Nursing School in the 1920’s

After I graduated from high school in 1969 I started nurse’s training in a three year diploma nursing school which had opened in 1918. The rules for the student nurses were quite strenuous in those days. I remember reading a paper of dormitory rules from that era. Here are some of them with rules found from other schools.

Student nurses could not: be married, wear finger nail polish, dye their hair and (I think I remember) couldn’t have a permanent for their hair. ( I think they were afraid some nurse would look like a “floossie” during a time when proper ladies wore their hair long and worn up in some style.

The dorm doors were closed and locked at a very early hour like 7 or 8 PM. These all changed gradually over the years of course. There was a desk “matron” who watched to see that all students checked in and out at the designated times.

Back in the early 1940’s, continuing to when I was a student nurse, the nurses wore white caps, also called “the nurse’s “glory” back then by the older patients. The cap was secured in their hair with bobby pins. Of course the hair had to be short or worn up off of the collar. When the student became a senior, they have a black stripe added across their cap.

In my mother’s era the uniforms were pinstriped, I believe, and were covered by a white aprons, which had been washed, starched and ironed before wearing. Each student and nurse had to wear white leather shoes that had to be tied and polished every day. The students could buy a wool cape which was toasty enough to walk less than half a block between the dorm and the side entrance to the hospital.

My dorm was the same one that my mother had lived in during World War II when often the senior student nurses ran the hospital floors at night, because of the shortage of nurses due to the war. Her tales from her experience and the care she gave my siblings and me when we were sick as children was my inspiration, as well as my younger sister’s, to follow her calling also.

My Senior Picture 1972

Making up beds was often a challenge in my mother’s time and our time as well. The Nursing Fundamentals classes were taught by the older nurses, many trained to military standards, which required that the sheets were to be tucked in under the mattress so tightly that you could bounce a dime or penny on it! We didn’t use fitted sheets back then because the sheets could be used under or over a patient and lasted longer. The laundry was of course on the hospital grounds. The sheets came out steamed and starched, or so I remember.

In the old hospital where I trained, there were separate elevators for surgery and emergency patients. I remember three elevators in the main hall available to guests and nurses. I remember having to go down 6 flights of stairs and then back up 6 flights of stairs to get an instrument immediately for a doctor doing a procedure on the floor! Then he was irritated that I took so long! Cardiac and abdominal surgery patients were confined to bed for a week or two. The belief was that the heart attack and post operative patient’s wounds needed rest and time to heal well. No one wanted a surgical wound to come apart!

One day I helped a female patient, who had had her gall bladder removed two weeks before, to get up for the first time. In my early years gall bladders were removed by a long incision in the right upper abdomen. The pain was bad enough that they needed pain medicine for the first few days.

First we helped her “Dangle” her legs on the side of the bed, then when she felt stable we progressed her to standing and then walking around in the room and finally out into the hall.

As she progressed to walking we started down the hall. Suddenly I noticed that she was acting oddly. When I asked if she were alright, she replied that she was. Yet immediately she fell backwards and died. We could not resuscitate her. For a long time after I didn’t believe a patient who said they were alright until I got them back in their bed!

Soon after, we found out that patient immobility could cause clot(s) to form in the legs. When this patient got up, one of those clots evidently loosened and went to her brain or heart.

We now try to get them up as soon as possible after stabilizing heart patients and surgery patients. We encourage them to move their legs often while lying in bed and bend their toes towards their heads to promote blood circulation in their legs. And we apply anti-embolism stockings or pumping inflatable boots on all patients before surgery. Often when appropriate a small dose of anticoagulant is given subcutaneously into the abdomen for prevention.

So many things, procedures, treatments, and medical practices have changed since the early 20’s. I am thankful for the changes that occurred before I became a nurse. The patients have an easier recovery now with laparoscopic surgeries as well as less scarring. Medicines are more numerous to give the doctors options for their patients.


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