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.

A Broken Man Who is Hard to Forget

Richey rolled himself in a manual wheelchair into the exam room of the spinal cord clinic for the first time on a warm spring day in April. He managed to lift his quivering right arm to shake my hand. I was the new nurse practitioner in charge of his care. He had some ability to walk but he used the wheelchair to maneuver the halls of the VA. Luckily, he could schedule a hospital van to drive him back and forth to appointments. Having a spinal cord injury proved to be an advantage in the system.

Richey’s dirty blond hair stood in tuffs on his head. Dressed in jeans and a T-shirt, he could have passed for eighteen but in reality he just turned thirty, had an ex-wife, two preteen girls, and a few years of homelessness under his belt.

“What are all these scars on your abdomen?” I had asked.

“All the fights I had growing up,” he said. “Always in fights.”

When I met him he was living with his brother, his brother’s wife, and their young daughter. His brother was planning to leave for Iraq and his wife would move in with her family, so Richey decided to move back with his mother.

“Don’t do that, you’re crazy,” Richey’s brother told him. But Richey figured that his mother tried her best when they were growing up. He would give her a second chance. Plus, he said he would be near his ex-wife. He wanted to reunite with his girls.

Richey couldn’t get out of his own way to avoid trouble. He had a long history of drug abuse and alcoholism. He saw evil intent in everyone he dealt with. He could worm his way into a confrontation by just looking at a person. No one respected him. Not one person was supportive.

Richey hated our physician but he seemed to tolerate me. Most of the spinal cord patients flattered me because I had the prescription pad. They had pain and needed medication. Like all my patients, Richey signed a contact to submit to random urine testing. The first sample tested positive for marijuana along with cocaine.

“Knock off the cocaine,” I told him and added that I would look the other way with weed. Most of the spinal cord patients liked marijuana because it helped with spasms and improved their appetites.

Richey wasn’t too different than the spinal cord guys I cared for—“broken men” I called them. They had no incentive to look back and try to figure out what happened to turn them into the non-functioning adults they had become. They had no insight, no imagination, and no drive to make changes.

Richey’s problems revolved around his perception of not getting any respect. The receptionist in the x-ray department didn’t respect him so he didn’t get the x-ray I had ordered. The night nurse didn’t respect him so he left the rehab center I had worked so hard to get him into. Maybe she was mad that he broke the rules by wandering outside after hours, peeing in the bushes, falling down afterwards, and unable to get himself up until he was found in the morning. His mother didn’t respect him so he left her and went to Florida to live with an estranged sister who didn’t respect him so he went back to live with his mother who I found out used drugs and let him drive her car that he was physically challenged to drive in the first place. I suspect that if a policeman had stopped him, that policeman wouldn’t respect him for driving without a license.

His ex-wife didn’t respect him for having an affair. Nor did she respect him when he drove home with his ladylove in the front seat on the day she, his wife, was in the hospital giving birth to their first daughter. During that drive Richey flipped the truck over, his girlfriend was fine but he fractured his spine.

I have long forgiven myself for not being able to help Richey recognize that his actions caused most of his problems but I still think about him after all these years.

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