Everybody Has a Story: Sure, when hell freezes over, she thought




I began nurse’s training at Providence Hospital in Everett in September 1952. We were a small class of 18 girls, just out of high school, scared and nervous about the future.

One older girl said we could look confident and adult if we smoked. She had cigarettes, so we lit up, and soon her room was thick with smoke. When my turn came, I took a deep breath and felt an elephant bouncing on my chest. Coughing, hacking, gasping for air, I realized my body was saying: “No, you idiot!” That elephant is responsible for my healthy lungs.

The first year went quickly. I found great satisfaction in caring for others and never fainting at the sight of blood or any other bodily fluids. The nuns were sweet and non-judgmental, the doctors patient with our ignorance, and we adored our teacher. We were proud she had been in the Army during World War II and sad that her fiance died on D-Day. She was the nurse we wanted to be: thoughtful, kind, intelligent and proud of the life she had chosen.

Since our hospital wasn’t large enough to qualify us as trained in tuberculous, psychiatry, pediatrics and obstetrics, we “affiliated,” spending three months in different hospitals, learning the necessary specialties. In March 1954, we went to Firland Sanitorium, the Seattle tuberculosis treatment center; our lodgings were Army barracks that had been used as a hospital during World War II. The buildings were surrounded by a high fence and a guard at the gate. The tuberculosis patients could not leave for fear of spreading the disease; but sometimes, at night, we would hear the alarm and knew someone, in pain or fear, was trying to escape. (Except for the time a young guard on the night shift invited his girlfriend to visit and accidentally set off the alarm.)

Our quarters had a kitchen area and refrigerator that was stuffed with fruit, milk, vegetables, lunch meat, cookies and ice cream in the freezer. We couldn’t believe it was for us. Our teacher explained, the hospital and state wanted no risk of 40 malnourished student nurses catching tuberculous. The result was, most of us left with five extra pounds and tight uniforms.

Many patients could care for their physical needs, so we sat with them, listened to their stories, talked with them, pushed their wheelchairs or held their arms while walking in warm weather. We spent most of our time in class and lectures, sometimes assisting in surgery. I believe what we learned at Firland was compassion and appreciation for their courage.

In June 1954, we went to Western State Hospital near Tacoma to begin our psychiatry training. We were scared. I won’t cast aspersions on the nurses or doctors, who were few and did the best they could with an obvious lack of funds. (We were put to use folding newspapers into garbage bags.) I found it puzzling, confusing, frightening and depressing. Several students gave up, saying they couldn’t bear the depressing atmosphere. I was chosen to assist on a lobotomy; after that experience, I wasn’t sure I could continue, either.

However, there was one bright side: Army and Air Force bases were close by. The men knew when a new group of nurses arrived, so we had lots of visitors. It was young men on their way to or from Korea, young women trying to understand mental illness, warm weather, lakes to swim, movies to see, places to dance and parks to walk; it wasn’t surprising love was in the air. It was wonderful to escape from unpleasant duties and sad memories.

I was sitting near the lounge door one evening, knitting socks, when I heard laughter. A young man with girls surrounding him, enjoying his jokes. He seemed very mature and sure of himself, perhaps even conceited. He and his date walked by me and he said, “Maybe you’ll knit me a pair someday.” I thought, sure, when hell freezes over.

Apparently, hell did freeze over. I ended up knitting him 10 pairs of socks — and marrying him.

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