Monday, June 23, 2014

A Humanist legacy: The Visiting Nurse Program

Lillian Wald, Humanist
My wife was recently diagnosed with cancer and is recovering from the first of her surgeries. Soon she will begin six months of intensive chemo, and then more surgeries, in the hope of beating this terrible disease. In the meantime, my wife and my family are benefiting from an institution with Humanist roots that are well over one hundred years old, the visiting nurse program.

Lillian Wald was an American nurse, humanitarian and author. She began her career as a visiting nurse in 1893, and eventually went on to found the Visiting Nurse Service of New York, the prototype and model for all visiting nurse organizations today. Wald was a member of Ethical Culture, the godless Humanist religion founded Felix Adler.

Millions of people have benefited from the care visiting nurses bring to people’s homes, saving patients expensive and difficult trips to hospitals and offices. The health benefits of this program are enormous. The nurse can scope out a patient’s living conditions, provide advice on how to deal with chronic conditions, and generally act to support the patient and the family during trying medical situation.

For a couple like my wife and me, such care is needed because in our lives we have never encountered any kind of medical crisis. We have both been relentlessly healthy for decades. Dealing with cancer is a completely new experience, and there is a steep learning curve. The visiting nurses have knowledge and advice, and are willing to share it with us in a stress free, positive way, answering and re-answering our questions.

I write this out of sincere appreciation for the Visiting Nurses here in Rhode Island but also because efforts like this, pioneered by Humanists, are not seen as Humanist accomplishments. To paraphrase my friend James Croft, we Humanists are terrible at taking credit for our accomplishments. Lillian Wald developed the Visiting Nurse program because of her humanistic concerns and Humanist philosophies.

Little remembered today, Wald was called one of the 12 greatest living American women in 1922. Later in life she fought for world wide peace, advocated against child labor, helped found the NAACP, was involved with the ACLU, and helped to form the Women’s Trade Union League to improve working conditions for women. For Wald it was never about self-aggrandizement, it was about service to humanity.

Wald led an astounding life, and to this day millions of people are helped every year due to her efforts. The organizations she helped to form have improved the lives of innumerable people over the last century. Lillian Wald is a real life superhero, and the kind of human and Humanist we should all aspire to be.

So today I want to remember her, and thank all the nurses who have followed in her footsteps.
For an interesting talk about the visiting nurse program started by Wald, follow this link.

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