Times Past: The new kid at the hospital

  • Student nurses at Franklin County Public Hospital, what is today Baystate Franklin Medical Center, make their rounds on the 1 South open ward in the 1940s. Courtesy Photo/Images of America: Baystate Franklin Medical Center


Published: 12/28/2018 11:38:21 AM

I scarcely remember how I even got there. I think my older sister drove me from Greenfield to Boston. What I do remember vividly was that I was terrified.

It was a Monday in August of 1959, and I was to start my 12-week pediatric rotation at the Floating Hospital for Children in Boston. Not only was this the most difficult clinical experience of our nurses’ training, I was doing it alone. No other student from Franklin County Public Hospital would be with me. Obviously I would be with many girls from other hospitals across Massachusetts, Vermont and New Hampshire, but I did not know one soul.

New students arrived every six weeks, so that at any given time at least half the students were familiar with the hospital and its routines. Most of the student nurses who arrived that day were to be housed in a dormitory located on the fifth floor of the hospital building.

I was assigned a room on the second floor of the ancient and storied Hemenway House across the street from the hospital. I quickly learned that two other girls in my group were also assigned to Hemenway House. Martha and Irma were from a northern Vermont hospital and shared a room on the fourth floor. All the other girls in that building were in the other six-week rotation. Obviously Martha, Irma and I quickly bonded over our “exile” status.

We soon learned that there was an advantage in being housed with students who knew their way around the hospital and the neighborhood. They would soon tell us how to get to a coffeehouse where we could get a wonderful non-alcoholic drink called Orzata, right near the Boston Common. They also pointed us to the nearby Chinatown and well-known department stores. Most importantly, they advised us about strict rules to follow, and what mistakes we must never make.

The next day we spent most of our time in class with our whole student nurse group. It was a day of orientation and introduction to our class instructors and textbooks. We even got slightly acquainted with some of our classmates from the hospital dormitory.

For clinical settings, we were split up. I was assigned to the fifth floor, where most patients were 3 to 14 years old. One was a boy with spina bifida, who had spent much of his life in the hospital. He was hoping to become a doctor when he grew up. Many of the other children had leukemia and other blood disorders. They each had a very poor prognosis.

Our head nurse eagerly told us of promising new medications that might allow some children to survive leukemia. I remember the names — Methotrexate and 6-Mercaptopurine. It was wonderful to think that one day a diagnosis of leukemia might not be an automatic death sentence.

One thing the orientation did not tell us was that in a teaching hospital, the doctors would not have just one of the patients in a room. There were no private physicians. I discovered this when I was in a semi-private room with two children, and a doctor came in and asked for the charts. I thought he had said “chart,” so I asked which chart. He was quite annoyed that I did not naturally know he wanted both charts. When I asked the head nurse later why the charts didn’t have the doctor’s name on them, she had to explain to me the workings of a teaching hospital. I remember blushing hard while fighting off that “new kid” feeling.

During my second six weeks at the Floating Hospital for Children, I was assigned to the second floor, where all the children were dealing with infections, like carbunculosis. As student nurses, we had primary responsibility for the care of several children each shift. Like most other hospitals at that time, the Floating Hospital for Children functioned with a profound dependence on the free labor of student nurses.

Most of the children on the “infection floor” had IVs with antibiotics added. The IVs there were incredibly primitive even for those times. Instead of pharmacy-provided glass bottles or plastic bags, our little patients had sterile glass open-top containers, which were filled with sterile saline and to which the registered nurse (RN) or an intern had added the antibiotic solution. The student nurse had to monitor the drip rate of each IV every 15 minutes, plus every time a subway train went by, shaking the building and causing the IVs to suddenly run too fast or too slowly. One could never become comfortable with such work demands, so the “new kid” feelings persisted.

We were required to work two weeks of evening shifts, and two weeks of night shifts, with only one registered nurse to supervise us. Under-staffing was a given. One night before my shift started, I was in the ground-floor cafeteria, and feeling queasy. On my way to the elevator, I ducked into a restroom and vomited. Then I felt better, so I went up to the second floor to work.

After I got the evening shift report, I went to start my work, taking temperatures and giving bottles to the little ones. The queasiness returned and I fled to a restroom to vomit again. When I told the charge nurse, she told me apologetically that I would have to stay and take care of my patients until someone could come in a relieve me. Soon an intern came to check me out. He took me into the utility room where thermometers were soaking in strong antiseptic solutions after being washed.

After he had used a tongue depressor, and noted that my throat looked good, he marveled that I seemed to have almost no gag reflex. Then he grabbed a thermometer and checked my temperature. Fever, yes. As he dropped the soiled thermometer into a container of similar ones waiting to be washed, I noticed it was a rectal thermometer. Trust me, my gag reflex returned.

Very soon, the poor evening RN returned and took over my patients. Apparently there was no other option for replacing a sick student. I was sent back to Hemenway House with instructions to report to the infirmary on the first floor in the morning. After vomiting all night, I dragged myself out of my pajamas and into jeans and a T-shirt, and reported to the infirmary, where I had to ask for an emesis basin. Even with a fever, I was alert enough to resent having to ask. What part of “vomiting all night” did they not hear?

My friends, Martha and Irma from the fourth floor, checked on me occasionally and brought me ginger ale and chicken soup from the cafeteria. They also gave me the good news that I was lucky to have been diagnosed with only food poisoning, as another student nurse with the same symptoms had an appendectomy the same night I was sick. Soon I was declared OK to go back to work.

Meanwhile, we had classroom work also. I had to do a case study on a beautiful little boy named Danny. He was on the infection floor because of “fever of unknown origin.” In my report I postulated that perhaps Danny had a constant fever because he had no arms and no legs, and therefore could not disperse his body heat normally. The doctor with whom I talked dismissed my theory, but I left it in my report. (Two years later the Thalidomide babies were appearing, and most of them with no arms or legs had constant fevers. My theory was confirmed.)

The difficulty level of working at the Floating Hospital for Children haunted me throughout the 12 weeks. Even the physical layout of the place was confusing. To this day, I still have occasional nightmares about trying to find my way around that place. No wonder I still retain memories of feeling like the perpetual “new kid.”

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