I had fun last year with the annual Blogging from A-to-Z April Challenge 2021, so I decided to enter again this year. My theme last year was Places I Have Been. This year I planned to blog about my three years in nursing school (1959 to 1962). This would also fall under the Olden Days of Nursing theme I sometimes blog about. I even bought an old Taber’s Cyclopedic Medical Dictionary just like the one I had used in nursing school. Hopefully, it would help me figure out what to write about if I got stuck at one of the letters—especially Z.
I was still working on a tentative list for the letters when I logged on to the 2022 web site to sign up. I had missed the theme deadline. Bummer.
But in order not to waste all my efforts, I want to share with you what I found for the letter Z.
Z zoanthropy: Delusion that one is an animal. (Taber’s cyclopedic Medical Dictionary, Clarence Wilbur Taber, 11th Edition, 1969, page Z-1)
Okay, I’m reaching here. Who wouldn’t with the letter Z? I actually did have a patient who thought she was a cat. Not that I saw any evidence of this. She looked and acted perfectly normal.
Seton Institute, just outside of Baltimore on a bucolic campus, was a private psychiatric hospital run by the Sisters of Charity. Twelve of us students from St. Peter’s School of Nursing spent three months there in the 1960s. During the tour of the facility, I realized, as a seventeen-year-old, that bizarre-acting patients scared me—even the catatonic woman who didn’t move. Thankfully, our student role was to be recipient of knowledge rather than dispenser of therapy.
One of my memories revolves around two women patients not much older than I. One was recovering from post-partum depression and the other thought she was a cat. We three had more of a social relationship than the professional relationship that I should have promoted.
I took walks with them. I even short-sheeted the cat patient’s bed. The post-partum depressive patient told the cat patient that she must be liked when the “nurses short-sheeted your bed.” If she reported me, would I have been tossed out of school?
There were other nursing schools that sent their students to Seton Institute for psych experience. Not surprisingly, there were a lot of young men hanging about. I dated an enlisted Navy guy and a cadet from the U.S. Naval Academy.
Besides taking leisurely walks with my patients and short-sheeting their beds, learning to play bridge, and dating some interesting boys, I must have learned a bit about psychiatry because when I took the “comprehensive” tests in senior year in preparation for sitting for the State Nursing Boards to become a licensed registered nurse after we graduated, I received my highest score in psychiatry—in the 99th percentile.
I never wanted to work in psych. And in my long nursing career, I never did.
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.
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.
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.
Olden Days of Nursing: A Pioneer of the Past Spurs Others Forward
by Guest Blogger: Cynthia Freund
I talked with Marianna the other day about the book I’m writing (more about that later). She referred me to a post on her blog from a couple of months ago, a post describing the olden days of nursing. She added that she had some very positive responses to that post—and then she put the question to me, “Would you be interested in writing something about the olden days for my Blog?” I obviously fit the age criterion.
I read the post of August 4, 2020, Olden Days of Nursing: Dialysis, about a nurse working in the days when kidney dialysis first became available, the beginning of the 1960s. I know Marianna was asking me to write something about my own early experiences in nursing, and I may do that yet. But this particular post made me think of a dear friend who died a year ago, one-month shy of her 95th birthday. She, too, started one of the early kidney dialysis units, but this time at the Veteran’s Administration Hospital in Durham, North Carolina.
In this millennial year of the nurse, I want to pay tribute to Audrey Booth, both a typical and unusual nurse—a pioneer in many ways.
From the dust bowl of Nebraska, Audrey, a curly-haired blonde, climbed on a horse twice her height to ride to-and-from a one-room country schoolhouse and onto become the Associate Dean at the University of North Carolina (UNC) at Chapel Hill.
The interval between that Nebraska farm and UNC took her to Case Western Reserve in Cleveland, Ohio, where she earned a master’s degree in nursing. She became an expert in the care of polio patients during the height of the epidemic in the 50s, including caring for kids in iron lungs. That expertise brought her to Hawaii and Guam, and also transported her back to the mainland and the University of North Carolina (UNC). After the polio epidemic, she focused on kidney disease and, in the 60s became a leader in opening the new hemodialysis unit at the VA hospital in Durham—one of the very early dialysis units in the US.
