Brigadier SV Saraswati, presently Deputy Director General of Military Nursing Service has come a long way from her humble beginnings in Punganur, Chittoor district of Andhra Pradesh.

In recognition of her dedication and outstanding work, she was bestowed with the National Florence Nightingale Award 2020.

National Florence Nightingale Award is the highest national distinction a nurse can achieve for selfless devotion and exceptional professionalism.

In an interview with NewsMeter, she spoke about her eventful journey and how the Indian Armed Forces have groomed a small town girl into an achiever. Excerpts

Can you tell us about your childhood, schooling in Chittoor? How did you decide to join nursing? What inspired you to join the military nursing service?

Though I was born in Chittoor town of Andhra Pradesh, most of my schooling happened at Punganur, a small town in Chittoor district. My father was a veterinarian and mostly worked in remote villages and shuttled during weekends. We had no power supply after 9 p.m in our rented house. I used to study late nights sitting under the lamp post in front of our house. I studied in Govt Girls High School and Govt Junior College, Punganur. I have very fond memories of my schools and my teachers. After my plus 2, I joined Annie Besant Theosophical College at Madanapalle to do B.Com, because I wanted to become a bank official. Joining nursing happened by accident. My family was not very well off and educating three children was quite a burden for my parents. My mother worked as part time health assistant in Christian Medical Centre and had the task of distributing vitamin supplements in community service. When I came to know that if I get selected for the Military Nursing Service (MNS), education would be free and a government job is guaranteed, I wrote the entrance exam. My thoughts were that, I could be of help to my family.


Can you tell us about, your life in Military nursing, how the role is defined in your life?

Though I joined the nursing profession by accident, once I started training at Delhi, I found it very fulfilling. Military Nursing Service (MNS) groomed me into the person that I am today. Whatever I am today, I owe it to the Armed Forces and those early teachers during the formative years of my training. The MNS groomed a simple small town girl who couldn't even speak properly, into a confident nursing professional. We have excellent educators and a very effective training regimen in the Armed Forces. I was fortunate to be trained by some extraordinary teachers - both doctors and nursing educators, who were not only great teachers, but wonderful mentors and role models. Apart from the qualities of empathy, compassion and diligence, which every good nurse should have, the Army demands utmost integrity and loyalty to the nation. The Army grooms ordinary youngsters to be leaders of fine calibre.


As a nursing professional in the Military, you have assisted in more than life-saving and emergency surgeries. As a person and as a nurse, what role do you have to play in making a person not only physically fit but also the mental support they require for their next mission?

To be a good nurse or doctor, we need to contribute beyond the call of duty. There is a human aspect to all healthcare. As a person and as a nurse, I always tried to calm and comfort the patient who is posted for surgery and during pre, intra and post operative stages. Though my role was limited to Perioperative Critical Care, apart from assisting surgeries, I did all that I can to support my patients psychologically. The best reward for a healthcare professional is to see a patient recover fully and return to active duty with a smile.

As you also train residents, operating room nurses, and auxiliary staff, do you bring your personal experience apart from bringing the stuff from training manuals?

When it comes to training healthcare professionals, I am glad to say that our junior surgeons never hesitate to learn from us regarding the instruments, equipment, infection control and suture material utility and preferences of the chief surgeons, his/her techniques etc which will help in smooth functioning. We always use anecdotes, previous success stories and challenging situations while teaching and in group discussions while taking precautions to respect confidentiality.


How was the experience in the United Nations Peacekeeping Forces in Congo?

I was posted as Chief Nursing Officer along with 4 other nursing officers. I had the opportunity to take care of patients of different nationalities and interact with healthcare professionals from many parts of the world. It was an enriching experience. Central Africa is blessed with great natural beauty. It was once in a lifetime opportunity to visit such enchanting places. It is sad that there should be so much strife in a place so beautiful.


Over the years, conflicts have yielded low rates of thoracic injury in the Military, though when it comes to cardiothoracic surgeries, the surgeries are performed without the benefit of general or trauma surgery support at certain points. Your speciality as cardiothoracic operation theatre professional, how do you see cardiothoracic surgeries evolving over the time.

I have three decade long experience in the Cardio-thoracic field. All I can say is that there is constant progress. Sea-changes are occurring in surgical techniques and procedures like catheter-based technology, micro and minimally invasive surgeries as well as robotic surgeries. Vast changes have taken place in neonatal and paediatric field too. Some procedures have been abandoned or taken over by Cardiologists. In general, during emergencies of thoracic injury, it is the duty of any doctor or nurse to carry out first aid prior to sending them to specialist care at trauma centres of apex hospitals. The future of Cardio-thoracic field will be defined by developments in Artificial Intelligence (AI) , Machine-Learning (ML) and Prosthetics. The future is very exciting.

