By Janice M. Scully. The author worked in psychiatric nursing for four years before becoming a physician. After 20 years as a physician, she retired to pursue a career as a writer. For more information, click here.
Nurses have to be resilient and resourceful—Florence Nightingale, of course, is the template. My mother, Betty, was a smart and practical woman, the oldest of three siblings. She attended nurses’ training in the 1940s while the Second World War raged overseas. I have a photo of her as a young woman just out of high school, dressed in her starched uniform, standing by Binghampton (NY) City Hospital, her alma mater.
According to her, the lives of young nurses back then were not unlike the lives of nuns. After lights out in the dorm, the dorm mother would walk through and shine a light on each bed, as a night nurse on a medical ward at 2 AM might do. But instead of observing for signs of life, dorm mothers were checking to be sure the young female nurses were in their beds. Sometimes they weren’t.
Although the students might not be allowed out at night, they had a great deal of responsibility during the day. Nurses did everything for the sick, even the hospital laundry. They gave bed baths and back rubs in the course of comforting the sick.
During the war, even the most inexperienced nurses had grave responsibilities. When my mother was a new graduate, with few nurses and physicians on the home front, she was placed in charge of a woman’s surgical unit, admitting the fresh post-ops almost single-handedly, taking orders, hanging blood transfusions, managing wounds. A new medication, called penicillin, was available in the hospital, but so expensive that any nurse dropping a vial accidentally, as my mother did, would get severely reprimanded.
My mother had stories. One day a woman admitted for a surgical disorder became suicidal and jumped out of a hospital window, only to return to women’s surgical in a body cast. To my mother, this was a particularly horrifying case.
Her hospital nursing career was short, as were many women’s careers in the aftermath of the war. Though she quit hospital nursing in 1946 when my father returned from the navy—feeding customers in the family restaurant they built together—in a sense, she always took care of people.
Mom ran the kitchen, Dad the bar. Salesmen would follow her around with their clipboard—and I would follow, too, listening to her ordering cans of string beans and pickle slices, cases of chicken.
She had five children within seven years. Our family lived upstairs over the restaurant and my mom balanced both worlds. It wasn’t easy, which is something I appreciate now more than I could when I was a child.
But it seems she never forgot she was a nurse. During my frequent bouts of strep throat, in soft whispers she would confer with the family doctor by phone and, before I knew it, I could hear the glass syringe and needle boiling on the stove in a little metal pan. Then she’d draw up the penicillin from a vial she kept in the refrigerator. I would cringe in my room, waiting for the shot that was sure to come in my backside. But it always made me well, ridding me of my fever and throat pain.
Mom would also give neighbors their prescribed shots of this or that, such as vitamin B12, as if running a sort of mini-clinic in the restaurant kitchen. She volunteered to help a neighbor administer a daily exercise routine prescribed for her infant with Down syndrome. My mother was always, in a sense, a public
Compared to my friends, I was more privy to certain technical knowledge. In her old nursing textbooks, I would peruse, wide-eyed, the photos of children and adults with unusual disorders, like Klinefelter syndrome, their eyes blanked out in the photos to hide their identity. She would explain to me that our restaurant cook’s wife’s had right-arm paralysis because of a stroke and I should be compassionate to her when she came to our family Thanksgiving dinner. And at the end of both of her parent’s lives, she was able to provide the support and care that her siblings could not.
My mother passed away when she was eighty-five, quietly, with courage and grace. She seemed to understand that it was her time and there was nothing to be done, except for the comfort provided by nurses.