Looking for new hurdles to jump, she joined a small select group planning the nurse practitioner program at UNC. And then, when the North Carolina Area Health Education Center Program started in the mid-70s, Audrey became the Director of Statewide Nursing Activities. (AHECs, as they are called, were designed to be centers of education and innovation, serving as magnets to attract health professionals to rural and underserved areas.) She became an Associate Dean in the School of Nursing in 1984—while continuing with all of her duties as AHEC Director.
Throughout her career, the essence of Audrey was as a leader, a role model and a mentor. She led and taught many nurses, usually just by example. She was not well-known nationally, but she was known by hundreds of nurses—and other health professionals—in North Carolina. Many of us attribute our professional success to her leadership and guidance.
And, as a matter of fact, it was Audrey who suggested to me that we interview the founders and influential promoters of the nurse practitioner movement in N.C. UNC started one of the very early family nurse practitioner programs. It was quite unique in its alliance with those starting a statewide AHEC Program and a Rural Health Program—a collaborative effort involving many. Audrey, and I, were involved in that pioneering effort. So, we conducted the interviews, but Audrey left the book-writing to me.
I am about to finish that book, titled: Nurse Practitioners in North Carolina: Their Beginnings in Story and Memoir.It will be in print in the spring of 2021—and will feature many other nursing stars of the olden days of nursing.
Audrey’s spurring me on to write this book is a perfect example of how Audrey led others—encouraging them to greater endeavors. Plain and simple: Audrey was an influencer, on a grand scale and with each individual. She was a mentor in the truest sense of that word. She was a strong voice for nursing and a strong model for women when women were still fighting for their due recognition. We indeed should celebrate all such nurses, just as the World Health Organization has done, declaring 2020 as the International Year of the Nurse and the Midwife.
Dean Emerita Cynthia Freund, MSN ’73, and Associate Dean Emerita Audrey Booth, MSN ’57, were awarded the highest honor of the North Carolina Nurses Association (NCNA) when they were inducted into the NCNA Hall of Fame on Thursday October 9, 2014. Nurses chosen for the Hall of Fame are recognized for their extensive history of nursing leadership and achievements in North Carolina.
Cynthia “Cindy” Freund, RN, PhD, worked for eight years with the newly developed Family Nurse Practitioner Program at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in the early 70s. She then went to the University of Pennsylvania to start a joint program (MBA/PhD) between the School of Nursing and The Wharton School. She returned to UNC-CH and retired after serving 10 years as Dean of the School of Nursing. To her, retirement means “working without pay.” In her retirement, she worked on her book: Nurse Practitioners in North Carolina: Their Beginnings in Story and Memoir, to be published in Spring 2021.
I helped open the first CCU in New Jersey in 1967. New monitoring technology and implementation of coronary-pulmonary resuscitation precipitated the development of CCUs across the country in order to reduce deaths from acute myocardial infarcts (AMI).
Bethany Hospital in Kansas had opened the first CCU in the United States on May 20, 1962. The second one opened soon after in Philadelphia’s Presbyterian Hospital. It was at Presbyterian Hospital that Rose Pinneo, head nurse of the unit, along with physicians, Lawrence Meltzer and Roderick Kitchell, coauthored Intensive Coronary Care: A Manual for Nurses in 1965.
I remember the manual and especially Rose Pinneo. Pinneo became a role model for all the new CCU nurses at the time.
I kept this picture in a photo book over the years. Just recently, as I went through all my old photos as a “sequester in place” pandemic project, this picture took on a new significance. It would fit under: “Olden Days of Nursing,” a new grouping of stories I am starting to post on my Blog.
It was only after I began to do some research that I recognized that right from the inception of CCUs, nurses ran the show. At the time this benefit eluded me. I was still a neophyte. I had not yet dealt with the paternalist health care system and rigid legislation that limited nursing practice.
I was pleasantly surprised to read about how nurses were positioned to take charge right from the inception of CCUs:
The opening sentence (in Intensive Coronary Care: A Manual for Nurses) in set the tone: “It may seem curious that the first book dedicated to a new concept of treatment for acute myocardial infarction has been directed primarily to nurses rather than physicians.” They (the authors) emphasized that the new treatment technologies had to be used immediately in order to save lives. To achieve this goal doctors must abandon traditional notions of a nurse’s limited role in clinical decision making.The authors declared, “Intensive coronary care is essentially an advanced system of nursing. It is not an advanced system of medical practice based on electronics.” Their prescription for saving lives was explicit: “A CCU nurse must be able to perform…therapeutic measures by herself without specific orders.”[Italics mine.]
