On episode 231 of The Nurse Keith Show nursing career podcast, Nurse Keith discusses the relationship between the story of Don Quixote and the ways in which some nurses can be just as idealistic and determined as Senor Quixote. And if you’re a literature buff, this episode will speak to you on several levels! And, as mentioned during this episode, check out episode 122 where I first broached the in the relationship of Senor Quixote to nurses.

The Quixotic Nurse

As a nurse writer and blogger, I often use metaphor as a way to express deeper ideas about nursing and healthcare. In the past, I’ve explored the myths of Sisyphus and Hercules as they relate to nurses and the nursing profession, and my nature continues to point me towards metaphor as a tool for understanding.

I’ve recently been considering the figure of Don Quixote as another metaphor related to our often beleaguered profession; although much has been written about Quixote and the author Miguel Cervantes, I don’t believe anything has been written about the potentially quixotic nature of nurses. So, my friends, I give you the notion of “The Quixotic Nurse”.

Few of us (myself included) have ever actually read the entire story of Don Quixote, with the majority of us understanding the story from the viewpoint of cultural reference and a lackadaisical reading of Cliff Notes during a sleepy high school English class. If we’ve encountered the story, we probably know little, but we readily understand that Quixote was a man who imagined himself to be a chivalrous knight of old, frequently mistaking windmills for monsters in need of vanquishing. His faithful sidekick, Sancho Panza, was a simple peasant farmer who served as his squire, and they wandered the hills of Spain in search of Dulcinea, a woman whom Quixote felt was in need of his knightly services, and who may or may not have existed.

Countless books have been written about Don Quixote and the true meaning of the story and its symbols, and I’m by no means an authority on the subject. But when it comes to nurses and nursing, I can see that some of us may fit a certain model of quixotic behavior, and I’d like to explore that notion here with you, dear Reader.

Although the term “quixotic” (pronounced “kwik-sadik“) is often defined as exceedingly idealistic, as well as impractical and unrealistic, I prefer to consider other aspects of the term in relation to certain themes of the Quixote story, especially as it relates to nursing. Chivalry, honor, rebellion against authority, the questioning of the status quo, truth, justice, and varying visions of reality speak to me as apropos of the nursing profession in 2019 and beyond.

The quixotic nurse sees the disempowering of patients as an issue of justice and abuse of authority, and she seeks to alter common practices that undermine patients’ personal agency and self-determination.

I am not a Nightingale scholar, yet I have deep respect for a woman who challenged the medical establishment and saved countless lives as she instituted (by sheer force of will) simple practices of hygiene and sanitation for the health and safety of her soldier patients.

With so many other accomplishments under her belt, including the revolutionary use of statistics in the scientific assessment of the quality and outcomes of healthcare delivery, Nightingale revolutionized battlefield medical care while simultaneously launching what was destined to be the underpinnings of the modern science of nursing.

I submit that Florence Nightingale was indeed a quixotic nurse revolutionary, and her “windmill”—the poor quality of healthcare delivery on the battlefield, among other ills—was one that she indeed vanquished, ultimately producing change on a gargantuan scale that would span centuries, reaching far into a world that she would never herself know.

if you want to change something, consider the small steps that will get you there. If you have your own healthcare windmill that’s crying out for you to wage battle on its behalf, imagine what you need to get started. And if colleagues and naysayers tell you that it’s not possible, bear in mind the potential consequences of not acting according to your beliefs and values; silence and inaction can often be tools of complicity.

Working in nursing and healthcare is filled with moral and ethical dilemmas, whether in terms of healthcare economics, patients’ rights, labor practices, the behavior of healthcare providers, or the quality of care. We are faced with moral questions every day, some of which we feel unable to personally address or assuage.

You may feel that your desire is quixotic in the pejorative sense of the word, negating it as pie-in-the-sky or impossible to bring to fruition. Alternatively, you can also see its quixotic nature as an example of one person willing to stand up against a giant windmill/monster in need of toppling, even as others point out that the process will be long, difficult, and perilous.

Nurses, if you have a dream, step forward and make the first move to bring it into reality; you may be rebuffed, ridiculed, thwarted, and challenged. Pay no mind, and just take that first courageous step.

Florence Nightingale seized the day, changing the course of battlefield medicine and launching the science of nursing practice as we know it today. Her windmill was enormous, and she simultaneously fought against a much more deeply ingrained form of medical and societal patriarchy than the average 21st-century female nurse must now face. How the odds were stacked against an unmarried non-professional woman from Victorian England.

Impractical and idealistic? Maybe. Pie-in-the-sky and impossible? Perhaps. Worth an earnest, heartfelt attempt? By all means.

Embrace your inner Quixote, nurses. Your windmill awaits.


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Nurse KeithIn case you didn’t already know, Nurse Keith is a holistic career coach for nurses, award-winning nurse blogger, writer, podcaster, keynote and motivational speaker, and popular career columnist. With two decades of nursing experience, Keith deeply understands the issues faced by 21st-century nurses. From 2012 until its sunset in 2017, Keith co-hosted RNFMRadio, a groundbreaking nursing podcast. Keith’s message of savvy career management and professional satisfaction reaches tens of thousands of nurses worldwide.Keith can be found on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, and Instagram—as well as at NurseKeith.com. He lives in Santa Fe, New Mexico with his wife, the therapeutic story coach, group facilitator, and writer, Mary Rives, and their remarkably adorable and intelligent cat, George.
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