Tag Archives: nursing

And once more into the fray, my friends

Tubercle bacillus

It only seems right to write about infectious diseases in this endless time of plague. As a retired nurse with an epidemiology degree, I’ve always been fascinated by infectious thingies, and particularly by the above, tuberculosis, the gift that keeps on giving.

We keep thinking it isn’t much of a problem. After all we have drugs, right? Well, we did, until the recent AIDS epidemic caused a huge TB upsurge and the boosting of medication resistant bacilli. It’s lurking, people, it’s lurking, and until we do something about poverty and housing overcrowding and all those upstream causes of illness, it’s going to lurk on.

And sooner or later it’s going to come back, in a more generally aggressive format. Because infectious things have to live, man, much as we wish they wouldn’t.

So, having recently moved to Kingston, ON, where my father spent some time in the TB Sanitarium after WW2, what could be more natural than to want to research and write about that time in history?

As I research, it was the TB treatments that lured me in – hellishly invasive, involving total body casting for months, cutting away ribs, deflating lungs, and so many painful procedures – and yet the death rate remained high despite this and months of enforced bedrest. It wasn’t a good diagnosis. I remember my dad’s brief reference to getting his news: “All of the nurses were crying…”

He was quite a charmer, my gentleman dad, so I believe the scene. He survived only to have it come back when he was being treated for cancer. Because it’s one of those diseases that lingers, hiding in the back alleyways of your body, waiting to be reenergized. Scary stuff, no?

But as I looked into that time period, more fascinating details opened before me. The end of the war was a tumultuous time here in wee Kingston – yes, the war ended, and the fallout from that, but also the changing face of medicine with better antibiotics, the movements around the many nursing schools here – at KGH, at the Dieu, at Queen’s, at the mental hospital, even at the San. The movement of women from industry back to the home as the war ended. The development of a professional nursing organization. The growth of industry, the arrival of the common car, so many many changes.

And still the nurses graduated with bouquets of roses and the nurses’ cap, earning their literal stripes as they progressed through the years. Nursing work hours started as inhumane, shifted to merely gruelling. Training was always about deportment as well as technical skills; as nurses were expected to be the embodiment of virtue as well as technically proficient, filled with common sense but still feminine enough to charm. Endless jokes about getting a Mrs. degree or being on the “fishing fleet” to capture a man from RMC floated about even in my day. A few nurses carried a banner to establish nursing as a lifelong career, instead of a stopgap until marriage. Many of them gained traction during these years.

It was a difficult role, and in my time in the late 1970’s at Queen’s as a nursing student, I was called onto the red carpet many a time for failing in one way or another. And at the end of the four years, our caps didn’t even have one stripe – we were to be distinguished from our non-university peers by the lack of a stripe, which of course made us look like their probationary nurses. Which seemed appropriate when I graduated – I felt as if I still had so much to learn! As I did. SO thankful for my mentors along the way.

I’m combining my experience as a student here in Kingston with my research and writing a story about a nursing student at KGH in the last of the war years of WW2 (I find it infinitely sad I have to specify the war). She’s plucky, but a bit of a failure as she starts, only knows that she wants to get away from her claustrophobic home and preacher father. Will her time at the Kingston Sanitarium working with the TB patients help her develop her confidence? Or will she find the man of her dreams and escape that way?

Time will tell.

A nurse is a nurse, of course, of course…

Long ago and far away, I went to nursing school. Not just any nursing school, but the atmospheric Queen’s University School of Nursing, where I was told I was too short to be a nurse, where I was almost fired as a student for questioning a prof, where I had to watch my nuclear-familied darker-skinned friend be questioned endlessly about her extended family while I, with my 21 uncles and aunts, was viewed as uninteresting in terms of family dynamics. There I participated in an urgent research study about how soon the mouth returns to normal temperature after drinking cold water. I did bed baths on bathing suited colleagues. I listened to the anatomy professor describe the female reproductive system while he stood on his bench with his arms extended as Fallopian tubes.

It was an interesting intellectual experience, one that I didn’t fully plumb at the time, focused as I was on a. passing b. partying and c. being in love. It is not too surprising that I turned out a rather horrid nurse, clumsy and prone to mistakes, unsympathetic at the wrong times, and awash with grief at the right ones. But something got in my blood. Once a nurse, always a nurse, people say, and I think it is true. I may hate the thought of rising to meet the needs of my fellow man/woman/animal, but I can’t seem to help myself from doing it. When people faint at church, there are three nurses (me included) who run to their side. I hate being in crowds of excited overweight men, as I live in fear of having to do CPR. I almost killed a man once during an intimate moment and all I could do was review my code practices and strategize how I would get him to the hospital.

Nursing was an odd career choice for me. I’m at least as self-centred as the next person, and probably more so. I don’t like smells, or poops, or babies. But wounds – well, they fascinate me. Maybe I shoulda been a microbiologist, where I wouldn’t have to deal with people, but could play with microbes all day long…

Some people, though, come naturally to the caring biz, even if they aren’t “nurses”. There’s a lass like that in my MS group of chums. She’s always extending herself for others, driving them to appointments, feeding them, cheering them on, arranging events, just being there. She’s not one of those offensive “busy ladies” either. She’s just there, comforting, sweet, caring, and present. She’s quiet, but speaks when she needs to. She has MS, too, and is exhausting herself as she tends to others, but is so necessary to those around her she dare not stop. She amazes me and I am humbled by her generosity of spirit.

Me, I’d rather have a glass of wine and forget about everyone.

Just don’t faint, or seem ill. Because then my inner nurse will take over, and wine or no, I’ll be there. It’s a reflex.

Just like the rest of we nurses, trained or volunteer. We can’t help ourselves.