Nursing “Back Then” Part 1

I believe one of the original entrances to the old Greenville General Hospital .hospital.

My mind is boggled when I think about how far the fields of medicine and nursing have come since my mother trained in the early 1940’s. We both trained at the same nursing school, as did my sister. But we graduated in 1972 and 1973. I worked as a nurse from 1972 until 2011. I am so thankful for the advances in medicine and nursing since then! I think you will be too after you read this post and Part 2.

Back then the hospital where I received my training was built in 1911. It grew over the years to have six(?) floors. It was closed a few years after my sister graduated in 1973. A new modern hospital was built on Grove Road, Greenville Memorial Hospital.

The T shaped floors had long halls with mostly two bed rooms and several four bed rooms. There were also two twenty bed units where each bed was separated only by curtains at the sides and foot of the bed. I believe there was one bathroom for all 20 patients! One unit was for men, the other for women. I think these units were for the people who couldn’t afford the regular two or four bed rooms or were indigent.

Back then the beds were similar to the ones seen on MASH. At the foot of each bed there was a crank for the head and one for the foot of the bed. The crank was folded out and turned to position the bed and hopefully folded back inwards when adjustments were finished. Many a busy student or staff member was caught unaware as they rushed around fulfilling their duties and received shin bruises because someone forgot to fold the crank back up and out of the way! I was thrilled when I saw the new beds with buttons that let the patients or staff adjust the beds so easily! Either way it was so much safer for all and our shins were thankful!

One crank folded in on old-hospital-bed

My mother told me that during World War II, mostly senior student nurses ran the hospital at night due to the nursing shortage when nurses went into the military nurse cadet program through the school.

She amazed me when she informed me about the duties of a hospital nurse back then. Aside from patient care: bathing, feeding, medicating, assisting with activities and assisting doctors; the nurses had to do the housecleaning, mopping, dusting, and even cooking for the patients! They did not give intravenous medicines nor insert intravenous needles. The intern or residents usually performed that task.


Back then during my training and probably before, nurses prepared small trays for patients’ medicines, with a stack of 2 X 2 cards with the names of the patient and medicine, times they were due and the patient’s room number on them. The cards of course were checked against the medication record which was updated for new orders by the “ward secretary” and double checked by the charge nurse.

The pills were placed in one or two little paper (souffle) cups or plastic cups for liquids. (Instead of intravenous medicine, intramuscular injections were more commonly given.) While carrying these medicines, along with injectable medicines on a tray the nurse walked to each patient’s bed with the tray in hand. There were obviously risks with this form of medicine distribution.

Fortunately by the time I was a year out of training, large, new locked carts were introduced with drawers for each patient with their medicines neatly separated. Even though one cart was shared by two nurses, it was still a vast improvement.

A couple of years later this procedure improved when the new hospital opened. Each patient had a locked medicine box built into the wall with access from the inside and outside of the room for their medicines.
Then later the Pyxis was in a central, locked cart where each patient had a drawer for their medicines.

Nurse's cap and cape from GGH.
My graduate nurse photo in 1972.

The Hopper Room

Back then we cleaned the metal bedpans by carrying them covered with a towel, to the utility room, where the chutes for dirty linens were and where the trash was kept. There was a small, metal door in the wall that opened where we put the bedpan into a clamp type holder. When we closed the door steaming hot water flushed the contents down a pipe and essentially sterilized the bedpan. These were called hoppers. Now bedpans are sprayed by a sprayer head connected to the patient’s toilet’s water source. The sprayer then folds back up against the back of the toilet.

We were trained in a three year diploma school, which I will talk about in another post soon. But the nurses of that time had fewer implements and much less scientific knowledge about some things than nurses have now. But we/they delivered the best quality patient care that we/they knew how to give. We had more patients to take care of and more potentially dangerous and especially infectious diseases to work with, when little was known about how dangerous some of them were.

Intravenous Fluids and Medicines

Back then we didn’t have IV pump machines to regulate the flow of intravenous medicines or intravenous fluids. I still remember holding my watch, with a second hand, to the drip chamber of the tubing that led to the glass bottles of fluid, counting the number of drops per 15 seconds and multiplying by 4 to be sure it was infusing at the prescribed rate! It sometimes took a few minutes to get the rate just right! This hadn’t changed since the 1940’s or earlier!!

We had to regulate the rate of the drips with a roller clamp! Can you imagine how hard it was to roll the adjustment to perfection; and how easily it could be readjusted accidentally or on purpose if a confused patient decided they wanted to get the medicine or fluid run in in a hurry? Later a locking feature was added so it couldn’t be changed accidentally.

Back then in the late 1970’s I worked in a Coronary Care Unit/Intensive Care Unit in Mississippi. Many vital medicines are given intravenously for critically ill patients. For most of the first year I was there, the pumps that controlled the IV fluids were kept downstairs in “Central Supply.”

We had to wait until one was brought up or we had to go down stairs to get one! Can you imagine in an emergency having to set an IV rate by hand until the pumps arrived?? Before I left there was a supply of them in the unit itself, as there should be.

What do you think? Was it easier back then, or easier now? There is more to come in Part 2 Nursing Back Then!

8 thoughts on “Nursing “Back Then” Part 1

  1. Our old local hospital reminded me of your picture. There were a series of many steps to get to the front door (really bad design). It’s been rehabbed and is used for hospice care. The entrance is at ground level and the front door with the steps is gone. I remember my uncle having a heart attach. He was in a big plastic cover with oxygen pumped in. He was there for 6 weeks in a ward because that’s where most people went even with insurance. They gave him an enema every night. He hated that. Fast forward to last year. My neighbor had a quadruple bypass and he was home in 5 days. A lot of things are much better. There are also aides to help with the more housekeeping duties to free up the nurses but then they cut back on nurses. I haven’t had anything but outpatient surgery in 40 years including my breast cancer surgery.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Wow! Those are some memories!! Was the cover with oxygen an oxygen tent? I have seen those used on little children who would not leave a nasal cannula or mask on. 6 weeks to recover from a heart attack? I remember heart attack patients be on complete bedrest for the first three days, then advanced to a dangling their legs on the side of the bed, then the chair, then walking. Quadruple bypasses have extended so many lives! Like I said, I am thankful and amazed for the advances in medicine and nursing! LOL. Thanks, as always fir reading and commenting!! Hugs!!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. This brought back so many memories. The patients were well taken care of “back then” but modern day medicine sure has made things a lot safer.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I am thankful every day that I went to GGH School of Nursing for my diploma. Then later I attended USC, Columbia for my BSN. Reading these stories brings back such good memories.

    Liked by 1 person

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