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What Is This Healthcare, Earthlings? #1: THE NURSE ANTIGONE
In which I played a crabby old prophet who is always right.Typecasting: such a burden!
This past week, I went online as part of the otherwise stellar cast for a Theatre of War production of Antigone, produced for — and in part, by — the international nurses’ association, Sigma. Professional actors played the major parts, nurses read the Chorus, I covered my head with a black shawl so as to look old (no jokes, please) and enacted Tiresias, the blind but accurate prophet, uttering dire forcasts in an eldrich tone fuelled by cough drops.
I’d done this part before, also with Theatre of War, so I knew the plot. It doesn’t come out well for Creon, the tyrant-in-the-making, but it doesn’t come out well for Antigone, either. When there’s a clash between political power and an individual sense of what must be done, endings are not usually happy.
Typically, Theater of War (www.theaterofwar.com) performs ancient Greek dramas in synch with groups that then use them as springboards for prolonged after-play discussions of their particular crises and predicaments. For instance, TOW has done Ajax, about a war vet who has PTSD – written by Sophocles, himself a war vet– for groups of war vets. The classical Greeks often located their amphitheatres near centres dedicated to the healing arts and gods, so this combination of dramatic enactments and healing processes has deep roots.
Founder Bryan Doerries – whose book, Theater of War, describes the company and the process – group-leads these discussions, with a tact reminiscent of my camp counsellor days of yore. After I’d got my shawl off, I listened to the whole conversation, and an eye-opener it was.
Here’s the news: The nurses are pissed off. And with good reason.
Ever since Florence Nightingale (above) made nursing respectable back in the mid-nineteenth century, nurses have been held to an impossibly high standard. They’ve been idealized as angelic and comforting Ladies with the Lamp, expected to view their jobs as a self-denying vocation, like being a nun. (It was in fact nuns who did a lot of the nursing in centuries gone by.) If you’re so saintly, isn’t it crass to expect a living wage?
But they’ve also been on the receiving end of a lot of disparaging language, in addition to bawdy humour -- Naughty Nurse dress-up outfits being just the tip of the iceberg.
And they have frequently, and increasingly, been subjected to physical attacks by patients who’ve been suffering from mental health issues or simply from an excess of rage. Undervalued, overworked, targets for misogyny and violence — what’s to like?
The Covid epidemic made things worse. Some nurses became ill themselves; those remaining on duty were expected to work overtime. Many found the added pressures and work times too much, decided it wasn’t worth it, and quit. It’s a downward spiral — the more understaffed the hospitals are, the more work gets piled onto the remaining nurses. It’s unsafe for them and it’s unsafe for patients. In some locations, nurses have gone on strike — wanting more nurses, a workable nurse-patient patio.
From the New York Times: https://www.nytimes.com/2023/01/18/opinion/nurses-strike-pay-staffing-ratios.html
In discussing Antigone, several of the Sigma nurses identified the part of the play that resonated with them the most strongly: Antigone is about to be walled up alive in a cave, as punishment for performing the required funeral rites for her dead brother. The citizens of Thebes tell her they’ll worship her like a goddess after she’s dead. She replies that they are cowards — why don’t they stand up for her while she’s still alive?
Being told you’re terrific and having people bang pans in your honour isn’t really much practical use. If you truly value what we do, say the nurses, then provide us with safer working conditions. Otherwise we’ll be gone. We don’t want to be worshipped like goddesses if the price for that is our deaths.
Time to pay attention, administrators and politicians! Less pot-banging. More listening.
That’s just my suggestion, as a crabby old prophet who is always right.