Every Atom | No. 165

Rhonda Morgan

Introduction to Every Atom by project curator Brian Clements

ea logo

One does not readily think about Walt Whitman when recalling famous nurses of the past: Florence Nightingale, or Clara Barton, or Mary Breckenridge, but not Walt Whitman.

Nonetheless, so much is told by Whitman about being a nurse in his poetry. Having been a nurse now for four and a half decades, I understand that Whitman’s words in “Song of Myself” and “The Wound-Dresser” say two things about nursing; what a nurse does, and what a nurse is. Of those two things, “what a nurse is” is far more important.

It is easy to think about, to name, to list what a nurse does. Whitman does some of this in “The Wound-Dresser”: “bearing the bandages,” “dress the wounds,” “undo the clotted linen,” and “cleanse.” The things nurses do are easy to teach to the new nurses and those who want to become nurses. What is much harder to come by is what a nurse is.

In “Song of Myself” he writes, “I do not ask the wounded person how he feels . . . . I myself become the wounded person,” speaking to the role of empathy in nursing. Indeed, so much of Whitman’s poetry is about empathy, trading places with the wounded, the solider, the other. In the words of “The Wound-Dresser” a nurse “sits by,” “soothes,” “pacifies with a soothing hand,” “draws near,” and “recalls the experience, sweet and sad.” Nurses can become a kind of storyteller. I am like the old man in the first section of the poem, recounting a story from the past, one that is graphic and deeply human, to the children asking for storytelling.

I have practiced nursing in the clinical, the educational and the administrational arenas—and still do. The hardest part to tell, to understand, and to teach is “what a nurse is,” but Walt Whitman tells us that in a poignant, memorable way through empathy and verse.

placeholder width 225px height 300px

Rhonda Morgan is currently Associate Professor and Director of the Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP) Program at King University. Dr. Morgan is certified in emergency nursing, critical care clinical specialty, and neuroscience nursing and has authored several journal articles, served as legal chart reviewer and expert witness, as reviewer for manuscripts and books, and as accreditation evaluator, and recently co-authored a book chapter. She lives in Kingsport TN with her husband, William. Together they are the honored parents of two grown daughters and sons-in-law, and grandparents to five.


Cover art by Maddie Bonthuis