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heart and soul a nurse Doris Atcheson

by Doris Atcheson | July 13, 2004

Doris Atcheson started her career as a teacher, but all she ever wanted to be was a nurse. A nursing student at Victoria Public Hospital during World War Two and polio epidemics, she tells her story.

I always knew I wanted to be a nurse. From the day I was born, that was all I wanted to be. Now in my 80s, I am still very proud that I practiced the profession. It was an intense experience, both in the classrooms and on the wards. But the compensation received by a bedside nurse from an ill patient can only be measured in her heart and soul. Perhaps this is why the word “nurse” is difficult to define. The duties expected of her are easy to list, but the inner strengths she requires must be endowed.

I had to be 18 years of age in order to be accepted into the training school for nurses at the Victoria Public Hospital (VPH) in Fredericton, New Brunswick. When I graduated from Fredericton High School in my 16th year, my parents suggested I go to the Provincial Normal School for a year to obtain my teacher’s licence. At only 17 years of age, I was “hired” at Douglas Harbour School to teach grades one to eight. What a learning experience it turned out to be.

The one room school was heated by a wood stove. In the winter, the wood was always covered with thick ice and snow. We had a very long singing period around the stove before the wood would throw enough heat for the students to go to their desks. It took a bit of detective work before we found out that the janitor used school textbooks and the students’ notebooks for kindling every morning.

But then, the janitor was unique. Over all his clothes, he donned an ornate set of corsets with the garters dangling in the breeze.

  • Old boards painted black stood in for blackboards.
  • On days the students wanted to go on a nature walk or be out early, they knew where to find a very ugly snake to put in the teacher's desk drawer with the attendance register.
  • The outhouse was co-ed, that is, a one-seater.

But we all learned to cope. There were eight students when all of them came. The lad that was preparing to write high school entrance exams passed – even though he loved to knot socks when I wasn’t looking. A little boy learned to read even though he only came to school on days that were pleasant.

I learned lots of things, including how to snowshoe across a field and not trip on the barbed wire fence under the high snow banks. I improved my cross country skiing too. One always knew when the outdoor privy at the boarding house was occupied – there would be a pair of skis leaning against it.

Financially, the year was a dismal failure. I was never paid a penny. My mother, a former schoolteacher, hinted that maybe that was what I was worth, narry a penny! My parents paid my board, $5 a week. They sent me 75¢ to come home at Easter in the baggage car of the freight train.

In the fall of 1941, I was accepted into the School of Nursing at VPH. I lived in a student nurses’ residence close to the hospital. We were given $6 a month for first year, $8 for second year and $10 for the third year. By the time you paid off your debt to the laundry (they were run by Chinese families as this was one of the few ways for them to be employed) for the cleaning of your collars and caps, you didn’t have very much left to buy “cherry cokes” at the local drugstore soda fountain. (The nursing school is closed. The soda fountain was too, but it just re-opened for new generations of fans.)

From the time we entered training, fear of polio and the intense patient care needed was very prominent. Primarily in the acute stage, these patients were highly contagious. They were kept in strict isolation, often in the “iron lung” because of the flaccid state of their muscles, especially the diaphragm. These iron lungs were not a thing of beauty but in this era of medicine they suited their purpose nobly. After the isolation period came the lengthy sessions of passive physio and braces. So when the Sister Kenny method for post-polio treatment was created in the early 1940s, it was progress.

Several times a day, we wrapped warm woollen cloths around the affected muscle areas to help relieve the pain and weakness. The rest of the time, the affected areas were placed in braces. Many polio victims required reconstructive surgery to help the unaffected muscles assist the polio-weakened ones. Is it any wonder that, years later, when the Salk polio vaccine came on the market, I was so determined to have my two young daughters immunized.

Because we went to nursing school in war time, we experienced some of its regulations even though we were not in an active war zone. In the early evening, all windows and doors had to be closed and the blackout curtains drawn. With no air conditioning in the summer, it was not very pleasant. The back-up generators seldom worked if the main one went out, so it could be tricky in the case room (where babies were delivered) and the operating room.

Another experience was having prisoners of war as patients. There was an internment camp near the city. Most of the prisoners were highly educated men of different cultures (no women were imprisoned at the camp in Minto, nor were wives allowed). Most spoke English fairly well. If they were hospitalized, they were under Canadian military guard with student nurses providing the care (there was no military help with care). The patients were well-mannered and grateful for the services extended. All except Mayor Houde understood our professional situation. Here I speak from experience; he was a foul-mouthed, trustless, complaining creature.