. . . Support for giving specially trained nurses authority to defibrillate patients grew quickly in the late-1960s as concerns about the legal implications of the practice declined. The CCU-inspired empowerment of nurses represented a critical first step in the evolution of team-based care that is such a conspicuous part of current-day cardiology practice.
The first few of months in the CCU, I supervised the set-up of the physical space, hired nurses and organized the classes to be given by cardiologists. I gave lectures to the hospital staff nurses and administration about this new clinical specialty unit.
I worked in the CCU for only ten months. Newly married, my husband and I moved to another state because he had a great job opportunity. Over the next few years, we moved five times, had two children and I worked part-time at two other CCUs. When I started school for my bachelors’ degree in 1970, I never went back to the CCU. Cardiology is still my favorite specialty.
I almost forgot about Dennis. That’s what Carol Novembre thinks his name was. Carol and I worked together in the early 60s at Pollack Hospital in Jersey City. It was a county-run hospital. Dennis was head of maintenance. I learned a lot from him about the political corruption that went on behind the scenes. Not that I had any doubts about the kickbacks and abuse of power. I had seen the cases of liquor at the loading docks that were to be delivered to the administration suite (aka “the penthouse”). One time when I answered the phone on our nursing unit, a voice at the other end reminded me that my “donation” of five dollars was due in order to keep my job. When I identified myself as a nurse, the male voice apologized profusely.
Dennis, a tall, lanky guy with a pocked marked face and disheveled clothes, made rounds in the hospital when he wasn’t off-site, overseeing the unofficial work of prisoners. He would bus the prisoners from the county jail to work on the administrator’s suburban house—building a fence, painting the siding, tending to the gardens in the summer. He seemed especially fond of the nurses. If he learned one of us had missed lunch, he would run down to the kitchen and reappear with a bacon sandwich.
Reminiscing about Dennis was only one of the memories that resurfaced as I spoke to Carol last week. I had asked her if I could write about the fact that she was one of the first dialysis nurses in the country. I worry that as nurses age and die off, stories of nursing history will be lost. My stories included.
You will read more about Carol Novembre in a future post. In the meantime, here is a story I had published about one of the patients I cared for while I worked at Pollack Hospital in the mid-60s.
CLOSING THE DOOR
I screwed off the cap of the Black and White Scotch bottle and I carefully measured out sixty milliliters, two ounces, into a medicine glass. The alcohol fumes gagged me every time. Then I grabbed a pack of Lucky Strikes from the carton on the shelf next to an aspirin bottle. Cigarettes and Scotch balanced precariously on a small tray. I locked the door to the tiny medication room and went in search of Charlie Hobbs.
The tobacco smoke clouded the air in the patients’ lounge. The drab room was empty except for a middle-aged man in blue pajamas staring at pieces of a jigsaw puzzle on the card table in front of him. A cigarette clung to his lower lip.
At times, I imagined myself the airline stewardess I had always wanted to be. Coffee, tea, or me? This day I was a Playboy Bunny as I bent at the knees, stretching to place the drink in front of Charlie, while his blue eyes riveted on my imagined cleavage. But Charlie’s eyes fixed solely on the amber liquid. Not once in the past four weeks had he acknowledged me, the young nurse in a starched white uniform with thick support hose and practical shoes. An unlikely dispenser of booze and butts.
Charlie had arrived with no suitcase, only the clothes he wore. The faded blue hospital pajamas and robe comprised his daily wardrobe. One of the other nurses had donated slippers. I looked down at the top of Charlie’s wild red hair. “I got to get me another puzzle,” Charlie said without looking up at me. “This here one is almost done.” He snuffed the cigarette butt into an overflowing ashtray and reached for the drink. I was glad Charlie had decided to shower that morning or else his pungent body odor would have added to the foul air.
Charlie shuffled the jigsaw pieces about by day, and watched television by night, all a maneuver, I thought, to keep human interaction at bay. No one ever visited him. Did he even have a home to go back to?
Dr. Clark’s research money supported Charlie’s hospital stay. Dr. Clark needed recruits who would agree to have a cardiac catheterization in order to see the effects, if any, that alcohol had on their hearts. Cardiac catheterization was the latest tool of the sixties. It measured heart function but carried the risk of injury and even death.
