Olden Days of Nursing: Navy Nurse

When I came across Navy Nurse: Memoir of a WWII Veteran, on Google, I said to myself: yes, finally a book about the olden days of nursing by a nurse who lived through the times. Helen Barry Siragusa was 98 when the book was published last year. A Navy nurse during World War II, she worked stateside in a Navy Hospital. Her remarkable memory and attention for detail is evident throughout her book. I bought the E-edition and read it on my computer over two evenings. 

Truth be told, I skimmed over the early pages of personal history about her grandparents and parents, and her life growing up in New Jersey—I wanted to get to the nursing stories. But I did stop to enjoy her recollections of visiting New York City as a teenager and dancing to the Big Bands of that time: Benny Goodman, Tommy Dorsey, and Glenn Miller. Siragusa saw Frank Sinatra singing his first solo, (not a pretty first impression) Polka Dots and Moonbeams, with Tommy Dorsey’s band. 

While Siragusa is 20 years older than I, her vivid accounts of her nursing career were very real to me: bed baths, back rubs and the camaraderie among the nurses. She describes a Striker frame, a bed that was used to prevent bed sores for patients who were immobile. I, also, recounted the Striker frame in my book. I believe that advancements in medicine and nursing during the early part of the 20th century moved at a slower pace than they do today. 

Again, I was blown away by Siragusa’s memory. She listed all the 33 patients on her ward B-11, the spinal injury ward at Saint Albans Naval Hospital, by name and history. There were 11 quadriplegics and 22 paraplegics. Of course, she would get to know these men since most would’ve remained on the ward long term. At the time, quads had a life expectancy of 2 years and paraplegics had 5 years. She witnessed the first car that was adapted for use by a quadriplegic.

Helen Barry Siragusa’s life as a nurse was cut short when she married and began raising her eight children. However, she was always a nurse. In her book she gives us her experience of the development and contribution of nursing during the early 20th century. All her nursing peers have since died. I am grateful to her for telling her nursing and patient stories that are enjoyable, educational, and poignant. 

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Navy Nurse: Memoir of a WW II Veteran

By Helen Barry Siragusa

From one of the few living World War II veterans comes this personal, inspiring, and remarkably detailed memoir. Helen Barry Siragusa takes us from her childhood in New Jersey during the Great Depression, through her career as a Navy nurse in a ward for paralyzed soldiers during and after World War II, to raising her eight children in Massachusetts, and finally to her home in Maine. Complemented by her beautiful photographs, her vivid storytelling reveals her as both an eternal optimist and a steely bearer of adversity. Death was her constant companion, and she was its counterpoint.

About Helen Barry Siragusa

AFTER GRADUATING from All Souls Nursing School in 1944, Helen Barry Siragusa was faced with a choice: be a nurse and a nun with the Sisters of Charity or join the Navy. She chose the Navy, changing her life and the lives of many others forever. For five of her eight Navy years, she cared for the most-injured soldiers of World War II at St. Albans Naval Hospital on Long Island. She worked in the paraplegic and quadriplegic ward, B-11, where the hope and perseverance of the injured boys and men stayed with her throughout her life. Along with her faith, these strengths carried her through many losses: the deaths of her beloved patients; the death of her Marine fiancé George, just months before their scheduled wedding; and the death of her husband and life-long companion Gus, the goofy and brilliant Navy flight surgeon who courted her at Marine Corps Air Station Cherry Point in North Carolina. Follow Helen on the remarkable journey from her New Jersey childhood during the Great Depression, through her Navy career, to raising her eight children in Massachusetts, and finally to her home in Maine. Helen’s vivid storytelling reveals her as both an eternal optimist and a steely bearer of adversity. One of the few living World War II veterans, Helen gives us this personal, inspiring, and sharply detailed memoir.

Author: Marianna Crane

After a long career in nursing--I was one of the first certified gerontological nurse practitioners--I am now a writer. My writings center around patients I have had over the years that continue to haunt my memory unless I record their stories. In addition, showing what a nurse practitioner does in her job will educate the public about we nurses really do. So few nurses write about ourselves as compared to physicians. My memoir, "Stories from the Tenth Floor Clinic: A Nurse Practitioner Remembers" is available where ever books are sold

4 thoughts on “Olden Days of Nursing: Navy Nurse”

  1. Such a wonderful post, Marianna, and what a wonderful nurse she was. When I was in high School our nurses club visited and toured St. Alban’s and I decided I wanted to be a Navy nurse.As you know, instead I married a sailor and my future went elsewhere. I would never change where my nursing career took me. I am finally retiring in December at the age of 80! Thank you so much for sharing this !

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