Student Blues, Starched Caps and Polished Shoes... a Nursing Retrospective

In June 1962, fresh out of high school, I enrolled in a 3 year hospital-based diploma school of nursing. I was on a path to become a Registered Nurse. It was a popular and affordable career choice for those of us who didn't have funds for college. However, this era signaled the decline of diploma programs and growth of 4 year college-based programs awarding BS degrees in Nursing. Diploma Programs offered low tuition because students accounted for the majority of nursing staff, all 3 shifts, all clinical areas, including specialties.

We 'manned' the Emergency Room on evenings and nights, took 'emergency call ' in the Operating Room for surgeries at night and on weekends, took emergency call in Labor and Delivery also. We provided most of the patient care in Pediatrics and Medical-Surgical units. There was an RN in charge on the day shift, and 2 RN Supervisors on the evening and night tours of duty, a sprinkling of RN staff were mostly day tour.

Students only called supervisors before administrating narcotics (DEA Regulation) or to report serious problems. Otherwise, students made all the decisions in providing care to their patients. This was just several months after graduating high school.

We held each other up and prayed all the time our decisions were the right ones. We supported each other when our first patient death occurred.

Nursing school began with classes at a local university through the summer. Courses such as Anatomy & Physiology, Chemistry, Microbiology, Psychology and Speed Reading were provided. We enjoyed the college campus experience, but it did little to prepare us for the rigid rules and regulations, both written and unwritten, we had to follow in the hospital setting later on...where everyone was 'the boss of us'. At summer's end, we were on clinical units and had our first patient assignments.

Uniforms could be no more than 13 inches from hem to floor. No jewelry, nail polish or perfume allowed. Hair trimmed 'off the collar' or pinned up. Caps and 'bibs' weren't issued until the initial 6 month probie period was over. We were 'probies' until the next class enrolled months later, a reminder we were the bottom of the barrel.

At our Capping Ceremony, our proud parents saw us in our bib uniforms, caps and navy wool capes with red lining. We held our 'lamps' while we recited the Florence Nightingale pledge. After that, we were off and running with charge positions on the evening and night shifts! We barely saw daylight during work hours, but still attended classes and tests during the daytime. Not easy after being on your feet for eight non-stop hours the night or evening before.

My first night shift was grueling. When report was given, I was told I had to empty the bladder of a patient who had surgery several hours earlier and hadn't voided. This catheterization should have been performed much earlier but was left for me, the probie. I was warned 'Do it first thing! The patient's bladder is distended!' Well, no kidding!!

While bent over, head between her legs, wearing sterile gloves to drain the bladder, I was unable to make rounds. I heard call bells go on, one by one. Then, a patient wanting a sleeping pill, walked out into the corridor, saying loudly, 'I don't think we have nurse tonight. I don't see anyone.' Groan...

A few weeks later, I was assigned to the Operating Room. The Nursing Instructor gave us complicated instrument set-ups to memorize and, then, did little else. Taking pleasure while we 'sweated it out' scrubbed on major surgery. Still green behind the ears, we walked that tightrope alone. No one had our back. The surgeon shouted at us if we made a mistake while we accepted criticism, humiliation or embarrassment in silence. Learning by fear became the norm.

Upperclassmen used hazing that instilled anxiety at every turn. Better stand up when they entered a room, even if you were off duty, or else! The first thing every morning, we attended 'prayers'. They targeted certain students to terrorize them. One was picked to read a passage from the Bible, while they stared coldly. Many stumbled or sniffed through the 23rd Psalm. Then a quick breakfast and report on duty 7 AM sharp! You dare not arrive late in this world of all-seeing, all-knowing, probie-reporting eyes!

We had to be 'signed-off' by an instructor 3 times for every procedure before declared 'independent'. The little black book we carried around listed some obscure procedures that, even after a 45-year career, I never saw....like Turpentine Stupes! Rotation in Labor & Delivery was hair-raising! We assisted the physician, especially deliveries involving instruments like forceps. We learned things I'd rather forget, least of which was the women screaming during intense labor pains 'He's never going to touch me again!' to the insane desire to have the 'first New Year's Baby'. Pitocin to get the uterus dilated and the baby out at the stroke of midnight....or, shockingly, if it was coming minutes early, holding it back manually till midnight!

Pediatric rotation was a 3-month stint at a huge teaching hospital in the northeast. We cared for children from many countries being treated with anomalies and rare illnesses. The experience was phenomenal! Also, our 3-month psychiatric rotation at a huge facility away from home was pretty incredible. We had opportunities to observe many forms of therapy and work directly with psychotic patients. It was often students who often made the difference or the 'breakthroughs.' We were fresh faces, inspired to communicate therapeutically and compassionately.

Aside from some horrific experiences, I have no serious regrets. We graduated a finished product, confident and ready to take on any assignment. Employers knew we needed very little orientation to function independently. I'm happy nursing has evolved and become more in depth and academic in its teachings. But sometimes I'm wistful and miss the uniforms, starched caps and polished shoes.