|by Suzie Johnson|
Many people identify Florence Nightingale as the first nurse in history. By doing so they are short-sighting many amazing women throughout time. Florence had a phenomenal impact on the history of nursing. But long before nursing was a recognized profession, there were other dedicated women giving of themselves to help the sick.
One of the western world’s earliest recorded nurses was born in ancient Rome in the fourth century. Being born of noble birth in the house of Fabia did not protect Fabiola from marriage to a violent and abusive man. He was so violent she was able to obtain a divorce with the permission of the Church. What she was not allowed to do, however, was remarry before her former husband died. To do so would be to commit adultery.
But Fabiola did exactly that, and her marriage caused such a scandal within the Church, she was no longer allowed to receive communion. Only after her husband died and Fabiola, dressed in sackcloth, publicly confessed her sin was she forgiven by the Pope and allowed back into the Church.
Like other Roman women of noble birth, Fabiola fell under the influence of Saint Jerome. Jerome was dedicated to asceticism and charitable works. Fabiola sold all of her worldly goods and devoted herself to the same. She then became the first person documented in history to found a hospital in the western world.
“Share with God’s people who are in need. Practice hospitality.” ~~ Romans 12:13
Just as Jesus commanded, Fabiola who once had servants began to serve – in perhaps the greatest sense of the word. For Fabiola did more than provide sips of water and cool cloths for those with fever. She did more than bandage cuts. Fabiola went out and gathered those who were suffering. She ushered them in off the streets so she could care for them until they were healthy.
Like Fabiola, many of the wealthy followed Jesus’ command to share with those in need. But most were unable to stomach the horrors they encountered, and instead gave monetarily.
Saint Jerome wrote this about Fabiola: “Often did she carry on her own shoulders persons infected with jaundice or with filth. Often too did she wash away the matter discharged from wounds which others, even though men, could not bear to look at.”
By doing so, she set an example for future nurses to follow – to care for those who were injured or ill, no matter how the patient looked or smelled.
Though there were no established hospitals, physicians would hold clinic in the temples where they would receive the ill and offer treatment. There were provisions for sick and wounded soldiers to receive care at the homes of wealthy Romans. And yet, before Fabiola gave up all she owned to serve others, there seem to be no documented records of established hospitals in the west.
There were, however, a few hospitals in other parts of the world. There is evidence that a hospital existed in second century India, and there were fifteen or more hospitals established in the eastern part of the world.
Aside from the hospital she helped to found in Rome, Fabiola also used her country home as a convalescent home. She later traveled to Bethlehem to study the scriptures and practice asceticism (physical training).
When the Huns invaded, she returned to Rome and helped to establish what is said to be the very first hospice for travelers. Until she died in 399, she continued to serve the ill and wounded. Saint Jerome wrote that thousands attended her funeral to honor this selfless and devoted advocate for the least fortunate in society.
After she died Saint Jerome wrote in great detail about Fabiola, laying the groundwork for her impending sainthood. He reminded the people that “Fabiola was not ashamed of the Lord on earth, therefore the Lord will not be ashamed of her in heaven.”
There is some speculation that Phoebe, mentioned in Romans 16:1, may have been the first "visiting nurse" in history. Though there were likely others who were not documented in history, Saint Fabiola was one of the earliest nurses in recorded history and set a wonderful example of what it means to serve others as Christ commanded.
Suzie Johnson’s debut novel, No Substitute, a contemporary inspirational novel, will be released November 30, 2012 by White Rose Press. She is a member of ACFW, RWA, and is the cancer registrar at her local hospital. The mother of a wonderful young man, who makes her proud every day, Suzie lives in the Pacific Northwest with her husband and naughty little cat. You can visit her at the following places: