There may be a thousand novels about swashbuckling pirates. Another two thousand novels about women of the night, and another three thousand more about conniving politicans.But there are very few books about nurses. Nursing is one of the most unsung professions. So today, we will be the Drum Major for nurses across the world. This being Nursing Week, we beat our drums to the queens of scrubs and princesses with syringes. We chose to be drum majors for nurses since they answer to human beings ubiquitous cry for lacteal treatment. In this our inaugural post, here at Drum Major blog, we chose to be a drum major for nurses who work in headquarters of illnesses and capitals of infirmary.

There are a few novels that feature  a nurse as a major protagonist. One of them is The English Patient by Michael Ondaatje. A teary tragic love story that traces the intersection of four damaged lives: that of Hana the exhausted nurse,Carbaggio the maimed thief, Kip the Sikh and the English Patient himself. The last is a burned up nameless character whose memories of passion, betrayal and rescue illuminate this book like flashes of lighting. The novel was adapted into a movie in 1996 by the same name.

There are movie scenes. Then there are eternal movies scenes. The last scene in the movie, in which Hana the nurse features prominently, falls in the category of eternal movie scenes.

Hana is a 20 year old nurse who takes excellent care of her patients. She has learnt that she should not get emotionally attached to her patients as she has seen too many soldiers die. Suddenly, she gets news that his father got burned and died. She suffers an emotional breakdown since she was close to her dad-like most girls are.

When a nameless patient, all burned up and wrapped in bandages turns up at the hospital, Hana plays the ideal nurse. She nurses his wounds and provides him with morphine. She even gets him a tot of whiskey when he can’t sleep.Ok, I made that up. Since they don’t know his name and he looks like he is from England, they call him the English Patient. The English Patient represents to Hana a pure image, a saint like man with ‘hipbones like Christ’. By projecting the noble images onto the blank identity of the English Patient, Hana builds innocent and childlike dreams.

Hana provides comfort to the English patient which he could not provide to his late father. Towards the end, Hana is so much in love with the patient that when the hospital is abandoned, she refuses to leave, staying with her patient. Nurses are, after all, human. Made of flesh and blood, like all of us.

Towards the end, Hana reads some lines to the English Patient from a letter from his previous love Katherine. In a patho packed scene that captures the frailty of life and the triumph of love, Hana reads the letter in teary haunting voice. The English Patient lay on his death bed, half listening half dreaming, his eyes all blank like potholes to hell:

My darling, I’m waiting for you…..We die, we die rich with lovers and tribes, tastes we have swallowed, bodies we have entered and swum up like rivers, fears we have hidden in, like this wretched cave. We are the real countries, not the boundaries drawn on maps with the names of powerful men. I know you will come and carry me out into the palace of winds. That’s all I’ve wanted — to walk in such a place with you, with friends, on earth without maps…


As we come to the end of the above lines, The English Patient takes an eternal pose, the scene taking a surreal look. Even the coldest Philistine sheds a tear or two after watching this oh so elevated scene.

Nurse Hana epitomizes all that is challenging about nursing. Sacrifices, contradictions and above all, selfless service. Nurses work in sterile, antiseptic conditions, with distinctive medical smells. Smells with the underlying reek of death beneath them. We cannot help the smells in hospitals. Just like we cannot help classes from the smell of chalk dust and garages from the smell of diesel and oils. Every trade has its smells.

Nurses work with the sounds of sirens of ambulances jabbing the night air. They work in hospitals with clocks tolling to the death or near death of patients, clocks tolling for you and me .We cannot help some of these things. Every trade has its sounds.

You know how they categorize Shakespeare’s plays? If it ends with a wedding, it’s a comedy. If it ends with a funeral, it’s a tragedy. Nurses work where the greatest tragedy of life-death-takes place. At the same time, they work where the most magical event in human life-birth-takes place. It’s only in hospitals where roses of life blossom along dreadful black lilies of death, side by side. It takes great courage to work were vampires of death flap above, threatening to build nests in one’s head. But one takes consolation in that angels of life abound in the same hospitals, doing high fives to life.

Nurses demystify hospitals and diseases. Unlike doctors who approach patients with clinical aloofness, nurses approach patients with a human face. When the doctor tells you have glaucoma, he puts no emotion in it.He says it with a monologue and statue face that expresses neither hope nor despair. You start fretting whether glaucoma is a disease that started in Hiroshima when the bombed it and is related to carcinoma since they rhyme. You start fearing that your life will soon end in coma since the word glaucoma ends with ‘coma’ in it.Doctors, in short, put walls between their patients and the science of medicine.

A nurse, on the other hand, breaks those barriers. When you mention glaucoma, a nurse humanizes the disease for you. When you give her the signed chit from the doctor-all scrawls and scribbles-she demurely smiles at you. So I am not that sick, after all? Then she takes a stethoscope and eavesdrops on the silent soliloquy of your vital organs. She touches you with her fingers, looking for a vein, looking for healing. Like a man pulling out from a dazed coma, you start getting well already .Then, she talks to you.


Ati which condition did Dr.Odiambo say you have?

Coma of the eyes.

Coma of the eyes?  You mean glaucoma?

Yes, yes, that one. Nurse, how many days do I have in this troubled world?

Wewe wacha zako. You see that mzee over there?
The one with one eye patched up?

Yes, that one. We operated on him for glaucoma last week, blind as a bat. Look, now he is already ogling at me.Men!


Then she proceeds to show that feigned annoyance women show when a man makes a pass at them.

That marks the end of your beautiful scene with a nurse, just like the one above between Hana and her English Patient. Like in the movie, she has led you to a palace of winds. Then by the hand and by the heart, she will nurture you back to good health, one syringe at a time. She makes you face another day-you are even ready to face a coma if it comes along.

Nurses spread the milk of human kindness where it is needed most.