Thursday, January 14, 2021


 There are many vintage nursing terms that are unheard of in these modern times: Johnnies for hospital gowns, snaps for hemostats, monkey bars for orthopedic framed beds or hypo for any drug administered by a needle, regardless of route. Some of these names, at least, made sense in that their origin was pretty easy to figure out. One term that really through me for a loop, even in my younger days , was "narcotic press." I tried to learn what was behind these obscure terms in a foolish attempt to appear smart or wise, but, like they say, you can't make a silk purse out of a sow's stomach.

A narcotic press was not a newspaper about the perils of addiction or a device for squeezing the exudate from the papaver somniferum  poppy. Narcotics were secured in a double doored locked  metal box prominently located smack dab in the middle of the nursing station and frequently referred to as the narcotics press.

I used to love the way Filipino nurses called it a nar-koe-tiks press in their lovely melodic way of speaking, so different than the harsh, Chicago midwestern dialect that sounded like a Stryker saw hacking through bone in the morgue. Native nurses had rather inelegant terms for this storage  device like locker, cabinet, or box. Narcotics press had a nice ring to it.

Since most Filipino  nurses used the lovely narcotic press term so freely, I wondered if it came from their native Tagalog language. After learning the term had no roots in their native language, I set off on a mission to learn where the narcotic  press term originated.

Old nurses, having seen it all and done it all, were not very tolerant of nursing terminology cognoscenti like myself. Well seasoned nurses were intolerant of foolishness regardless of source, patients, colleagues, or whatever, it didn't much matter. It was a tough battle liberating information from these hard core characters, unless it was a direct matter concerning patient care, but young fools can be highly motivated when the quest for esoteric information is on the line.

I got quite a few answers regarding the narcotic press nomenclature inquiries. One aging bat thought it had something to do with triggering a red warning light located above the medication room door. Regulations required a visual indication whenever the narcotics press was open. Newer narcotics storage areas had a switch automatically linked to the outside door that triggered the warning light, older boxes required manually PRESSING a button and thus the term narcotic press was born. This explanation seemed a bit far fetched, but I guess anything is possible.

And finally, the best answer, verified by more than one aged nurse is the following revelation. The narcotic press nomenclature is a coinage born of frustration with securing the double doors of the contraption. Rules from the grand nursing poobah upon high specified that  narcotizing drugs must be stored behind two locked doors. closing the first, inside door was easy, but to get the outside door securely latched, you really had to press on the margins to get it shut. A narcotics press was born!


  1. Fascinating! Your next mission....

  2. Thanks for commenting, Jono, you always brighten my day. As soon as I figure my next mission out, You'll be the first to know. I hope to post more frequently this year. Maybe.

  3. I'm young enough that I've only ever had a pyxis system for medications - I can only imagine the amount of exasperation from the baby nurses about how long it would take to shut TWO doors! (and let's be honest...I'd also curse the double door system, I'm not blameless here)

  4. I've never even seen a Pyxis system, just big stock bottles of meds and if we needed more, call the friendly pharmacist. Compared to contemporary standards, drugs were dirt cheap, and except for Schedule II narcotics, largely unaccounted for. Entire categories of meds were AWOL; no beta blockers, no SSRIs, no statins or calcium channel blockers. If your patient was in atrial fib, quinidine and cardioversion were the only options. The good old days were not all that good.