News & Events

MNA member’s biography of WWI nurse helps make nursing history

From the Massachusetts Nurse Newsletter
December 2011 Edition

Terri Arthur with Tucker, a 9-year-old malamute/yellow lab mix, at sunset on a Falmouth beach.

Based on historical fact, Fatal Decision: Edith Cavell WWI Nurse, is a novel that tells the story of the legendary British nurse whose duties as a healer clashed with the demands of a ruthless occupying regime during World War I.

Written by MNA member Terri Arthur, a long-time staff nurse, educator of nurses and union activist, this riveting novel is about the profession of nursing, the brutality of war, and the risks of commitment. It is a testament to one woman’s courage, resilience, intelligence, and determination to make some sense out of the violence of war.

Arthur spoke with Massachusetts Nurse about the book and her experience writing it.

Who is Edith Cavell and what inspired you to write about her?
“Did you know her?” is the first line of my book. When you finish reading this book, you will feel as if you did. You will follow this British nurse when, against many obstacles, she pioneers the formal training of nurses in Belgium in 1908. Stand with her in World War I when the ruthless German regime occupies Belgium and she must decide whether to take in two wounded British soldiers—risking her life—or refuse them, risking theirs. You can feel the fear of capture as she moves into the dangerous and clandestine world of the Belgian underground where she becomes a pivotal figure in rescuing soldiers, an act that ultimately changed the course of the Great War.

Haunted by the images on a set of vintage postcards, I was compelled to learn more about Edith. A nurse myself, I was surprised that neither I, nor any of my nursing colleagues were familiar with Edith’s amazing story. Then I discovered that none of the books written about Edith had been written by a nurse. I strongly felt that as a nurse, I could throw fresh light on the story of this extraordinary woman. With the help of Dr. Gail Lenehan, editor of the Journal of Emergency Nursing, an article I wrote about Edith was published in that journal in 2006. In response to that article, readers sent in letters from all over the world, including China, showing a strong interest. The truth is that once this story caught my attention, I felt as if I had no choice but to write it.

How did you do research for this book and how long did it take you to write it?
I spent two years researching the book, which included two trips to Belgium and three to the United Kingdom, and four years writing it while I was working as a staff nurse at Jordan Hospital in Plymouth. I visited all of the British archives that had information about her and got to know the archivists by their first name. In order to write this book the way I wanted to, I had to be where she was and surround myself with as much as she experienced as possible. I didn’t want to write another history book that told the story. I wanted to show the story—to breathe life into Edith, so I wrote it like a novel. I knew nothing about WWI when I started, and had to read up on that too.

What was it like to take on the daunting task of writing a historical biography?
I tried NOT to write this story but it haunted me because nurses have so few heroes. Like Cavell, they slip into obscurity. I never knew when I started how I could complete this story. I mean, it took place in another country, England, 100 years ago, then it shifted to Belgium where they spoke French and Flemish, and then the Germans invaded Belgium and I had to deal with German.

I had to put my feet on the ground where she walked, and see what she saw. I had no idea it would take two years of research and four years of writing all the while still researching, but I couldn’t stop writing it.

The interesting thing is that whatever I needed at each stage of my writing, it would come to me in unpredictable ways—and always when I needed it the most. One book that I found in an old barn gave me the information I needed about the German officers who controlled Brussels at the time. Another book I wanted was out of print. While visiting the hospital in Brussels named after Edith, the nursing director surprised me by offering me the missing book. When I visited the Anglican cathedral near her home, I stumbled on the celebration of the 90th anniversary of her death. The church was packed with about 1,000 people. It was awe-inspiring. Impressed that an American nurse was present to honor her, a BBC news reporter put a microphone and camera in front of me, and I ended up on the evening news.

You have been a nurse for years; so how did you learn to write a novel?
I’ve always liked to write and had a few published articles to my credit, but I knew I had a steep learning curve when it came to writing a novel. I attended writing seminars, classes, and workshops—anywhere I could find them. I subscribed to two writing magazines and read them religiously every month. I have always been a reader but now I read for technique, style, plot, characterization, description, suspense, how to start a chapter and how to end it. I attended a fiction-writing seminar for physicians every year for five years and learned what to do and not to do. I have always loved to write but this was like getting another degree.

What was your process for writing the book? The working conditions had become so bad at the hospital where I worked for 27 years, that I took the first buy-out it offered. It was financially stingy but it did offer to pay for my health insurance until I turned 65. So I took the paltry amount, lost 600 hours of sick time, and went to another hospital to work evenings per diem. By working per diem, I had control over my time to travel or take classes. I attended every class on writing that I could find and became a member of a writing club on the Cape.

What is important about Cavell’s story that nurses need to know today?
What struck me is that, like Cavell, nurses face difficult choices every day. When a nurse refuses to take an assignment that she knows is unsafe, she takes the risk of being disciplined. If she agrees to work the assignment, she takes the risk that her patients will suffer. Every day that we go to work, we face what is called a “Hobson’s Choice,” one that has no good outcome. Cavell’s story exemplifies that dilemma, but she did what every nurse does—she chose for the safety of her patients knowing it may be a personal risk. Cavell got no medals for what she did. Neither do we. Every nurse is a hero.

Why is it important for nurses to know this history, or any history of our profession?
We need to know where we came from in order to know where we are going. Nurses today stand on the shoulders of some courageous and brave nurses of the past. Knowing this should make us proud of who we are. The road to our future is paved with the ashes of history. We all get taken up with the demands of the present but in learning our history, I think we will have a better sense of ourselves, what we are all about, and what we want for our profession.

Where can one buy the book? It can be bought on all major Web sites such as Amazon, Barnes and Noble and Alibris, and retails for $17.95. It is also available as an e-book for Kindle, Nook and iPad.

Join the author for a book signing
Terri Arthur will be at the Region 3 office on Cape Cod on Thursday, Feb. 16 (snow date, Feb. 23 from 3:30-5 p.m.) Refreshments served. The office is at 60 Route 6A, Sandwich (across the Stop & Shop Plaza and Merchant’s Circle).