Dr. Clark scoured the downtown bars searching for men who drank excessively. On a warm summer night about a month ago, Dr. Clark had gotten lucky. Charlie seized the carrot: a roof over his head, three squares a day, free liquor and cigarettes. He agreed to live on the third floor of the county hospital for four weeks and then undergo a cardiac catheterization.
I carried the empty medicine glass on the tray back to the nursing station. How could Charlie drink alcohol at nine in the morning? Or all day long, for that matter? What would make a man so desperate that he would consent to have a procedure that might kill him?
Even though I didn’t particularly like Charlie, there were times as I placed the Scotch in front of him that I wanted to nudge him and jerk my head towards the exit sign down the hallway. Get out, Charlie. The catheterization isn’t worth all the free alcohol and cigarettes that Dr. Clark’s giving you. Get out. Now. But I didn’t have the audacity to undermine Dr. Clark’s research, no matter how conflicted I felt.
At twenty-three and a nurse for just two years, I vacillated between professionalism and irreverence. I struggled with knowing when to step back and when to dig deeper into my patients’ psyche. How to be empathic and not sympathetic. How to balance cool detachment with overbearing involvement. Charlie needed someone on his side to help him understand what he was getting into.
Nellie Mineo interrupted my thoughts as she waved to me from the doorway of her husband’s room. She looked like the Italian housewife that she was: salt and pepper hair piled in a bun on the top of her head. A well-worn cardigan sweater covered the simple cotton dress she wore. Behind her thin frame I could just make out her husband’s outline under the starched white sheets.
The Mineo’s had known the chances weren’t in their favor when they first met with Dr. Clark to discuss replacing Joe’s diseased heart valve with an artificial one. At that time Joe was so short of breath that he could hardly talk, much less continue to work in the family grocery store. Joe had been my patient during the week Dr. Clark evaluated him for surgery. The Mineo’s large, gregarious family resembled my own extended Italian family. Joe could’ve been my Uncle Tony with olive skin, dark eyes and soft smile.
An artificial valve, which clicked audibly, replaced Joe’s faulty one. I had worked overtime on the surgical unit as Joe’s private nurse the first night after surgery. At first things looked great, but soon Joe developed a cough, and then his legs swelled. Diuretics only worked for a while, and the antibiotics failed to prevent the infection from ravaging his body. Although the valve was being rejected, it continued to click on.
Joe had the first room near the nursing station. The floor was dedicated to research and held only fifteen patients. The patients stayed for a long time or returned frequently for evaluation. Not surprisingly a strong bond developed between the professional staff and the patients and their family.
Joe’s family and friends usually came and went at all hours, but this day only Nellie stood guard. When I ambled towards her, she grabbed my hand. “He looks worse,” she said, rubbing my hand in absent-minded distraction. “Promise me you’ll stop in before you go off duty today.”
Nellie and I both knew that there would be no miracle for Joe. His once muscular body shriveled into sagging skin covering a bony frame. He didn’t open his eyes to Nellie’s voice. Even a sharp pinch to his face couldn’t get a reaction. “Stop and see me before you go off duty,” Nellie repeated. I nodded. Only then did she loosen her grip on my hand.
At the end of the day, as I flung my coat over my arm, I heard a racket from the patients’ lounge. Charlie stomped past me, head down and fists clenched. “I’m outta here.”
“What happened?” I asked the nurse who jogged after Charlie.
“Charlie kicked over the card table. No reason I could see for this.” She shrugged her shoulders and continued down the hall.
Nellie watched the commotion from the other side of the hall. I walked towards her. She pulled me into her husband’s room, grabbed my coat and purse and held them tight against her body. She stared at me for a long while without speaking. From behind her I could hear Joe’s wet bubbly breaths. Even in my short stint as a nurse I recognized the rancid smell of impending death.
Nellie moved her face closer to mine and whispered, “He’s dying.” She caught a sob and swallowed hard. “I don’t want him resuscitated. Stay with us, please stay with us. Don’t let them resuscitate him. Please don’t.” She wept quietly, clutching my coat and purse closer to her body.
