By Cara Gewolb, BSN. Cara lives in New York City and in January completed an accelerated 15-month BSN program at New York University College of Nursing for those with previous bachelor’s degrees. This longer-than-usual post was passed along to us by Barbara Glickstein, a producer and host of Healthstyles radio show, where Cara recently talked about her grandmother’s career as a public health nurse. We post it today in honor of Nurses’ Week—and also in honor of all the nurses who have recently graduated and are looking for work in a tight market.
My grandmother Frances Reichman Lubin had been the only nurse in her family until I received a BSN in January. As a new nurse I’m a bit unsure of myself, but I’m looking for work and excited to enter my profession. While I’m interested in becoming an ER or ICU nurse, my grandmother’s diverse career reminds me to stay open to opportunity. Her career extended from the 1940s to 1970s and encompassed stints as an army nurse, public health nurse, ICU nurse, teacher, and administrator, as well as time off to raise children and further her nursing education. I keep her example as a funny, gutsy woman who always kept her sense of purpose in my sights as I go forward. She died two years ago, after several years of dementia, but growing up I heard many stories from her and also from my grandfather.
No ‘calling’—just necessity. I was surprised and a little upset to learn that my Grandma Fran’s decision to become a nurse didn’t come from a deep “calling” within her. But her circumstances were very different from mine. She went into nursing to help support her brother Sidney through medical school. She grew up in Charlottesville, Virginia, during the Great Depression and her family was very poor, so she didn’t have the luxury of choosing what she wanted to do with her life. Her family convinced her to pursue nursing because it was considered a low-paying, but stable, career.
Stuck stateside. Frances entered the U.S. Army after she received her RN degree in 1941 from Capitol City School of Nursing in Washington, D.C. She wanted to go overseas when the U.S. entered World War II, but due to a back injury she was stationed instead at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C. Like all other nurses in the Army Nurse Corps, Frances was commissioned as a second lieutenant. She later rose to first lieutenant. My grandfather Samuel Lubin, her friend at the time and future husband, was required to salute her because he was a sergeant.
‘Tight regimen’ gives new hope for wounded soldiers. Grandma Fran’s most memorable time at Walter Reed took place when she was transferred to a unit for badly wounded soldiers, many with amputated limbs. She was appalled by the conditions on the floor and by the patients’ poor hygiene as well as habits such as nonstop poker playing and smoking. It seemed to her that the staff had given up on these men and that the men had given up on themselves. On her third day, she stood in front of the men and announced in her tough Southern voice that major changes were being instituted. She started the men on a rigorous regimen of bathing, grooming, and exercises. She also ordered books to be sent from the hospital library and began a book club.
A few months later, the patients found out Nurse Reichman was being transferred to a different unit. Before her departure, my grandmother was summoned to the center of the floor where the men had gathered in a tight formation. A representative said, “Nurse Reichman, for all you have given us, we want to present this token.” It was a beautiful Ronson cigarette lighter with a picture on it of a ship sailing in the sunset. Before she died two years ago, my grandmother passed the lighter and its story on to me.
Taking chances for women’s safety. In the late 1940s and early ’50s, Frances, now married and known as Nurse Lubin, did public health nursing in the rural areas outside Washington, D.C. She made many house calls to women who were suffering from the horrendous results of botched abortions, either self-induced by implements such as coat hangers or performed in filthy back rooms by charlatans. Witnessing how desperate these and many other poor women were, Frances began to educate them on birth control and distribute contraceptives. She had been told that the distribution of contraceptives was illegal, but it was a risk she felt she had to take.
Keeping up with advances. In the 1960s, Frances worked in the ICU at DeKalb General Hospital in Atlanta, Georgia. Although it was challenging work, she loved working with the newest medical technology and treating patients undergoing the latest advances in medical procedures. My grandmother told me one of her most memorable cases was when surgeons successfully re-attached a young girl’s hand after it had been severed in a washing machine accident.
‘Should nurses strike?’ In l969, Nurse Lubin helped organize a walkout at the hospital over unfair labor practices and the firing of her beloved nursing supervisor. Though there were no significant beneficial changes after the walkout, the event did make headlines. It was the cover article for the June 1969 edition of RN magazine. The article was entitled, “Should Nurses ‘Strike’?—A Test Case in Georgia.” In an interview for the article, my grandmother stated, “What seems to have been forgotten is that a highly respected and capable director of nurses and well qualified supervisor were dismissed without cause, without warning in the most humiliating and unprofessional manner. When such people, whose contributions to nursing in this state have been quite substantial, can be treated in such a fashion by a hospital board and an administrator . . . then I must care for the sick somewhere else.”
Mentoring. Nurse Lubin moved on to become an administrator at the new Georgia Mental Retardation Center, a residential facility in Atlanta for developmentally disabled children. Never forgetting her public health background, she taught the staff and residents the importance of hand washing and how to do it correctly. Thirty-five years later, when Grandma Fran died, my mother received letters and phone calls from people she had worked with there. Her former colleagues spoke of her robust personality, lively sense of humor, and how compassionate a mentor and teacher she had been.
A faith in progress. My grandmother once said that the most amazing change she witnessed throughout her career was the discovery of antibiotics. Before they became widely used—starting with penicillin during World War II and then other antibiotics following that—she watched helplessly while patients died of problems like severe earaches and infected wounds. She strongly identified with the dynamic and progressive years in which she had worked. She was an innovative, modern woman who paved the way for nurses of my generation, and left behind an honorable legacy. I hope to do it justice.