A nod to nurses

Courtesy of Mercy Regional Medical Center archives

Mercy Regional Medical Center celebrated its 50th anniversary, its “Golden Jubilee,” in 1934. Nuns, nurses, clergy and doctors gathered in front of the old Mercy Medical Center for the occasion. Lucille (Irwin) Thompson, far right, upper row, was a student at the time. The field was on the brink of substantial change when she began.

By Guy Walton
Special to the Herald

Lucille Thompson (Lucille Irwin at the time) was a student nurse in 1934 when Mercy Hospital celebrated its 50th anniversary. (The first Mercy was built in 1882, but that’s another story.)

The profession she entered was on the cusp of major change. Although health-care workers knew about germs and how diseases are transmitted, there was no consistently effective cure for most infections. Many surgical procedures were not done because the risk of infection was greater than the condition requiring surgery. People were routinely hospitalized for common infections, or often died from a simple staphylococcal infection.

When Thompson began her career, needles were used, cleaned and sharpened by nurses each shift. Rubber gloves were patched and sterilized before surgeries. Sulfa was used for the first time on a Durango patient in 1937. Penicillin became available after World War II.

Thompson saw great changes and advancements in her four decades of nursing. Change is still happening, but nurses’ integral role in health care has not. That’s why there’s National Nurses Week, an annual celebration that began Sunday and will end on the birthday of Florence Nightingale, Saturday, the founder of modern nursing.

Lucille Thompson was born in 1914, and lived and worked in the San Juan Mountain region most of her life. She ended her nursing career as the infection-control nurse at Mercy in the 1970s. A lot had changed since 1934. Antibiotics were common enough that penicillin resistance was a concern.

Today, every blood and wound culture that grows bacteria has a report that shows which antibiotics still effectively treat it. Needles and surgical gloves were single-use items in the 1970s, and still are today. In fact, needles and syringes are designed to prevent accidental needlesticks and blood exposure to health-care workers. And gloves are now made of a variety of materials for safety and effective protection.

Thompson’s first job as a Mercy graduate, before taking her nursing boards, was 12-hour night shifts in the newly built Taylor Hospital in Ignacio. She was the only nurse in the hospital for all but two hours of the shift. She left to join the Women’s Army Corps in 1938 but had to quit when she married.

She worked weekends at the old Community Hospital in the Gable House in the 1950s, then in pediatrics at the old Mercy Hospital. She later taught for 13 years in the Mercy School of Nursing and then did hospital training for Mercy employees.

A friend recently brought me a cardboard box full of old American Journal of Nursing magazines dating from the 1930-40s. Thompson’s name was on one of the periodicals. The journal has been around since 1900 and was the only nursing journal for many years. It was interesting to compare these old issues, when Thompson was a young nurse, with today’s journal.

Even the physical appearance is dramatically different. The old American Journal of Nursing had a drab green cover with stark black lettering and no illustrations. Journal articles explored such topics as newer anesthetic agents, use of anti-pneumococcal horse serum for the treatment of pneumonia, and how to warm intravenous infusions.

But half the scientific articles were written by physicians, and some of the ones written by nurses focused more on domestic skills than scientific research. Tools available for nursing research in the 1930s were primitive (a hot water bottle was used to warm the IV infusion). But it showed nursing was not just an art, but a science.

The cover of today’s American Journal of Nursing is colorful and generally shows a nurse with a patient or family. Sometimes, the nurse is a man. Often, the picture evokes a sense of compassion and understanding. Recent Journal articles have focused on emergency treatment for hypothermia, a critical look at using central venous pressure monitoring to guide fluid therapy, and complications of surgery for obese patients.

All of the articles are written by nurses, with credentials ranging from an associate degree to a doctorate. The Journal leaves room for nostalgia (celebrating the 50th anniversary of coronary care units) and compassion (“Tea with Miss Elsie” – a home health nurse respects a patient’s dignity).

The ads were very different in the 1930s, and reflect some of the stereotypes of the time. Calf-length white poplin uniforms cost around $3, woolen capes could run as much as $25, and footwear with less than a 2-inch heel was not advertised.

Two-thirds of the advertisements were related to clothing. But then, nurses’ uniforms were white, and there were no washer/dryers. Today’s journal has few advertisements for the colorful scrubs and none for the running shoes commonly worn by today’s clinical nurse. They are pretty evenly divided between educational opportunities (from universities to e-learning classes) and work/travel jobs in places ranging from the exotic (foreign) to the challenging (understaffed, inner city or North Dakota).

Thompson died more than 20 years ago. What would she think of her profession and the American Journal of Nursing if she were with us today? She would probably miss the crisp white uniforms and starched caps she had always known. They were emblematic of the profession. But she spent a lot of her career as an educator, as well as a caregiver. I think she would embrace the balance of art and science that nursing has become.

Guy Walton is infection control preventionist at Mercy Regional Medical Center. Reach him at blue52@frontier.net.

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