I first met Virginia Henderson when I was a student at Yale School of Nursing. She was a guest in one of our courses, and she started the class by saying, “I’m a million years old and deaf as a doornail, so speak up!” She was a force, and I loved her from the start. I had the opportunity to meet with Virginia at her home in New Haven, CT, where she showed a group of us her porcelain box collection. She even gave me one! Virginia was at our graduation from YSN in 1993 – in full academic regalia. The last time I saw Virginia was at her home in a retirement community in Connecticut. I consider myself fortunate to have spent time with such an influential nurse. Although I had no idea at the time, her work and thoughts on nursing shaped my own. Her definition of nursing
The unique function of the nurse is to assist the individual, sick or well, in the performance of those activities contributing to health or its recovery (or to peaceful death) that he would perform unaided if he had the necessary strength, will or knowledge. And to do this in such a way as to help him gain independence as rapidly as possible.
resonates with me because in my work with people who have diabetes I see the need to help people toward independence. Diabetes and other chronic diseases require knowledge, skills, and understanding so that people can make daily decisions and perform daily tasks to manage their disease and live well. There are times when people need more – education, direct care, or support – and times when they can function independently. The goal is always to help people toward independence and away from a mentality of “compliance” or “adherence.” I think Virginia would support the language movement in diabetes, where we are working hard to get away from judgmental, provider-centric language and move toward person-centered and strengths-based messages.
I also identify with Virginia’s beliefs on nursing as a discipline with a distinct body of knowledge and her emphasis on nursing education and nursing research. Ironically, I was a student at Yale School of Nursing and now teach at Teachers College Columbia University. Both schools had an impact on and were influenced by Virginia Henderson. It’s amazing to me that I have felt her presence throughout my career, despite not being directly connected to her work.
I sometimes wonder what Virginia would think if she were alive today. Is her definition of nursing being upheld? What would she think of nursing practice, nursing education, and nursing research? Are we honoring her legacy in our work today? It’s important for nurses to be aware of those who’ve gone before us, their work, and their influence on our discipline. Some of those nurses are still with us, and my hope is that we will learn from them and be shaped by them as we move nursing forward. When we practice, teach, and study, how often do we think about our own definition of nursing? Are we being true to that definition?