Dressing Up to Serve: Of Sisters, Scrubs and Nursing Students

Address delivered at a white coat dedication ceremony for nursing students at Saint Mary’s College, Notre Dame, Indiana, on Sept. 24.

‘White Coat’
‘White Coat’ (photo: Steve Cukrov / Shutterstock)

First of all, I want to welcome and acknowledge all you moms and dads who’ve come here today to celebrate this milestone with your daughters. We’re so grateful you’re here! Heck, as the new guy on the faculty, I’m so grateful to be here. So grateful. And when I say here, I mean Saint Mary’s College at all, let alone standing up in front of you here in this place. I can’t express to you how happy I am to be part of this campus community — in fact, my wife and kids have commented that they haven’t seen me this happy in years. I love driving up to campus, driving down the Ave, breathing the Holy Cross air up round these parts, and striding right into Regina Hall and my office. I sit down and soak it all in: I’m on the nursing faculty at Saint Mary’s College! What a gift!

And let me say a word about my office: If you haven’t seen our fabulous new nursing wing in Regina, moms and dads, check it out, especially the offices — at least mine. The offices all have glass walls so it might seem a bit like a fishbowl, but I love it. Why? Because I can sit at my desk, look straight through Professor Riggs’ office, and see the Holy Cross sisters’ cemetery. Generations of holy women — many of them nurses — who dedicated their lives to serving Christ through serving others. I’m inspired by their example, especially the nurses, and particularly the ones who served during the Civil War.

A couple weeks back, I tagged along on a tour of the Regina Hall renovations that Dr. Anderson gave some visitors, and she referenced those Holy Cross sisters and how they took on the task of running a floating Union military hospital, but on one condition: That they’d be free to care for all the injured from both sides of the conflict, both Union and Confederacy. Officials in the Union War Office balked and objected and fussed — the nation was at war for its very survival, so why should any resources or effort be expended on the enemy? But the sisters were adamant, and they won — and their witness of selfless service in care of the sick became legend.

I get to look out on that legend every day, straight out my office. I ask for those sisters to pray for me and my students, that we might be nurses the way they were nurses — with a conviction that all were created in God’s image, and all possess an innate human dignity that deserves respect. And not just the conviction, but also a lived expression of that conviction through competent, benevolent care to everyone, day in and day out, when it’s convenient and, most importantly, inconvenient. What a heritage to challenge us and live up to! Is there a better place to be formed as nurses than this place?

That brings me back to today’s ceremony and the reading the students chose from St. Paul’s Letter to the Colossians. For it is very much about the values and virtues that feed into becoming nurses like those Civil War sisters — becoming, that is, women who not only possess conviction, but live it out, come what may. Plus, there’s the added bonus that Paul frames those values and virtues in terms of donning an outfit — very much apropos of your being attired, students, with your white coats today.

“Put on then,” the Apostle begins, “as God’s chosen ones” — what? What is it that Paul is telling the Colossians to put on like a garment? “Heartfelt compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience” — no small thing! Then, as if he were anticipating the common experience of nurses everywhere, Paul adds, “bearing with one another, if one has a grievance against one another.” It’s one thing to be kind and gentle and compassionate with our patients — they’re sick, after all, and needy, and understandably demanding in their suffering. But what about our colleagues and co-workers? What of our frustrations with those who let us down or fail to follow through on things? “As the Lord has forgiven you,” Paul tells us, “so must you also do.”

Wow. That’s a tall order, all that! How can we do it? How can I do it? Here again, Paul uses imagery of getting dressed: “Over all these put on love, that is, the bond of perfection.” So, we have compassion, kindness, humility and the like comprising the outfit, and then love — that is, charity — is like the belt that pulls it all together. Not love as in “I love pizza” or “I love the beach.” No, it’s the kind of love that Christ modeled for us and calls us to — a love that always intends the good of the other and strives to bring it about. It’s the kind of love that led Jesus to take up the cross to save the world — the same cross that we acknowledge here at Saint Mary’s as Spes Unica: our only hope.

Speaking of Saint Mary’s, let’s recall all those Holy Cross sisters who dedicated their lives to service, many of them nurses, and especially the ones who poured themselves out for the wounded and dying during the Civil War. When they originally signed up to join the order, were they all already inclined to that kind of selfless love and service? Or was it more likely that they were idealistic young women — much like yourselves — who were inspired by the Gospel and the example of the sisters they’d come to know, and they grew into that kind of radical love during formation and novitiate and after profession. It came after years of study and working at various apostolates, trying their best, often failing, but then success coming more readily as time went by.

But they had to start somewhere, and that somewhere was very similar to what we’re about today. At some point, those women had put aside their lay, civilian clothing and took up the Holy Cross habit. Putting on the habit didn’t magically make them holier or saints, but it did mark the start of their determination to become those things. They took up the Holy Cross habit, and they donned the values and spirit of the Holy Cross order at the same time. The longer they wore the habit as they lived in community, the longer they strived to live out the order’s charism, the more that Holy Cross identity really became part of who they were.

That is, eventually, those women weren’t just externally wearing what their habits represented, but had adopted it internally — the Holy Cross charism simply became part of who they were, what they did, how they interacted with others.

See the connection here? Today you’ll be officially invested with your white lab coat by Dr. Anderson — a symbol of your progression from mere “study” of nursing concepts and ideas to the actual “doing” of nursing. Of course, for weeks now you’ve already been doing nursing in your clinicals — in acute and chronic med-surg, in maternity and psych.

And remember your very first clinical day — your very first day of actual patient care? How did that day start? Among other things, you donned your Saint Mary’s scrubs — your nursing student uniform, that is — in a way, your nursing student habit. You put it on, despite having little or no actual experience of what it represents, yet you still put it on in confidence that you’d grow into what it represents — just like those Holy Cross postulants who took up their habits when joining the order. You, like them, stepped out in faith and fortitude, and, sure enough, with God’s help and guidance from folks like me and my colleagues, you’re becoming what your scrubs signify. Already — now! I know it because I see it — and I hear it from the nurses you’re working with and the patients you’re caring for. Well done, my friends.

That being said, I have little to add, other than reinforcing your “becoming” with some final thoughts from St. Paul. He rounds out his admonition to the Colossians to be clothed as “God’s chosen ones” with three pointers. First, “let the peace of Christ control your hearts” — timely advice for nursing students who constantly battle the anxieties associated with patient care, let alone coursework and exams. Second, “let the word of Christ dwell in you richly” — richly, don’t you love that? It’s an image of overflowing and exuberance, which I believe comes naturally to enthusiastic students engaged in this profession. Related to that is Paul’s last pointer, to “do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus.” Yes, do everything that way, even when you might’ve done it better, for everything is a gift — everything, whether positive or negative, when touched by grace, can contribute to our becoming who we are called to be.

Paul concludes with a call to gratitude — indeed, he mentions being thankful twice in this short passage. That brings me back to where I started this reflection, coming full circle, and it’s an ideal note to end on. Congratulations, students, on achieving this milestone. We all of us have so much to be grateful for.