Without Nurses, I Don’t Know Where the F--- We Would Be

November 2013Andrew Schwartz

In a solo lunchtime performance in Cole Hall, on the UC San Francisco Parnassus campus, Country Joe McDonald of Woodstock fame paid tribute to veterans, nursing and an underappreciated hero of modern health care: Florence Nightingale.

The event was part of the campus’s efforts to honor veterans, sponsored by Campus Life Services, UC San Francisco School of Nursing and several School faculty members who served as military nurses. Though McDonald has long been associated with antiwar activism, he has also been a consistent advocate for those who serve in the military. In 1981, while attending a conference on the problems facing Vietnam vets, he heard a presentation by Vietnam nurse Lynda Van Devanter that challenged those in the audience to understand the effects of the war on women and military nurses.

Country Joe McDonald outside the UCSF School of Nursing “I took up that challenge,” McDonald said at the UCSF event. Doing so led him to Nightingale, who first made her name as a military nurse during the Crimean War.

Since that 1981 conference, McDonald has transformed himself into a Nightingale advocate, accumulating a wealth of material, much of which appears in a dedicated section of his website. His 50-minute presentation, which he has performed in many different settings, includes slides, videos, readings from Nightingale’s work and a series of original songs about “the lady with the lamp” – a reference to a nickname that arose from Nightingale’s habit of making nightly rounds through a facility where wounded English soldiers were housed.

In short, McDonald’s performance is an appreciative ramble around Nightingale’s life: from her wealthy childhood through her rebellious desire to – as McDonald phrased it – “work and serve and use my mind,” her formative experience in the Crimean War and the final 50 years of her life, during which she wrote and advised about nursing but lived in a house in London and never again did any direct patient care. She died in 1910, at the age of 90.

McDonald has made it his personal crusade to have people recognize Nightingale’s contributions – not just as the mother of modern nursing, but as someone who helped shape the parameters of modern health care and as an exemplar of a woman who stood on her own two feet at a time when the challenges of doing so were daunting. He is also a fierce advocate for nursing, noting early in the presentation that his brother (a retired nurse practitioner), wife (a labor and delivery nurse), niece (who works in palliative care) and daughter (who’s finishing her training) have all embraced the profession.

“Sometime in everyone’s life, they are touched by a nurse,” he said, during a brief question-and-answer session after his performance. “Without nurses, I don’t know where the f--- we would be.”