The Fearless Patient Advocate: Dorothea Dix

Ashley Altieri, senior

To be an advocate for someone else takes an extraordinary amount of courage.  Each patient deserves to have an advocate, or someone to act or speak on the behalf of another person.  Dorothea Dix made a career out of being an advocate for her patients and students.  As a teenager, she opened schools in Boston and Worcester, where she worked as a teacher and developed her own curriculum and even authored her own books1.

In March, 1841, Dix volunteered to teach women inmates at the Cambridge House of Corrections2.  She was horrified to see mentally disabled women placed in the same prison cells as criminals and found, “confined in this Commonwealth in cages, closets, cellars, stalls, pens! Chained, beaten with rods, lashed into obedience”4.  The deplorable conditions included patients chained in, “dark enclosed spaces, lying in their own filth, without adequate clothing, and abused physically and dixsexually”2.

From that moment on, she dedicated her life to lobbying for specialized facilities for behavioral health patients.  Through her efforts, she aided in the, “establishment of 32 new hospitals in New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Indiana, Illinois, Kentucky, Missouri, Tennessee, Mississippi, Louisiana, North Carolina, and Maryland”2..  In addition to advocating for better conditions in the United Sta
tes, Dix traveled throughout Europe and even gained an audience with Pope Pius IX to discuss better conditions for patients in public hospitals5.

Her next notable advocacy role was during The Civil War, where she undertook the position as the Superintendent of Union Army Nurses2.  Dix organized first aid stations, recruited nurses, purchased supplies, and oversaw the development of new training facilities and field hospitals5.  She was given the nickname, “Dragon Dix” for her rigid style of leadership and fierce devotion to her work2.  Unafraid to dispute with the doctors, Dix often argued with them concerning their drinking habits and lack of sanitation5.  Dix is an exemplary role model for the meaning of advocacy and tenacity.  Nurses and students alike can learn from her bold and caring spirit, and her resolve to get her patients the life they deserved.











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