Nightingale Tales

My new project involves interviewing my classmates from nursing school. We “older nurses” are dying off. Who will be around to tell our stories?

As I gear up to start this project, I’m educating myself in the art of interviewing. In the meantime, a serendipitous thing happened. Lynn Dow, RN, wrote about her long career in nursing in a new book: Nightingale Tales: Stories from My Life as a Nurse.

Lynn Dow entered nursing school in 1956, three years before I did. She attended the diploma program at the University of Rochester, which like my diploma program at Saint Peter’s School of Nursing in New Brunswick, New Jersey was three years long without any summer vacation breaks. The stories she shares of her nursing school days entertained me the most since my experiences so mirrored hers.

In her book, she reminded me that after a patient went home we had to strip the bed and then wash it. Yes, the plastic coated mattress and exposed metal coil springs were washed by hand. When the bed dried, we made it up for the next patient. There were no housekeepers at this time. Two cranks at the foot of the bed were used to raise up the head or to “gatch” the knees so the patient wouldn’t slide down. Later, a third crank was added that raised or lowered the bed. I remember having black and blue marks on my shins from hitting the cranks that were left on the bed instead of taken off and stored somewhere, like on a window sill.

Lynn recalls when cardio-pulmonary resuscitation was still in its infancy, a surgeon might bypass this effort and “crack the chest.” This rarely was successful. Once when I worked in the recovery room my patient went into cardiac arrest. Her surgeon dragged her off the stretcher to the floor, cut her open and pumped her heart with his bare hands. She was an old woman and I felt at the time he did this for the experience rather than to revive her.

Commonly, student nurses staffed the hospitals because there was a shortage of registered nurses, and students were a cheap substitute. In the third year of school, students were put in charge of a ward on the evening or night shifts. Lynn reminds the reader that the student nurses were “teenagers, too green to realize the extent of our responsibilities.” Sometimes the students worked a “split shift,” covering baths and meds in the a.m. and returning to help with dinner trays and get the patients ready for bed in the evening. Before I graduated from nursing school this “abuse” of student nurses was no longer allowed.

Nightingale Tales goes on to cover Lynn’s long nursing career and is filled with educational information and surprising vignettes. While I am especially glad she shows us nursing in the “olden days,” her book also depicts the advancements in current nursing practice. But she feels that possibly “the nurturing aspect of nursing has given way to technology.”

Read her book and decide for yourself.

10 thoughts on “Nightingale Tales

  1. Joan Moore says:

    Wow, so interesting. I remember cleaning the beds with Lysol and using Q-tips to clean the springs. I have a story for you about the big old O2 tents and tanks we used to use. I’ll e-mail you soon. “Nightingale Tales” reminds me so much of our 3 years at St. Peter’s.

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  2. Lynn Rosack says:

    I enjoy comparing nursing school experiences of others with my own; I graduated from Grady Memorial Hospital School of Nursing (Atlanta) in 1974. Yes, nurses at Grady in the early 1970s still performed “terminal cleaning” on a discharged patient’s bed because our knowledge of germ theory supposedly ensured we did a better job. Grady had housekeepers, but they were busy keeping the miles of terrazzo floors clean and sparkling. Lynn Dow’s book is on Amazon; I just ordered my copy. Can’t wait to read it!

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  3. Jane VDV says:

    This is so interesting. My mother was in a diploma program in the early 1950’s and her stories are so similar, i.e., being the only night charge nurse on a locked psychiatric unit. These student nurses learned by doing. I think that this book is going to be the perfect Christmas gift for my mother this year. Thanks for sharing.

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