and latterly secure emails), that have been sent from personnel on operational duty since the Second World War. I’m now intrigued to find out more and I’m really looking forward to hearing letters from serving nurses past and present read live at our event next February. This event is called Emails from the Edge: Letters home from war I imagine these letters will be both poignant and funny, especially Pat Moody’s notes written from ‘the same bloody hospital’. However, I’m also wondering how much (if anything), will have been left unsaid.
The final thing I wanted to highlight is the evolution of the equipment that is used by nurses working in conflict situations. For example, the exhibition contrasts a modern tourniquet alongside the version from the Second World War. The modern tourniquet is clearly more effective than its vintage predecessor, but in this case, it is essentially doing the same job.
While modern defence nursing has clearly brought many new innovations, roles and challenges for nurses, there’s one element of continuity that certainly hasn’t surprised me - the sense of humour, dedication and camaraderie of nurses working in war and conflict throughout history has remained unchanged.
The exhibition is open Mondays, Tuesdays and Fridays, from 10am-4pm until 30 Mar 2018 at RCN Scotland Headquarters (Edinburgh), 42 South Oswald Road, Edinburgh, EH9 2HH.