The moment that I rolled up the patient’s sleeve to take her blood pressure – and saw the tattoo – was one of the defining moments of not just my nursing career, but my whole life. It confirmed all my beliefs and cemented my opinions, my view of the world, what’s right and what’s wrong – everything.
Because the tattoo was a string of numbers.
It ran from her elbow to her wrist. That’s a lot of numbers. It was the “branding” of a concentration camp, applied to her little arm when she was a small child. She was the only one of her entire extended family to survive the camp.
This wasn’t a grainy image in a history book, or a speckled black and white film clip. This was a real person, sitting in front of me. A real person who had been right there – an actual witness to one of the most shocking periods of European history. She brought that awful history alive just by sitting in front of me, with her arm outstretched, patiently waiting for me to take her blood pressure.
My reaction? In the next millisecond HER life flashed before my eyes. A life with the knowledge of what had happened to her family and the constant reminder of it on her own arm. In a flash I wondered if she always wore long sleeves so that nobody would see it…or did she allow it to be visible as a gesture to recognise those who had suffered unspeakably? In that instant I wanted to hug her, comfort her, hug that arm and take away some of what must have been lifelong pain. Instead, I crouched down so that I was at eye level with her instead of standing over her and put the cuff on as gently as I could, as if the tattoo was an open wound. I bit my lip to try to control the surge of upset that was pushing against my throat.
I’m no actress and my face must have said it all because she caught my eye and her face softened as if to acknowledge my reaction and comfort me. Me – the nurse – being comforted by the patient. The patient with the concentration camp tattoo.
Like the majority of normal, decent people who have feelings and well-adjusted morals, I have always been intensely upset by the holocaust and similar atrocities that have taken place around the world since then; atrocities that continue today despite the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948 and strenuous efforts by the international community in general to ensure that nothing like that could never happen again.
The reason that moment with my patient has shaped my life is that I think of her often and use the memory of her arm as a tool to ensure that I never say or do anything that will harm anyone else. You may think that’s excessive. You’re probably right – but I would counter that the hatred that fuelled the holocaust then and more recently the ethnic cleansing in Northern Ireland, Bosnia, Rwanda, Syria, Palestine etc, comes from the same putrid Petri dish that scorn, judgement, stereotyping and racism come from.
I’m determined not to be a carrier of any such virus so I don’t take sides in political wars. The only side I stand firmly on is the side of life, protection of innocent civilians and the right of those civilians to cry for help when they need to. I’m dismayed when I hear that the internet has been blocked in some countries around the world. Cruel regimes must surely be worried about the potential power of the internet to allow their citizens to shout to the world when their human rights are violated. Bullies and tyrants succeed when there is a shroud of silence, secrecy and anonymity.
I’ve heard people question why the normal decent people of Europe didn’t report or shout about the fact that there were trains packed with people trundling through their countryside. The few who did speak were not believed and political opponents were murdered as a matter of policy. Recently I’ve wondered what would have happened in 1942 if the internet and social media had existed. Could Twitter, Facebook, forums, international networks and instant news have proved what those brave few were reporting? Could they have played a part in preventing the atrocities or stopped them early on? Closer to home and more recently, would the children who were tortured by their religious ‘leaders’ have been able to get help if they had had mobile phones and iPads in their schoolbags?
Of course, the internet and social media aren’t without their faults. We know they can be used to tragic effect by bullies. But they are also a tool that the ‘normal’ people of this world can use to prevent future holocausts – IF we use them properly and maximise their power. It is up to each of us to ensure that our societies reap the maximum benefits that the internet and social media offers. To shine a spotlight on evil. To connect with victims and let them know they are not alone. To facilitate free speech. To voice mass opposition to something that is wrong.
We, the normal decent people, should work together to drown out the people who use social forums to hurt others by naming and shaming them, blocking them and reporting abusive behaviour where appropriate. We need to remember also that most people who suffer from bullying and oppression in their various forms don’t have a tattoo to alert us. Laws must be put in place to prevent / deal effectively with online bullying. Ensuring free speech while putting safeguards in place is a tricky balance, but we must never stop striving for that ideal.
The internet and social media are incredible phenomena in the evolution of humans and how we organise our world. We are making history NOW. How will future generations view our use of social media? Will their history books tell them that our generation mainly used social media as a vehicle for unacceptable behaviour…or as a weapon to stamp it out? I hope they will admire us for harnessing it together and using it for the greater good.
And each one of us can play our own part in the historical chronicles of the future.
So, I only have four resolutions for this New Year. I will:
- Block all online spammers and trolls.
- Support victims and the voiceless as much as I can.
- Try my best to never cause any harm by my actions or words.
- Never forget the lady with the tattoo.