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.

24-Hour Woman

“What matters in life is not what happens to you but what you remember and how you remember it.”

—Gabriel Garcia Marquez

I remember Sadie Rooney handing me a brown paper bag on my visit that autumn day in the early 90s. Her husband, Jim, a self-taught preacher, had died the month before. At first it seemed she wouldn’t have the strength to honor his wish to die at home. But on that day, Sadie was pleased with herself because she had cared for Jim up to the end. So when I reached into the bag and pulled out a mug and read the inscription out loud—24-Hour Woman—I figured Sadie was thanking me for being there for her. I was the 24-Hour Woman: the nurse practitioner orchestrating the journey towards the final curtain for Jim. And buoying up Sadie to face, head on, the whole dying business.

All these years I kept the mug. It came with me when we moved out of state—twice. Sat on my desk at each new job. A reminder of my nursing success. Or so I thought.

Godess of Memory

I had made notes of my visits to Jim and Sadie. Now as I write their story for my upcoming book, I am re-thinking Sadie. How resilient she turned out to be. She was there for her husband—night and day—quelling her own fears and insecurities. And at our last meeting, she told me of her plans to become a preacher.

Now with the passage of time, I see Sadie as the 24-Hour Woman. Thinking of her gave me the encouragement to take on new challenges as she had done. I had it all wrong.