The Amateur Nurse

This is the fourth article in August of the School for Housewives 1909 series published on August 22, 1909, and is an article containing pitfalls of the at home nurse. A professional nurse knows how to get things done, but they don’t have the tenderness of family or friend.

Transcribed from the Sunday edition of the The Buffalo Sunday Morning News.

The Amateur Nurse

THE trained nurse is an 19th century product; at least, in the United States. And, despite the beneficent change she has wrought in the sickroom, we cannot disguise from ourselves the truth that there still lingers in the minds of some sane and broad-minded people a certain prejudice against her and her methods. So strong is the disfavor with some that the nurse is occasionally obliged to lay aside her uniform and feign to be a neighbor who has “just stepped in to lend a land with the nursing.” It is maintained, and not without reason, that the very sight of the cap and apron is a danger signal to a nervous patient. She must be very ill, or a trained nurse would not be engaged.

She is an expensive luxury, urge other protestants, to say nothing f the tyranny some of the guild exercises over the whole household that is so unfortunate as to need her services. I could fill this and 20 more pages with authentic anecdotes in support of this objection to the sisterhood and not exhaust the stock at command of memory.

These and what may be cataloged as “sentimental reasons” incline many families to dispense with the salaried ministrations of the trained nurse and to depend in illness upon relative, friend or neighbor, who nurses for the love of the calling or for the patient and those to whom the sufferer is dear.

A Critical Patient.

Since I began this paper, what I reckon as a happy coincidence brought to my study a young kinsman recently recovered from a somewhat serious attack of illness. Knowing that he had been nursed by a favorite maid of his mother, who had begged for the privilege by virtue of her long residence in the family and natural aptitude for nursing, combined with experience, I catechized him upon the subject in hand.

I have had trained nurses in several previous illnesses,” he testifies. “Two were methodical and perfunctorily attentive. I recognized myself as a part of the machinery of which they were the motive power. They were quietly despotic, taking absolute obedience on my part as a matter of course. If I were cross, it mattered nothing to them personally. After representing professionally that excitement would raise my temperature and retard recovery, they disregarded ebullitions of tempter and lowness of mind. It was like being in a refrigerator. No. 3 of the becapped and beaproned sisterhood was tart to activity if I ventured to demur to any of her measures. She dragooned my poor mother and scolded the servants and raised a tempest in a teapot generally in the well-ordered household. I got well as fast as possible to get rid of her.

Methods of Her Own.

“Recollections of her reign were my chief reasons for seconding Mary’s petition to be allowed to take care of me in this last attack. She is a watchful and tender nurse, and it sounds horribly ungrateful to criticise her methods—bless her old soul! But you want the truth, you say.

“In the first place, she set the room in order for a siege by arranging the medicine bottles and boxes, etc., upon a table not far from the bed, and in full sight. The table was spread with a clean napkin, renewed daily, and the bottles and boxes were in straight lines, the biggest in the middle and graded down to each end. I used to lie and stare at them and wonder which was which and wish they had not a sort of fascination that forced me to look at them. My professional nurses kept all the paraphernalia of medicines, plasters and the like of out my sight, and, I think, out of the room. Mary poured out each dose at my bedside, counting the drops audibly. I never knew how much I had to take or anything else about the stuff until the trained nurse had spoon or glass at my elbow. It was administered silently, the glass of water hat was to take out the taste was held to my lips and the thing was over. May ‘wondered if ‘twasn’t about time to take that next dose,’ or that ‘bothering alcohol bath,’ or ‘wasn’t I hungry and couldn’t I think of something I should like to eat?’ or ‘was the room to light?’ or didn’t ‘I think that I could sleep if she read the evening paper to me?’ There was a story of a murder that might interest me. Or, ‘Wouldn’t I like to have her read the report of the big football game??’

“I couldn’t hurt her feelings by saying that she reads badly and that I should certainly jump out of the window if she tried to ‘render’ the sporting page. So I pretended to be sleepy, and she darkened the room until I could just make out the outline of the awful array of bottles and boxes on the stand (she never threw one away) and I could hear her ‘sh-sh-sh-ing’ the family out in the hall for the next hour, and croaking under her breath that ‘poor dear Philip has dropped off to sleep and musn’t be disturbed upon no account whatsumever.’

