Book ReMarks

A Life of Caring

Published on August 9, 2011
A Life of Caring

Hands up those of you who remember Florence Nightingale, ‘the Lady with the Lamp’.

If you are of this ol’ scribblers ancient vintage, you probably remember her from school books.

Nurse Nightingale — you remembered she was a famous British nurse, didn’t you? — believed she was called by God to serve the sick. She became legendary during the Crimean War, when she worked on the battlefields, oftentimes using a lantern to tend to wounded soldiers during the night — hence the sobriquet ‘Lady with the Lamp’.

Although there is no reference — unless I missed it — to Nightingale in ‘A Life of Caring’, I’d bet a loonie some of the women, whose stories are featured in this book, must have been inspired by Britain’s famous nurse, who was still living when some of them were born.

Certainly, they shared their unassuming devotion to the ailing with Florence Nightingale. Of that there is no doubt.

‘A Life of Caring’ [Breakwater Books] allows sixteen Newfoundland nurses to tell the stories of their careers from the 1930s to the end of WWII, give or take a few years.

Obviously, those sixteen nurses had experiences in common from the days they were “probies’’ — young student nurses in probational training — until, and after, the time of their retirement.

For instance, they slaved like dogs for bugger all money. In some cases they slaved with dogs, especially during Labrador winters when they were hauled to their patients by teams of huskies.

Bertha Roberts noted “It wasn’t nursing; it was manual labour.” She goes on to tell of the night an old man got out of bed and tried to cut her throat.

Fortunately, such lethal danger was not a common experience, although Ethel Williams mentions the time when a father of several girls threatened her with physical harm if she didn’t deliver a boy “this time.”

All these nurses tended the sick in the years before antibiotics were available, in the days when the mustard plaster was a popular treatment for … well, for various complaints, not the least of which was pneumonia.

Mustard plaster! A concoction of mustard seed powder/paste, sandwiched between a couple of cloths, and applied — steaming hot? — to the patient’s chest. Nurses needed to be careful that the raw mustard mixture didn’t contact naked flesh because there was a danger of burning.

Rumours of mustard plasters existed when I was a sickly boy, but I never did have one lodged on my congested chest. At times, however, Mammy, moving like a ghost of Florence Nightingale, appeared in my bedroom in the dead of night, carrying a small kerosene oil lamp and a crock of Vicks VapoRub with which she liberally buttered my puny breastbone.

Marjorie Hudson acknowledged “We didn’t mind hard work.” Her sentiment was shared by all the other nurses, and that was a good thing.

Nurses did it all, from scrubbing floors to birthing babies to preparing the dead for burial.

Mostly they did it without grumbling — too much. God knows a nurse could be excused a couple of grumbles after hours of sanitizing bedpans and then feeling so embarrassed to be seen lugging them around in the presence of a male doctor that she’d covered them with her apron, only then to get penalized for using her apron improperly.

Grumble? I imagine there were times when overburdened nurses uttered actual bad words.

Tuberculosis was rampant in Newfoundland when these nurses practiced, yet even in the sanatorium, ‘the San’, on Topsail Road, patients managed amusing badness.

It was wartime. The San had 500 windows that needed to be covered during blackouts. For devilment — to drive the staff mental — patients would remove various blackout curtains.

Ethel Wells indicated “We’d get a call from the Goulds Road telling us that lights were showing — ‘In the northeast corner on the south side.’”

Readers of ‘A Life of Caring’ will admire the gumption of the sixteen nurses who are the subjects of this book and, by extrapolation, the gumption of nurses in general. They might want to dig up a biography of Florence Nightingale, the quintessential nurse. Who knows?

Before ending, I must speak of enemas.

A common procedure years ago when prepping patients for surgery was to administer — administer! — an unimaginable laxative, a milk and molasses enema.

Yes, milk and molasses.

Now b’ys, wudden that loosen your bowels?

Thank you for reading.