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.

What is a Student Nurse?

Carol Ann, a friend of mine from nursing school, recently came to visit. She and her husband live in California. They cruised the Panama Canal over Christmas, drove to see friends in Clearwater, Florida, toured both Savannah and Charleston and traveled to Raleigh, North Carolina to stay with us for a few days. Immediately, we began to reminisce about our school years. I pulled out the Lumine 1962img_0075 yearbook so we could scan our younger selves when we lived in the nursing residence with 42 other young women. For three years, the Gray Nuns of Montreal instilled in us the essence of nursing along with the skills and art of the profession.

Of course, much has changed since then (I will write more about this in later posts). At the time, we nursing students staffed the hospital on the evening and night shifts where a senior student nurse filled the charge position and second year students worked under her. None of us were paid for this “experience.”

The following essay printed in our yearbook describes the student nurse—all young women. I don’t know the author, Barbara Garrity, nor do I agree that student nurses wore white before they graduated.

Many of you older nurses will recognize the out-dated attitudes of the time and most of you youngsters may be scratching your heads wondering could a student nurse be a real person.

What do you think?

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WHAT IS A STUDENT NURSE?

By Barbara Garrity

Student nurses are found everywhere, underneath, on top of, or slithering past patients’ beds. Doctors yell at them, head nurses criticize them, residents overlook them, mothers worry about them, and patients love them.

A student nurse is courage under a cap, a smile in snowy white, strength in starched skirts, energy that is endless, the best of young womanhood, a modern Florence Nightingale. Just when she is gaining poise and prestige, she drops a glass, breaks a syringe or steps on a doctor’s foot.

A student nurse is a composite. She eats like a team of hungry interns and works like the whole nursing staff put together. She has the speed of a gazelle, the strength of an ox, the quickness of a cat, the endurance of a flagpole sitter, the abilities of Florence Nightingale, Linda Richards, and Clara Barton all rolled into one white uniform.

To the head nurse, she has the stability of mush, the fleetness of a snail, the mentality of a mule and is held together by starch, adhesive tape and strained nerves. To an alumna, she will never work as hard, carry more trays, make more beds, or scrub on more cases than her predecessors.

A student nurse likes days off, boys her own age, the O.R., affiliations, certain doctors, pretty clothes, her roommate, Mom and Dad. She’s not much on working 3-11, days off with class, alarm clocks, getting up for roll call, or eating corn beef every Tuesday.

No one else looks forward so much to a day off or so little with working 3-11. No one else gets so much pleasure from straightening a wrinkled sheet or wetting a pair of parched lips. No one else can cram into one little head the course of a disease, the bones comprising the pelvis, what to do when a patient is in shock, how to insert a Cantor tube (usually at 3 A.M.) plus the ten top tunes of the hit parade.

A student nurse is a wonderful creature; you can criticize her, but you can’t discourage her. You can hurt her feelings, but you can’t make her quit. Might as well admit it, whether you are a head nurse, doctor, alumna, or patient, she is your personal representative of the hospital, your living symbol of faith and sympathetic care.