“She asked the doctor in my hearing one day ‘if he didn’t think that sleeping so much was a bad symptom?’ and I burst out laughing in her face. That was another difference between her and the trained nurse. She either retailed the account of symptoms, temperature and other features of the case audibly to him in my presence, or, what was worse, she took him to the far side of the room and imparted them in a sepulchral whisper that made my blood run cold. The trained nurse passed over her chart silently and out of my sight, and, while the doctor read it, busied herself quietly and naturally about my bed that I might not notice what he was doing.

“I used to wish I could beg Mary not to lean upon the footrail of my bed while she talked to me or watched me eat and drink. She always took her stand there and crossed her arms upon the rail, her eyes fixed solicitously upon me, and chattered in an undertone, as in a death chamber, after she had made my bed or given my medicine or bought in my meals.

“Don’t forget to speak of these meals. She cooked every mouthful I ate with her own hands. She is a capital cook, and her entreaties that the doctor would allow ‘the poor young gentleman nourishing and tasty food, were heartrending. I detest that word ‘tasty’ as violently as you do, and she was positively addicted to it. When she had wrung from the worried practitioner permission to broil an oyster or roast a squab or toss up an omlet or stew a sweetbread or some other ‘tasty’ treat for me, she made hot haste to get it ready, and would let nobody else bring it to me. For luncheon the first day I was permitted to touch meat after the fever went off she brought a big tray and placed it right beside me, cooing over me as a robin who brings a particularly fat slug to her nest.

“The sweetbread was the piece de resistance, but in case ‘the poor dear young gentleman might not relish it,’ she flanked it by a poached egg—‘poached in cream, dear, to make it real tasty’ a plate of creamed toast, one of thin graham bread and butter and one of dry toast, for my choice. Then there was a cup of tea and a crisp stalk of celery, ‘just to chew and put a taste into your mouth.’

“I had had the grip, you know, and may you know, too, that it is accompanied by dumb nausea, indescribably distressing. I did my best to eat a bit of the sweetbread, and tried not to see that loathly poached egg! It almost broke her heart, I am sure, but she thanked me for saying it was ‘nice’ and hoped my appetite ‘would come up soon.’

Kith and Kin.

“She asked me 40 times in one day, ‘How are you feeling by now?’ and 27 times, ‘What would you like to have me do for you, Mr. Philip, dear?’ I counted them all. Somehow, I couldn’t help doing it. The nervous fret brought up my temperature and she assured the doctor that I had been kept perfectly quiet all day and had not been allowed to speak a word.

“I feel like a cad in telling you all this, auntie, although you say it may be pro bono public. My own blessed mother could not have nursed me more tenderly. I suppose it is not to be expected of human nature that a professional nurse could engraft tenderness upon skill and tact. The kindest-hearted woman alive has not tenderness enough to go around a circle of ‘cases.’ It is inevitable that the skilled services they render at so much ‘per’ must be more or less perfunctory. I wonder if it is an impossibility for the mothers to resign the care of us in sickness to hirelings, to study the methods by which they supplement the physician’s efforts in our behalf?”

I give the take as it is told to me. If I might add anything to the true narrative of the stalwart six-footer, whose present condition may be part owing to the faithful nursing of the devoted amateur, and is undoubtedly due in a large measure to subsequent toil in garden and field, in what one of my boys once pined for when ill in the city, as “a whole skyful of fresh air”—if I might, I say, supplement his graphic report, it would be to substantiate the claims of the trained nurse upon our confidence by asking mother and Mary must feel on behalf of the suffered be not one element of her success? Her perspective of the case in hand is not blurred by loving dreads and her judgment is not weakened by personal partiality for this particular Philip above a dozen other boys who have grip or measles or typhoid.

The cool common sense that withholds the surgeon from operating upon wife or child or mother indisposes the amateur of nursing ne of her own kith and kin, or one in whom her professional interest may be colored by affection.

All the same, mothers and Maries may learn much from watching the ways and means of the professional nurse.

Marion Harland

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