What was I to do? I had never faced this dilemma before. I knew Nellie had witnessed plenty of resuscitation attempts as she lingered outside her husband’s hospital room day after day. Cardiopulmonary resuscitation was so new that all patients were candidates. At the first moment a patient stopped breathing, we leaped into action. We flung him to the floor and straddled him. With the side of our hand we walloped the sternum to get the heart started, then breathed frantically into his mouth. Pumped on his chest. We worked until we were exhausted. In most cases the patient died anyway with fractured ribs and a lacerated liver. Nellie didn’t want this for Joe.
Thoughts flew in and out of my mind. If the staff saw Joe turning blue, they wouldn’t give a second thought to trying to revive him. A resuscitation attempt might bring Joe “back to life,” but only briefly. Then there would be more pain and agony before his heart gave out and he died—again.
What would I want for Uncle Tony? A quiet death, or zealots in white coats beating on his chest? What should I do? Was there a choice? I looked at Nellie, her dark eyes pleading.
I heard Charlie’s voice from down the hall spewing curses. Perfect timing. Charlie would leave the hospital AMA—against medical advice—right before his scheduled catheterization. I hoped whatever he was up to would distract the staff just long enough for Joe to die.
My heartbeats kicked up a notch as I reached over and slowly shut the door. Nellie’s hold on my coat and purse relaxed and they slid to the floor. Wordlessly, she settled down in the chair next to Joe’s bed, lifted his limp hand into her lap and clutched it. I commandeered the chair by the door: the sentry blocking the enemy from entering.
I sat knotted tight while Joe’s breaths became more erratic. The lapses between his gasps for air stretched farther apart. Just when I thought he had quit breathing, he gulped for air.
Finally, the mechanical valve stopped clicking and the room became silent. I walked to the bed and placed my hand over Joe’s clammy hospital gown. I didn’t feel any movement in his chest. I didn’t feel a heartbeat. Joe’s open eyes stared at nothing. I stood there for a long minute before I smoothed down his lids.
Nellie gripped her husband’s hand to her breast and sobbed softly.
I stood over her, my hand lightly on her shoulder. While I felt relief that Joe died peacefully with his wife by his side, each footfall by the door made my heart flip. What if one of the staff would walk in and find I had made a decision that wasn’t mine to make. “ I really need to leave, Nellie,” I whispered, taking Joe’s lifeless hand from hers and placing it by his side.
Tears slid down Nellie’s cheeks. She rose from the chair and embraced me. “Thank you,” she said, her voice cracking. I felt Nellie’s tears soaking into my shoulder as my own tears fell. Then Nellie pulled away and sat back down next to Joe, taking his hand again into her lap. I wiped the moisture off my face with the back of my hand, grabbed my things from the floor, cracked open the door, and glanced up and down the hallway. No one was around. Retrieving my coat and purse, I walked leisurely toward the exit leaving Nellie waiting for the evening nurse to discover Joe dead in the bed.
The floor was unusually quiet. The medication door was ajar in the nursing station. I had no intention of poking my head inside and saying so long to the evening nurse. Just a few more steps and I would be in the clear. As I turned the corner of the white tiled hallway, Charlie Hobbs’ presence blocked me. “Hi,” he said as if we were old friends. “I’m leaving. Can ya spare a buck for bus fare?”
Charlie had on a bright green jacket I was sure wasn’t his. Noticing my eyes on the jacket, he said, “Borrowed this from the guy in the next room. I’ll return it.” I nodded even though I knew the coat would never make it back to its owner. He shifted his feet nervously as he waited for my answer.
I wasn’t anxious to break any more rules but I was glad he was leaving. Why even try to entice him to stay? That would be hypocritical. I reached into my purse guessing he would head for the nearest tavern rather than the bus stop.
“Thanks,” he mumbled. Shoving the dollar bill into the pocket of the purloined jacket, he turned abruptly. In two long strides he disappeared though the doorway under the red exit sign and raced down the steps. I followed. A cold wind chilled my stocking legs as Charlie opened the door at the bottom of the stairs to the outside world. In his haste to escape he let the heavy door slam shut behind him.
I pushed the heavy door open with my shoulder. Unlike Charlie, I had no desire to announce my departure from the hospital by slamming the door. Leaving my covert actions behind me, I griped the handle with both hands and eased it closed.
The Closing the Door was a winner of the TulipTree’s Stories that Needto be Told Contest and is featured in their 2016 anthology: Stories that Need to be Told.