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Florence Nightengale: What Was Her Disease?

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow described this marvelous human being as the "Lady with a Lamp," a symbol of her unceasing commitment to nursing. Yet, he could have been describing another characteristic of a very common disease that damaged this lady's life. See if you can pick up clues that will lead you to the correct diagnosis for this remarkable lady.

She was the founder of modern nursing and dedicated her life to caring for the sick, reforming the public health system and improving military medicine. She earned her reputation by caring for sick and wounded British soldiers during the Crimean War. Leading a group of 38 volunteer nurses that she trained, she arrived in Turkey in 1854 to find abysmal conditions at the army hospital. Filthy, rat invested and rife with disease, the hospital didn't even have adequate food, water or bandages. Troops were dying by the thousands, suffering from infected wounds, cholera, dysentery, typhoid and brucellosis, a fever-causing bacterial infection. In the 19th century, more soldiers suffered and died from disease and exposure than from battlefield wounds.

There was little regard for the plight of the average soldier, and this great lady provided compassionate care. She and her nurses worked night and day to improve hygiene and provide better food for the suffering soldiers. The death rate fell dramatically, and she became a national heroine.

The Nurse Becomes The Patient
A prolific writer and statistician, she accomplished her goals in spite of a lifelong illness that frequently kept her bedridden. She heard voices and experienced months of debilitating illness that kept her from working. Before returning to England from the Crimea, she became ill with a high fever and fatigue. Her mind wandered and she was unable to concentrate.

Doctors diagnosed brucellosis, a tuberculosis-like disease that is transmitted through milk from infected cows. But brucellosis does not account for her severe mood swings, or the fact that she could be so incredibly productive and so sick at the same time. Over the next year, she complained of spinal pain, insomnia, anorexia, nervousness and depression. For most of the next 40 years, she confined herself to her room, reporting a wide range of ailments.

Incredible Work Ethic and Brilliant
Despite being isolated in her room, she established the first modern nursing school. She wrote 200 reports and books, including the first nursing textbook. She was also an accomplished mathematician. She was among the first to apply statistics to the study of public health, and is credited with inventing the statistical pie chart. She often told others that "God called her to her work." She asked in a letter why she couldn't be happy: "Why, oh my God, can I not be satisfied with the life that satisfies so many people and told that the conversation of all of these clever men ought to be enough for me? Why am I starving, desperate and diseased on it?"

Up and Down Moods
She experienced periods of extreme productivity, followed by depression that left her with long periods of not being able to work. She often described herself as a failure and worthless, even though she received the Royal Red Cross from Queen Victoria and many other honors during her long life. She died in 1910 at age 90.

She was . . . Florence Nightingale, the founder of modern nursing. She suffered from bipolar disorder, a condition that in the manic phase allowed her to be unbelievably productive and so disabled in the depressive phase that she couldn't get out of bed.

She Was Not The Only One
Other famous people who may have been bipolar include:
Artists: Michelangelo, Vincent van Gogh
Authors: Hans Christian Andersen, Charles Dickens, Emily Dickinson, William Faulkner, F.Scott Fitzgerald, Walt Whitman, Tennessee Williams
Business Leaders: Howard Hughes, J. P. Morgan
Scientists: Sigmund Freud, Sir Isaac Newton
Musicians: Irving Berlin, Frederic Chopin, Stephen Foster, Cole Porter
World Leaders: Alexander the Great, Napoleon Bonaparte, Abraham Lincoln, Winston Churchill

June 23rd, 2013
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About the Author: Gabe Mirkin, MD

Sports medicine doctor, fitness guru and long-time radio host Gabe Mirkin, M.D., brings you news and tips for your healthful lifestyle. A practicing physician for more than 50 years and a radio talk show host for 25 years, Dr. Mirkin is a graduate of Harvard University and Baylor University College of Medicine. He is board-certified in four specialties: Sports Medicine, Allergy and Immunology, Pediatrics and Pediatric Immunology. The Dr. Mirkin Show, his call-in show on fitness and health, was syndicated in more than 120 cities. Read More
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