Counting the Dead

How many will show at the 60th nursing reunion of St. Peter’s School of Nursing at Cape May, NJ?

Ruth and I are counting the dead. Ruth counts 13. I have 11. “We should count anyone who didn’t respond to the invitation as ‘dead’,” she jokes over the phone. I can’t help but laugh. Maybe I’m laughing off the somberness of such a task. 

We are putting together a directory of Saint Peter’s School of Nursing, in New Brunswick, NJ, class of ’62 to pass out to the attendees at our reunion next week in Cape May. It’s bizarre that Ruth and I don’t share an accurate list of our fellow classmates who have passed away in the last 60 years!

I have three lists of information in front of me. Ruth, Joan, and Alice had split up the directory from the last reunion in 2017. They attempted to contact everyone who wasn’t on the dead list. I volunteered to collate the results. Ruth and I are trying to sort out those who responded versus those who didn’t versus those whose addresses are unknown versus those that we are sure are dead. I had phoned a few of my classmates to verify the information I was given, and to be honest, to reminisce. Many had moved in the last five years to be nearer to family. Many stopped driving. I heard of their illnesses and of the illnesses of husbands, if husbands were still alive, death of grandchildren and grown children. With each phone call, I heard the warm voice of an old friend. 

I don’t remember how many women were originally accepted to Saint Peter’s School of Nursing. No men, married, or God-forbid, pregnant women were welcome. Forty-four young, mostly Catholic women completed the program. We spent three years living together in the “nurses’ residence” under the eagle-eyes of around-the-clock housemothers. We graduated in our early twenties having bathed the dead, birthed the babies, assisted in surgeries, cared for toddlers, and the mentally ill. We were left in charge of a whole ward during the night shift until a nursing oversight organization told the three-year hospital programs (not just Saint Peter’s) that student nurses shouldn’t have that level of responsibility until after graduation, and then, of course, with pay.

The class of ‘62 has met every five years since the school closed in 1987 and the yearly reunions organized by Saint Peter’s Nursing School stopped. I had attended each reunion except for the time I was getting worked up for breast cancer in ’97 and the time when one of the then organizers rescheduled the reunion forgetting I would be in Ireland. I had volunteered to write our one and only newsletter which included the “save the date” that didn’t count after all. To be fair, that organizer moved the date so that I could travel to NJ from North Carolina the day after I got back from Ireland. As luck would have it, I caught a bug from my fellow travelers. I missed the 50th reunion.

The directory is done and ready to be printed. Besides the dead, (the death count turned out to be 13), there are two who dropped off the face of the earth after graduation, some who have never bothered to attend a reunion but are still alive, and others who would attend except for their, or their husbands’, ill health. There are six who Ruth, Joan and Alice couldn’t contact, and we’ll keep them on the list until we hear otherwise. All in all, out of 29 who we believe to be alive and kicking, or limping, only eight will travel to Cape May this Sunday.

Nurse at the Switchboard

Ten of us from a class of 44 traveled to Cape May, New Jersey to attend our 55th nursing reunion. We first met as young Catholic teens in the late ’50s enrolled in the diploma program at Saint Peter’s School of Nursing in New Brunswick, New Jersey. Hard to believe we are now in our mid-70s.

At our luncheon at the Inn of Cape May on a glorious sunny day this past September, we laughed and reminisced about the three years we lived together, when Connie mentioned that she had to man the switchboard at night during the psych rotation at a private psychiatric facility in a Maryland suburb.

Never heard of this we said. But one of us (can’t remember exactly who that was) chimed in to say she remembered at the time how glad she was that she never had to do this. So there was validation that Connie’s memory was intact. Imagine having to work at a telephone switchboard! What does this have to do with learning about psychiatric patients?

lady at switchboard

I found a picture of a telephone switchboard for you too young to remember this contraption that connected folks to each other via telephone lines. Or you could just watch the old movie: Bells Are Ringing with Judy Holiday and Dean Martin.

 

 

 

After hearing about the switchboard, we began outdoing each other with anecdotes about our early nursing days.

I wanted to take notes to capture these unique tales but decided I would rather just enjoy the fellowship. Later, I asked my classmates if I could call them, one by one, and document what they would want to share with current nurses about life in the “olden days.” They all consented.

So now I have a new project. I had been thinking about surveying my classmates about their nursing lives for quite a while. Since our 55th celebration is over, I realize it is now or never. We are dying off. Sad to say but true. Who will remember us? Or what nursing was like years ago? Who would believe that as part of the educational program to learn to be a psych nurse you had to know how to work a telephone switchboard?

You’ll be hearing more about my classmates.

Humor Noir/Black Humor

While I was looking for something to read to my writing group, I came across this story. It brings back memories of how green I was when I started nursing school.

 

imagesRight before Patsy’s turn to share her thoughts with the group, she smiled coyly at me. Oh no! She wasn’t going to tell that story again? Not to the whole group? At almost every reunion since we graduated from Saint Peter’s Hospital School of Nursing in 1962, Patsy retold the same story. Now, at our 40th reunion, less than half of the forty-four graduates were in attendance. And for the first time we all sat around a large circular table. Was Patsy going to tell the whole group the embarrassing story of what happened in our first year of nurses’ training? Well, I always thought the story funny, but only when the four of us were reminiscing together—Gloria, Patsy, Julie and me.

(I caution my readers that the following is humor noir or black humor)

Patsy and Julie were roommates, as were Gloria and I. We would stay together during clinical rotations throughout the program.

One day, during our very first clinical, we each were assigned to one patient on the medical unit—practicing giving a bed bath. Eager young women in our teens, we wore starched white aprons and bibs covering light blue striped dresses with white starched cuffs mid-arm. Our white shoes were spotless.ca2a257635cc69e1fb1116481b9b5ca4

That day, Gloria and I had finished giving baths and making beds and set out to see if Patsy and Julie could join us for lunch. They had patients in the same semi-private room at the end of the hall.

As Gloria and I entered the room, Patsy’s patient, a thin, older man, abruptly sat up in the bed and forcefully vomited bright red blood all over his clean white sheets. Patsy grabbed a kidney basin—a small curved metal bowl—and shoved it under the man’s chin. Julie pulled the curtain around her patient but not before grabbing his basin. Julie took the blood-laden basin from Patsy and gave her the empty one. She then passed the full basin to Gloria who stood close to the bathroom and dumped the contents into the toilet and flushed—we hadn’t learn, as yet, that we needed to document how much blood the patient had lost.

While Patsy, Julie and Gloria passed around the full and empty basins, I ran out of the room. The nursing station looked so far away at the end of the long hallway. Rather than run down the corridor, I stopped and yelled. “WE NEED A NURSE.”

I don’t remember, but I suspect a “real nurse” came to help us. What I do remember is that the man eventually died and that the family was angry because in the midst of our inept effort to handle the emergency situation, we had emptied an emesis basin full of blood down the toilet—along with the patient’s false teeth.

And I remember that Patsy didn’t tell the story to the whole group, after all.

 

 

 

 

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