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Nursing Wounds, Bearing Witness

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Nursing Wounds, Bearing Witness

Posted by Enough Team on October 27, 2009

Nursing Wounds, Bearing Witness

This is the third in a series of posts by 2009 recipients of the Carl Wilkens Fellowship, awarded by Genocide Intervention Network and named for the only American to stay in Rwanda during the 1994 genocide. Today’s guest contributor, Sheila Davis, hails from Boston, Massachusetts.

As a nurse for over 21 years, I have heard and carried with me so many stories. Some of the stories are wonderful to hear, beautiful words expressing joy and describing the many gifts of life and good fortune. Other stories are more difficult to hear, ones that I often try to put out of my head—those of ugliness, hatred, and the atrocities of our world today. Stories about pain inflicted intentionally on other human beings, people being treated as “less than,” and the loss of one’s dignity, family, home, livelihood, and even the loss of life. I listen to the words, delivered haltingly at first, then a tumble of wordsI try not to block out the ugliness; I try to listen to every word, acknowledge every emotion, and absorb some of the pain, because I am a nurse.

As a nurse, I am responsible for the physical, psychosocial, spiritual, and emotional care of my patients. These things are usually accepted by people as part of a nurse’s job, part of our scope of practice. I agree with all of these things, but I believe that I am also responsible for protecting the human rights of all people.  I see human rights abuses every day: poverty, gender-based violence, homelessness, racism, and although less frequent in this country, the after-effects of genocide and war.

Hope is a patient of mine, now living in Massachusetts, taken in by distant cousins after she ended up in a refugee camp in Chad. When I first met Hope, I had no idea of the horrors she witnessed, how many family and friends she lost, what she had to endure physically, psychologically, and emotionally. Little by little, over the past three years, I have seen glimpses of a life that no words could describe. Honestly, I would rather have not ever heard these stories, stories burned into my mind that often keep me up at night. But, every time I see Hope, she seems a bit less sad, as if part of the weight has been lifted from her thin shoulders. Maybe it has been helpful, sharing with me pieces of her life–maybe by knowing that I, too, can tell her stories, carry her legacy, she does not need to carry the load herself.

It is because of Hope and so many others that I applied to the Genocide Intervention Network to become one of the 2009 Carl Wilkens Fellows. My project Nurses’ Voices for Human Rights is an effort to infuse human rights into nursing. As a Carl Wilkens fellow, I have been educating nurses about our legacy as human rights advocates, trying to raise awareness of nurses who are contemporary human rights heroes, and working to build a permanent anti-genocide nurse constituency.

I carry Hope’s story with me, just as I carry the stories of Bernice, Zina, Numvula and so many others. Some of my patients’ names I sadly have forgotten, but I can never forget their stories. My job as a nurse is not just to bear witness to the stories, but to stop these atrocities.

The Carl Wilkens Fellowship is a selective, 12-month program that provides a diverse set of emerging citizen leaders with the tools and training to build sustained political will to end genocide. Visit GI-NET’s website for more information and to apply (due November 1).