Angels in disguise

International Nurses Day is celebrated to highlight and honour the invaluable contributions of nurses in health care and global health security

Tasneem HossainTasneem Hossain
Published : 12 May 2023, 09:23 AM
Updated : 12 May 2023, 09:23 AM

“You’ll be well soon. But you need to take this medicine.”

Can you relate these words to that gentle angelic face smiling at and comforting you?

Yes, you’re right. When we are sick and hospitalised or even at home, there’s this kind person looking after us day and night- whom we call ‘nurse’. They work selflessly to make the world a better place.

Nurses are licensed healthcare professionals who practise independently or are supervised by a physician, surgeon, or dentist and care for the sick. They play a vital role in looking after those injured or affected during any pandemic, war or any kind of affliction. 

Do you know the etymology of the word nurse?

In brief, the term nurse originates from the Latin word nurture ‘nourish’, which means to suckle. It’s because in bygone days, this was referred to the wet-nurses who cared for other’s children. It evolved in the late 16th century into a person who cares for the sick.

Some people describe the word as Noble-Understanding-Responsibility-Sympathy-Efficient= NURSE. This description covers all the aspects of promoting health, preventing disease, and providing care to the ill, afflicted, and dying.

International Nurses Day was established in 1974 by the International Council of Nurses (ICN) to be celebrated on May 12 each year. The day has been selected to mark the birth anniversary of Florence Nightingale, who is widely considered the founder of modern nursing.

Florence Nightingale became well-known during the Crimean War. She trained nurses and also tended to wounded soldiers. She became known as ‘The Lady with the Lamp’ as she used to look after the wounded soldiers at night with a lamp. In 1860, Nightingale established a nursing school at St Thomas’ Hospital in London. The Nightingale Pledge taken by new nurses and the highest international distinction for a nurse, ‘Florence Nightingale Medal,’ was named after her in recognition of her pioneering work in nursing.

The day is celebrated to highlight and honour the invaluable contributions of nurses in health care and global health security. On this day, promotional and educational materials raising issues and challenges faced by the nursing profession are produced and distributed. Many countries celebrate National Nurses Week, where International Nurses Day is a part of the weeklong celebration.

Though white uniforms have been associated with nursing for a long time, this uniform has evolved over time.

The first professional nurses were nuns. They wore traditional blue or grey dresses. The original uniform colours changed from blues and greys to white in the 1900s to signify cleanliness, purity, innocence, honesty, faith, goodness, and empowerment. However, eye fatigue in the operating room led to the use of green uniforms. Gradually, other colourful uniforms have become accepted.

A white uniform enhances the nurse’s image and gives them a professional appearance, and commands great respect.

Some symbols are found on pins, jewellery and scrubs on display and have great significance in the healthcare industry.

Some of the popular nurse symbols are:

1. The Caduceus is one of the most used symbols featuring a staff wrapped by two snakes and a pair of wings. This is one of the oldest symbols dating back to Ancient Greece. The depiction had different connotations of different gods.

In 1902, the Caduceus was used as the medical symbol in the US Army Medical Corps. Since then, it has been used by many health organisations. 

2. The Staff of Asclepius closely resembles the Caduceus, but the picture has one snake wrapped around the staff. The World Health Organization (WHO) uses the Staff of Asclepius without the wings. 

Caduceus is used in 76 percent of healthcare organisations, whereas the Staff of Asclepius is used in 62 percent.

Though the snake symbolises destruction in many places, the snake symbol on the staff signifies healing. The reason? Well, the answer lies deep down in history when around 1400 BC, Moses used a bronze serpent erected on a pole to cure the people who were bitten by a snake. Another reason is that a serpent sheds its skin, which indicates longevity and immortality. Many experiments on snakes have also proved that they can cure many diseases. 

3. The oil lamp is a lesser-known symbol in the medical field. It’s used to remember Florence Nightingale, known as ‘The Lady with the Lamp’.

The light of the lamp symbolises the light that a nurse becomes to her patients: a symbol of hope and comfort to those who are suffering. It also represents nurses’ dedication, selfless work, compassion, reliability, goodwill, and everything relating to nursing. The lamp is also used as the logo for International Council for Nurses.

4. Globally, the white heart is a unifying symbol for nurses. White was selected because it brings together all colours, demonstrating nursing’s acceptance of people of all races, religions and communities.

5. The red cross of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement represents neutrality and protection under the Geneva Conventions and is still used by nurses in times of armed conflict.

Each year there’s a new theme for International Nurses Day. The theme for 2023 is ‘Our Nurses. Our Future’.

ICN President Dr Pamela Cipriano explained the theme as what ICN wants for nursing in the future to address the global health challenges and improve global health for all campaigns. It will help the policymakers, the public, and all those who make decisions affecting the delivery and financing of health care to focus on the importance of the invaluable contributions of nurses in the future and to extend support to them. She also highlighted the need to learn from the pandemic’s lessons and translate these into actions for the future to ensure that nurses are protected, respected and valued. This year’s campaign will also highlight how global health systems must be strengthened to address growing health demands.

She also mentioned that it would capture key actions that ICN believes are essential to address both the profession and health systems and which are, of course, mutually beneficial.

WHO has estimated that an additional 9 million nurses and midwives are needed if the world is to achieve Universal Health Coverage (UHC) by 2030. UHC will ensure access to preventive, curative, and rehabilitative health services of quality to everyone, whenever and wherever they need them, without any financial hardships. The stark realisation of the unequal distribution of healthcare during COVID-19 has made it mandatory to focus on this.

Though actions have been taken to strengthen the nursing profession and some progress has been made, most countries still need more qualified and competent nurses to effectively address increasing health challenges.

Countries need to prioritise investing fully in strengthening and diversifying the nursing workforce based on measurable, transparent and realistic actions; It will help build a highly qualified and resilient nursing workforce that will be able to respond to the changing technologies and advancing models of integrated health and social care; and needs of the population and communities it serves to ensure safe health for all.

Reinforcing nurse leadership is also essential to aid nurses in having an influential role in health policy formulation and decision-making to contribute effectively to health and social care systems.  

The nursing profession is highly respected and honoured worldwide. Unfortunately, it isn’t the case in many countries, including Bangladesh. Though the government has given the nursing profession second-class status and some first-class posts have also been created, it’s still quite a neglected profession in Bangladesh. 

The selfless work and skill the nurses provide in taking care of the patients deserve praise, support, and recognition.

Their presence itself works wonders in healing during a patient’s sickness.  

Let’s salute all those compassionate angels who contribute to making our lives worth living. 

[Tasneem Hossain is a multilingual poet, columnist, op-ed and fiction writer, translator and training consultant. She is the Director of the Continuing Education Centre, Bangladesh.]


 1. International Nurses Day 2022: Nurses: respect, support and appreciate them, World Health Organisation.

2. International Nurses Day 2023 to focus on ‘future of nursing’, Nursing Times, Jan 16, 2023.

3. Nurses Zone, India, May 12, 2018.

4. What is the Full Form of NURSE, javaTpoint.

5. Rdewald, Why Nurses Wear White and the Evolution of Nursing Uniforms, Excelsior University, Feb 12, 2019.

6. 4 Popular Nurse Symbols And Their Meanings, NURSA.