A Novice Nurse’s Job Duties in 1888

The Hospital Girl — an Interesting Insight into Her Responsible Duties

Alone all Night in a Gloomy Ward with a Score or more of Sick and Dying Patients — the Clang of the Ambulance Gong

At the end of three months the novice is put on night duty in either the medical or surgical ward, and then it is that all the heroism and courage of her nature is called into action.  One nurse is put in charge of two wards, each containing, when full, twenty patients.  The lights are turned down until a dusky silence hovers over the white cots.  In the surgical ward the doctor leaves his orders, often supplemented by the information that a patient in one ward has just passed through a severe operation, there is danger of hemorrhage, and the nurse must not leave her alone.  Perhaps in the other ward a patient is very low.  The doctor says she must be watched constantly, for she is liable to die at any moment.  Then he goes away and the young girl flits about in the gloom from cot to cot, administering medicines and treatment, hurrying from the side of one sufferer to the other, half fearful to gaze into the quiet face lest it be already still in death, afraid the dangerously ill patient in one ward will die while she goes to see the dying sufferer in the other.

Suddenly the dread clang that all nurses fear with a nameless horror strikes upon her ear through the dreadful stillness.  It draws nearer and nearer, and stops at the doorway.  Every nurse knows the portent of the ambulance bell.  Every nurse fears the arrival of some new patient if there is an empty cot in her ward.  Then comes the sound of slow, measured footsteps drawing nearer and nearer, and she flies to make ready the empty cot, only hoping no one will die while she is engaged with the new comer.  The men come in with the stretcher and deposit its burden on the bed.  The nurse washes the blood from the wounds, if there be any; determine the extent of the injury as much as possible, and, if very serious, calls the doctor.   If only a cut needing a few stitches and careful bandaging, the nurse performs the operation herself; bathes her patient and makes her comfortable, and then hurries back, perhaps to witness for the first time the last struggle of a dying person.

When the last shuddering sigh falls from the stiffening lips, the brave girl alone in the gloomy ward closes the eyes, folds the lifeless hands, and taking down the card bearing the name of the dead from over the bed, hurries down through the long dim corridors to tell the orderly to prepare for the burial.  If the patient be heavy, the nurse calls the helper, a woman from prison, one of which is kept to do the cleaning in each ward, and together they “do up the corpse,” as it is called in the hospital.  If, on the other hand, the dead woman is slender, the nurse bathes and shrouds her alone, all of which must be accomplished within an hour after her death.  Then the men enter with the box and she is borne out, the nurse throws the bedding out on the fire escape and returns to her duties.  Many a girl has met her first experience of this kind alone in the dim wards of the hospital late at night, for deaths are likely to occur between the hours of 12 and 5 a.m., when vitality is at a low ebb.

A person who has watched at night by the bedside of one who is very ill can have a faint notion of the responsibility of a person in charge of forty patients in various degrees of danger.  A young woman who had known nothing of sickness and little of work relates one night’s experience when an elderly woman was apparently dying in great distress and required constant attention.  In the cot adjoining lay another patient, who, though not in imminent danger, was suffering terribly and who had, as the nurse expressed it “more things the matter was her than any one ever had before or since.”  The nurse had pulled the screens up around the dying woman’s bed and was administering such alleviating remedies as lay in her power, when she suddenly heard a great disturbance in the adjoining ward, and hastening there found an immense fat woman, crazy with fever, promenading up and down the ward, making havoc with everything movable.  Coaxing, commanding and assisting her, she was finally settled in bed again, but as the nurse beat over her dying patient the same commotion was heard in the other ward again, and she went back, and after coaxing the woman into her cot, she tied her feet to the iron bars at the foot of the bed.  Once more she hurried to the other ward only to find one patient writhing in pain, the other with clenched hands tossing in the death struggle.  As the quivering features calmed to peacefulness and the groans were hushed to silence, she heard the noise of groans and screams in the other ward, and found the fat woman on the floor, with her feet still tied to the bed.  By the help of all the force in the ward she was lifted to her place, strapped down to the bed, and in the gray light of the dawn the dead woman was prepared for her burial, while the living moaned in pain.

In another cot a perfect specimen of womanhood lay dying.  The doctors, with misdirected zeal, had prolonged her agony by the operation of tracheotomy, and she lay struggling with death in all the freshness and strength of her early womanhood.  There had been another fire horror, and to save her children she had dashed backed [sic] into the burning building, inhaling heat and smoke that had injured her internally past all recovery.  The round curving limbs were like sculptured marble, majestic in their white beauty; the sweet, fair face was unscorched by the flames and unfaded by disease; the white statuesque arms were tossed above her head in agony.  Just as she gave her last spasmodic shiver the little babe she had saved so heroically moaned out, “Ma-ma-ma-ma,” the first time it had spoken since it was brought there, and with a smile the mother reached out her hands toward the voice, and was dead.  The nurses wept softly as they bathed the beautiful form, though they are so accustomed to death it has little terror or sorrow for them.

One nurse who has been practicing her profession for some time says she doesn’t believe even now that she could go back to the hospital and live through those night watches again, though she loves her work and feels all its responsibility and sacredness.  Many of the nurses, however, love their hospital work with a strange fascination, and either accept situations in other hospitals when they graduate or obtain some salaried place in their own.  The orderly, systematic routine, the precise automatic regularity of the hospital service, the constant attendance of the physicians, the convenience of arrangements, and the society of the nurses, together with an infatuation for the excitement of new cases, and the universal love and gratitude of the patients, endears hospital life to them.

What the college is to the physician the training school is to the nurse, and as only through the ghastly horrors of the dissecting room is an accurate surgical knowledge obtained, so is it only through the experiences of the hospital wards that nurses learn the strength, courage, skill, self reliance and patience requisite for the exigencies and emergencies of their chosen occupations. — New York Sun

Source:  Knoxville Daily Journal and Tribune, August 14, 1888, page 6

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