A Final Farewell for Nurses

by M-Berens

An archived photo from Iowa Health - Des Moines of a nurse in the traditional uniform that is used by nurses who provide the Nursing Honor Guard services today.

“Nursing is an art: and if it is to be made an art, it requires an exclusive devotion as hard a preparation, as any painter’s or sculptor’s work; for what is the having to do with dead canvas or dead marble, compared with having to do with the living body, the temple of God’s spirit? It is one of the Fine Arts: I had almost said, the finest of Fine Arts.” ~ Florence Nightingale

Florence Nightingale was the founder of modern nursing and her work with wounded soldiers during the Crimean War (1853-1856) became known around the world as she strived to improve healthcare. She became known as “The lady with the lamp” during the Crimean War because she would make her rounds in the hospital during the night time hours with her little lamp in hand. She opened the world’s first secular nursing school paving the way for the tens of thousands of nurses that have graduated from colleges around the world since that time.

Nursing is also profession that is steeped in tradition. A closeness is formed between fellow graduates who, in most cases maintain contact with each other for their entire lives sharing stories of work and family. Such a large caring network of individuals, trained in compassion and service to the sick should be celebrated, especially after dedicating their lives to caring for others.

Julie Ploessl was the Chief Nurse Executive at Iowa Health – Des Moines and had read about an organization called the “Angels of Allegheny” who were nurses who provided comfort to family and friends at funerals of their fellow nurses. Julie believed that this kind of service was a tradition that should be adopted in the Iowa Health – Des Moines’ organization.

Some of the nurses of Iowa Health - Des Moines who volunteer to attend the funerals, as Nursing Honor Guards, for fellow nurses who have passed away.

Sadly, Julie was diagnosed with cancer about four years ago before she could bring her idea into fruition. “She was a much loved nurse,” says Mary May, herself a nurse at Iowa Health and a volunteer with the Nursing Honor Guard, “Her passing came quicker than anticipated and the nurses she had worked with rushed to put together Iowa Health – Des Moines’ first Nursing Honor Guard.” They borrowed the traditional blue and red nursing capes from fellow nurses, proudly attached their nursing pins, shook the dust from the starched white caps and donned white uniforms to attend Julie’s funeral. Since then, that first Nursing Honor Guard has become a much appreciated and loved tradition at Iowa Health – Des Moines especially by the families of those nurses who have passed away.

There are a few hospitals that have also taken up the Nursing Honor Guard tradition and Mary May hopes that other hospitals will form their own volunteer groups to bring this beautiful ceremony to other areas so that fellow nurses can likewise be honored at their passing.

Today, Iowa Health – Des Moines provides Nursing Honor Guards in seven counties with the help of over 30 volunteer nurses. The Honor Guard attends all services at the family’s request. They are proud to be honorary pallbearers, if requested, wearing the traditional nursing garb. They will attend visitations where they silently stand on guard at the head and foot of the casket as a sign of respect and will pass on the lighted Nightingale lamp as new Honor Guard volunteers come in to replace them. They will also recite the Nightingale Pledge and a nursing sonnet at any time during the service.

One of the most poignant services the Iowa Health – Des Moines Nursing Honor Guard offers is called a “Final Call to Duty”. A Nightingale lamp is lit in the nurse’s honor and the nurse’s name and licence number are called out with a request to report to duty. The request is repeated three times and as no response is possible, their licence number is declared retired, the lamp’s flame is extinguished symbolizing that the nurse’s tasks are complete, their duty is done and they can now go home in peace.

The Nightingale Pledge

I solemnly pledge myself before God and in the presence of this assembly, to pass my life in purity and to practice my profession faithfully. I will abstain from whatever is deleterious and mischievous, and will not take or knowingly administer any harmful drug. I will do all in my power to maintain and elevate the standard of my profession, and will hold in confidence all personal matters committed to my keeping and all family affairs coming to my knowledge in the practice of my calling. With loyalty will I endeavor to aid the physician, in his work, and devote myself to the welfare of those committed to my care.

For more information contact Iowa Health – Des Moines’ Nursing Honor Guard at 1-888-362-4692 or visit their website: Nursing Honor Guard

You can also contact your local funeral home to find out if there is a Nursing Honor Guard service near you.

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