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Not all superheroes wear capes

In the turbulent times in which we currently find ourselves, huge emphasis is being placed on the major role that healthcare workers play in our societies. Nurses and midwives, among others, are the people who devote their lives to caring for mothers and children; giving life-saving immunisations and health advice; looking after older people, and generally meeting people's everyday essential health needs. Dressed in their traditionally white superhero uniforms, they are often the first and only point of healthcare in their communities.

The year 2020 has been designated as the Year of the Nurse and Midwife, in honour of the 200th anniversary of the birth of Florence Nightingale, but the World Health Organisation has warned that globally we will need an additional nine million nurses and midwives to achieve the commitment of providing all people with access to healthcare by 2030.

"Nurses and midwives are the backbone of every health system: in 2020 we are calling on all countries to invest in nurses and midwives as part of their commitment to health for all," says Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the director general of the WHO. That is why the WHO has designated 2020 as the International Year of the Nurse and the Midwife - a year-long effort to celebrate the work of nurses and midwives, highlight the challenging conditions they often face, and advocate increased investment in the nursing and midwifery workforce.

The North-West University's School of Nursing has, over the past 52 years, unceasingly committed itself to providing education and training of international quality to undergraduate, post-basic and postgraduate students. Besides preventing, diagnosing and treating diseases, and providing expert care during childbirth, NWU-trained nurses and midwives also serve people caught up in humanitarian emergencies and conflicts.

Amid the current COVID-19 pandemic, Annel Rudolph, a professional nurse and alumna of the NWU's School of Nursing, recently shared this touching and rather eye-opening message on social media:

"Tonight, for the very first time in my entire nursing career, I'm lying in my bed and I'm scared! I'm afraid of what's coming and of the unknown. I never thought that I would live in an era in which, like Florence, I have to light my candle and keep it high and shining, while half the population is hiding from a killer bug. War, I thought ... yes. Maybe one day when I am old and my lamp is stored away, but a virus?

"The worst of all is that humanity is doing it to itself. The people don't listen. Obviously not, because they don't feel it. I, yes, I feel it. My family feels it. My husband and my one-year-old. I see it. I see the anguish in the eyes of my colleagues and in people who can't hide. The people don't understand how they are making this war harder to win. So tonight, I hope that the person reading this also starts to feel it and then listens.

"Listen if they tell you to stay at home. Do not go out unless it is an emergency. Don't disregard the rules. They are there for a good reason. Twenty-one days are a long time, but imagine how it would feel if we don't win this war. Think how long it will be for us out there who cannot hide. The only way to win this is by using our heads and listening.

"May God bless every one of you and also be with my colleagues and essential workers in the time ahead. Make Aunt Florence proud. I put all my trust and hope in God's hands and have put on my full armour of God."

From this message, it is quite clear that a career in the health sector is not an occupation, but rather a calling. Prof Siedine Coetzee, a passionate researcher at the NWU's School of Nursing, says the reason she became a nurse is deeply personal.

"My grandmother was unexpectedly dying in South Africa (we were in Namibia), and a nurse made the decision to inform us that she was nearing her end, giving us the opportunity to say goodbye. She held the phone to my grandmother's ear, and afterwards told us that my grandmother had responded to our messages and was more peaceful. That evening she passed away. Based on that experience, I decided to become a nurse, because nurses not only care for the sick and dying, or for the physical needs of patients, they are a pivotal resource in any crisis experienced by the patient, which extends to the family and community. Often we share in our patients' deepest and darkest vulnerabilities, which gives nurses the opportunity to, at the very least, improve clinical outcomes, but most often, change lives," Prof Coetzee says.

Prof Welma Lubbe, an associate professor at the NWU, renowned for her research and work in midwifery and premature births, says she got into nursing while waiting to be accepted for another healthcare profession. "And then, I just fell in love with midwifery and realised that nurses do most of the activities that other professionals also do, but are the only ones who are next to the patient's bed at night and over weekends. Nursing grew on me, and today I am a passionate midwife and nurse with a deep love for premature babies and their families.

"I developed a passion for premature babies and their parents when I once stood next to an incubator in NICU and realised that we as hospital staff often need to take over the parenting role in order to guide parents towards proper care for their little one. This transformed my career into a passion for parents and their newborn or premature babies," prof Lubbe concludes.

There is global concern about the quality of nursing and midwifery care, and about the work environment of nurses. The focus of the NWU's School of Nursing is ultimately aimed at improving the quality of nursing and midwifery, community engagement, innovation and leadership.

In the year 1870 Florence Nightingale said it will take 150 years for the world to see the kind of nursing she envisions. Ironically perhaps, 1870 + 150 years brings us to the year 2020!

"Rather, ten times die in the surf, heralding the way to a new world, than stand idly on the shore." - Florence Nightingale.