Thursday, March 21, 2019

Nurses of The Greatest Generation

Miss Bruiser, a proud member of The Greatest Generation
My indoctrination , if you could call it that, to the world of nursing  came under the tutelage of a rough and tough assemblage of gallant geezers from the heart of The Greatest Generation. These nurses were forged in a cauldron of  devastating diseases, arrogant paternalistic physicians, and a life of abject poverty where it was a virtue to eschew any accumulation of material goods.

Battle scared nurses like these aroused paradoxical emotions among lowly student nurses. We held them up as the ultimate in role models, yet we wanted to be nothing like them in their surly approach to nursing care and life in general. Their level of dedication was without question, but their demeanor left much to be desired as they were a frightening assemblage of care givers.

These  nurses had sacrificed and paid the price on a daily basis. Trivial pastimes and activities for amusement were unheard of. Today's notion of self care for nurses would have ignited a hearty belly laugh from these nurses and a stern rebuke, "Spend more time with your patients and stop thinking about yourself. It's not about you!!" The notion that caring for others required caring for yourself was the ultimate in tomfoolery.

These nurses were masters at giving up personal comfort for what bordered on self  torture. Sacrificing ease for discomfort to benefit patients was second nature to this intense hard core group. Their footwear, Red Cross shoes, were metatarsal unfriendly to say the least. Remember that Pulitzer Prize photo of the nurse kissing the sailor at the conclusion of WWII?  Those were bunion busting Red Cross Shoes and a podiatrist's nightmare. Those heavy, white starched uniforms looked very official, but on those wards that were brick oven hot, cotton clothing acted like a sweatsuit. I don't know how they functioned with pools of sweat dripping from overheated extremities.

Vintage diploma nursing schools were ruled by a set of rigid authoritarian regulations. Marriage was prohibited any time during those tortuous 3 years and pregnancy meant an automatic expulsion. One of my fellow students had a fascinating tale about her mother's determination to graduate from nurse's training. Mary's Mom was a large-scale sized person so a few extra pounds on her was like an extra suitcase on a Boeing 747; not something noticeable. Near the end of the nursing program she became pregnant with Mary. She delivered the baby at nearby Ravenswood Hospital a couple of weeks prior to graduation and was present for the final awarding of her nursing pin with not a soul the wiser. Mary was in the graduation audience cradled in her grandmother's arms.

Nurses from this era had a sense of consecratedness to their profession where persistence was one of the primary themes. These folks had a never say die mindset and persistent nurses never quit when it gets rough, when they lose, or when it hurts. I've known older nurses to continue working despite disabling arthritis and physical disability that would hobble just about anyone else.

Older nurses were highly skeptical of anything new. I remember the outcry over the installation of  nurse call lights when wards were being divided to semi-private rooms. These nurses thought it was ridiculous for a patient to summon a nurse by pressing a button. The nurse should always be close to the bedside. Team nursing, disposable needles, anything made of plastic,  and  swadged, atraumatic sutures were other useless new fangled ideas. Why tinker with something that worked for decades.

It's a good thing that Press Ganey patient surveys were unheard of  in this era. Old nurses were in charge and always  knew what was best for their patients. Any health problem that could be construed as self-inflicted drew a particularly tough, unsympathetic rebuke. As a student caring for an alcoholic patient with draining wounds on his legs, I was enlightened by one of the older nurses, "That's all the filth and evil leaving his body," Rita knowingly advised. I was belittled when coming to the patient's defense. Clearly, these nurses were not ones to tolerate dissent.


  1. I would never have made it in nursing school back then!!!

  2. You are writing some great articles lately OFRN!

    Looking back I wish my young self had understood the hardships a lot of the older Sisters who terrified and bullied us during training had gone through. Dirt poor, years of hard physical work, the stigma of being a single woman in those days, (I think that was especially tough as it was hard enough even in my time) and the arrogant way many were treated by medical staff must have made many of them weary and cranky with their lot. Still some of them sure made life a misery for us poor student nurses and some of the patients too.

    I can relate about the hot uniforms - if anyone sees photos of me as a student nurse they ask why my face is so shiny - I explain we were dressed in several layers of starched uniform with high collars, starched caps, thick stockings and heavy lace up shoes in temperatures around 100 degrees Fahrenheit. Much as we loved how we looked, it was dreadfully hot and deodorants were kept on the wards for frequent use by us nurses as otherwise it wasn't pleasant for patients having us lean over them...

    I knew a lot of women who had done nursing when it was four years' training not three and had got engaged to be married in their third year and were expelled from the nursing school as a result. In my time it was three years of training and you were permitted to marry in your final year.

    Thanks for such an interesting post! Cheers, Sue.

  3. Sue, as a novice nurse, I worked with a wonderful Mexican nurse, Mrs. Otero, who survived a 5 year training program in conditions we would never consider in first world countries. I was with her when a patient in alcohol detox spit a mucous glob smack dab in the middle of her face. Her response as the slimy, mucoid mess slid down her face was unbelievable, "I hope you feel better soon Honey." She was a saint and I think there is an old post about her if you type her name in the search box. I worked with her nearly 50 years ago but memories of her kindness in dreadful, degrading conditons has stuck with me

    1. As a new nurse after working on my first ward (orthopaedics) and nearly leaving due to the horrendous bullying from the Charge Sister (who detected an anxious and easy victim) I was posted to Neurosurgery where I was saved by the wonderful, calm Tongan Islander Charge Sister who treated even the most junior nurses with equal courtesy and was so anxious for us to learn as much as possible. I probably would have left nursing had it not been for that woman! She inspired me to stay and be a nurse like her! Sue

  4. I wish more people would leave comments OFRN, it would be interesting to hear others' experiences. I remember talking to a woman my age who told me as a student nurse she'd been walking down a corridor when she saw Matron walking towards her. In complete panic, she said to me "I should have curtsied, instead of which I just blurted out "Oh hi, how are you?". Apparently she was keelhauled by Matron for such inappropriate conduct. We had such a laugh together - only old school nurses can understand what a God like figure Matron was! Cheers, Sue.

  5. I will always remember how quickly nurses could bail out of their chairs when an MD approached. I was once admonished by an instructor for yielding my chair to a resident, apparently the rule only applied to attendings.

  6. I had an "ah-hah" moment when working on a frantically busy cardiac care unknit OFRN and I realised that every seat at the nurses' station was taken up by a (male) medical officer while exhausted nursing staff all had to stand - and we were desperate to take the weight off our legs for a bit! It really struck me how wrong this was. I did complain to one of the medical officers who at least had the decency to blush when he realised that all the doctors were sitting while we all stood! Sue.