A military training centre and depot in the city gave further verve to our days and nights. There were always emergency cases such as fractures, appendices, dislocations, and burns. On one sad occasion after our graduation dance, those on call in the operating room stepped out of their evening dresses, donned operating room gowns and got four emergency cases all patched up, with the strains of “Save the Last Dance for Me” in our heads.

We worked 12 hour days or nights, 7 a.m. to 7 p.m., except on Sundays, when the day staff only worked until 6 p.m. so that they could attend Sunday evening service. We had one afternoon a week off, “if and only if” we hadn’t broken any rules like being late for morning prayers, not keeping the utility room (bedpans and urinals ) shiny clean, leaving soiled linen on floors, or collecting too many safety pins under our aprons and bibs (they were rare in war time). None of the rules were in writing, so a new rule could be made up at any time. One of the unwritten rules was that if a nurse married, she would be “kicked out.”

Before we could start night shifts, we had to pass our classroom procedures and practice of nursing courses. This usually happened by the end of first year. Patients had no way of knowing which year students were in. When we graduated we were “capped” and a black velvet band was added to our white cap.

After 7 p.m. when the night shift came on, there were only two paid medical staff in the whole hospital. They were RNs – registered nurses who were the night supervisors. They floated, depending on what was going on in the hospital. The students ran the floors and prayed that God would be good to nurses.

Once out on the floors, we were guided by knowledge and “gut feeling.” The night supervisor was often busy in the case room or emergency room, so we did our utmost to carry out the “doctor’s orders” which were written in a very formal book. Nurses wrote on charts. One of the downsides of working nights was that certain doctors frequently made late evening rounds and lengthy visits at the nurses’ stations. This kept the night supervisors on a constant trail to protect their student nurses from any amorous invasions from these personages. What a feeling of safety when you “heard” the starched hems of their uniforms approaching. We could tell exactly who was coming, as each supervisor’s starched skirt made a slightly different sound.

Having committed three of our late teen years to intense study and work, coming off duty to the nurses’ residence was the rainbow at the end of each shift. Every student nurse had to live in residence. There were chaperones and rounds were made at night. You never knew when a staff member would walk through. If you were sad, there was always someone ready to hear your woes. In return, you shared your colleagues’ joys and sorrows, making the residence a closely knit unit of friendships forged to last a lifetime.

Every Wednesday night we went to a dance hosted by the YMCA. There were soldiers from the nearby army training camp and depot. There were live musicians. We danced and danced. Everybody knew everybody. If a supervisor did not like you, she put you on a shift so that you could not go to the dance. Nurses had an earlier curfew than soldiers. We were only allowed one late leave a month. We had a system to let each other know if it was safe to use the fire escape to come in late and not get caught. If the black umbrella was out, we had to wait until the coast was clear.

I had so many late nights that years later when I had my first electrocardiogram (ECG), I asked the doctor if I was all right. I knew how many times my heart had stopped coming back late to the residence. It was definitely worth it.

more to consider

One of the great achievements of the women’s movement of the 1970s is that it confronted sexual harassment and gave it a name. It was recognized as a pervasive reality and remedies were created. Sexual harassment was a fact of life for student nurses. You can see from this story why employers have been made responsible, at law, for any role they play in condoning sexual harassment. Hospitals knew about it and condoned it. Maybe the nursing supervisors were part of the problem, but at least they did what they could to protect their students.

In our day to day lives, we know the feeling of exhilaration that comes from earning our keep, from making our own way in life. While we need to recognize that most need to work to support themselves or their families, we should not deny the pride and satisfaction that come from a productive place in society. In our society, women were denied that for centuries. They could work in the home, but paid work was not an option. Women around the world are fighting for recognition of the productive role they play, and for access to paid work and better work conditions. We shouldn’t take what we have for granted and we should do what is in our power to help other women achieve their dreams.

Nurses have had to fight hard for professional recognition, for equal pay for work of equal value. For decades, hospitals treated nurses as an expendable commodity. Nurses were trained to be deferential, the helpers and the healers. It did make a difference that most nurses were women, most administrators and doctors men. Nurses have come into their own as a profession, seeking appropriate regard and recompense for their contributions. Many more women are doctors and administrators. Many more men are nurses.

This feature was first published on section15.ca’s predecessor site CoolWomen.

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