You have been in the military over 38 years, medical techniques have changed, and led to advancements in surgical care. How are you going to define your journey and expertise in the field of nursing over the years and what experience you want to carry further in your life?

During these three decades vast changes have occurred in every field of medicine. Nursing is no exception. Nursing care techniques and training methods have changed substantially.

It is a challenge to keep oneself up-to-date with these changes. Till 2016, I was in clinical field contributing to perioperative nursing in cardio thoracic and other specialties and after that, in administration. Apart from HR management I was involved in clinical teaching, promoting and hosting of nursing webinars on Maternal and Child health, Infection Control and Covid preparedness. Our team introduced quarterly workshops, monthly webinars and conducted many competitions for nurses even during Covid scenario using online platform. I was instrumental in motivating over 900 nursing officers to undergo online training courses on Covid Management conducted by World Health Organization (WHO), Centre for Disease Control (CDC), Indian Nursing Council and Trained Nurses Association of India. Our team conducted many training sessions to impart technique of Basic Life Support (BLS) and First Aid to soldiers and their families. We visited many schools to demonstrate the importance of hand hygiene to school children.

I have chaired sessions, presented papers in International and National forums and judged painting competitions by nurses on health subjects. I still contribute and participate actively in Nursing Education Forums whenever I am detailed or permitted. I continue to guide and mentor my juniors in making nursing procedure guidelines, Pictorial Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) and patient teaching materials and right now working on a chapter for Nursing administration journal.

We have to continue to learn and keep abreast with the changes in one's professional field. Falling behind is not an option.


What do you want to say to the generation who wants to join the nursing service in the Army?

The Indian Army is a fine organisation to work with. You are treated with respect and care. And there is the inherent pride of serving one's country. The MNS trains you not only to be a good professional nurse, but also to be a confident and capable leader with a problem solving attitude. I had a fantastic journey through out.

If you are a caring and compassionate person and want to serve your Nation, there is no better place than the Military Nursing Service. The Armed Forces have a cosmopolitan ethos. One can experience the glorious diversity of our country, first hand. My recommendation to all youngsters is "just go for it". Like in any other service, there will be some minor day to day issues, but on the whole, serving in the MNS is very rewarding and enriching. It is a badge of honour.

Narrate one incident of your service which is very close to your heart.

There are many such incidents to share.

One was when I had to assist, for the first time, a neonate surgery which was a case of "Dextra Cardia" which means the heart of the child is on the right side. Position, posture and arrangement of instruments are usually set for left side hearts. A right side heart changes everything. There can be no fumbling. Not a minute can be lost. No scope for errors. When the child left the hospital after recovery, it was a very rewarding experience. Even today, when I remember the case, a smile appears automatically.

Within the OR when the surgery is on, you shut out yourself from every other thought and emotion. You have to be in the zone all through the surgery. In a way, every surgery is a challenge and a job done well is intensely gratifying.

What response are you getting after being recognised?

I am grateful to the honourable President of India for conferring this prestigious lifetime achievement award. I am indebted to Indian Nursing Council and the honourable panel of judges for selecting me. I thank my organization and my family for their constant support. Most of our success is the result of good teamwork. I would like to take this opportunity to thank all my colleagues in my long service for their unstinting cooperation and understanding. The love and affection showered by friends and colleagues post the award, is overwhelming. Many thanks to all of them.

I feel doubly honoured to receive this award on the occasion of 200th birth anniversary of Florence Nightingale, founder of modern nursing, whose quote I try to emulate "I attribute my success to this - I never gave or took any excuse".

Nimisha S Pradeep

Hailing from Palakkad, Kerala, Nimisha completed her MA in Communication (with a specialization in Print and New Media) from the University of Hyderabad. She has interned with The Hindu Metroplus, Chennai and The Sentinel, Assam. She was a fellow of the NFI Fellowship for Independent Journalists in 2021. In 2015, she attended the Jenesys Student Exchange Programme in Japan. She firmly believes in the power of words and the impact it can make on society. She looks forward to using her career in journalism to voice the issues of minorities. Her interest areas include gender, women and society. She pursues travel, photography, and music in her leisure time.

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