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Nursing in the 1960s

Photographer: Gordon A. Larkin Date: 1954 Archives: Mount Saint Vincent University Archives, Photograph Collection, 825

The Kennedy assassination. Race riots. Flower children. The Vietnam War. The Beatles. Bedpans?

The 1960s was a much storied time, but what was it like to work as a nurse during this tumultuous decade? You have to remember that this was before computers, plastics and disposable everything. You had to spend a great deal of your time just preparing instruments and equipment for use by the patient. Everything was done on paper and nothing was disposable.

The nurses who worked in the ’60s have a unique perspective on how nursing has changed—for better and for worse. Some things, such as advocating for your patients, haven’t changed, but with the rise of technology, nurses today really have to know far more than a nurse in the ’60s did. Here’s a look at a few of the issues nurses in the 1960s dealt with and how they have changed for today’s nurse.

Bedpans
Bedpans today are made out of plastic and are disposable. If you have a patient who used his bedpan really well, you just throw the thing out and get another one. This wasn’t so in the ’60s. Bedpans had to be cleaned and used from one patient to the next. Estelle Kahn, RN, who graduated from nursing school in 1945, remembers, “We had a bedpan washing machine. You put the bedpan into the machine, waited two or three minutes, and took out a nice hot bedpan and brought it back to the patient’s room.”

Marion Lawrence, RN, CNOR, who graduated in 1962, recalls, “Bedpans were autoclaved, too. They had a bedpan washer. You would cover it with a towel, walk down the hall and wash it in a hopper. Then it was flushed and cleaned by the machine.” Although the bedpans were autoclaved and sterilized, the nurse still had to wash a messy piece of equipment, and the possibility for transmission of infection could be enormous. That’s what happened before the advent of cheap, disposable plastic.

Doctors
Doctors have always been part of the nursing landscape, but the relationship between doctors and nurses was different in the ’60s. Lawrence relates her experience: “Doctors were gods. We had to get up when they came into the nurse’s station. Everyone waited for the doctor to come to see what he had to say. He was the final word on everything.” And if the doctor made a mistake or prescribed something wrong? “You would absolutely not be able to tell a doctor what he was doing was wrong,” Lawrence adds. “If I had done that in nursing school, I wouldn’t be a nurse today.”

However, most nurses found doctors easy to get along with. Mary Ellen Rauner, MA, RN, Chief Nursing Officer of Mercy Suburban Hospital in East Norriton, Penn., states, “Those doctors were like kings in the ’60s. We did a lot of rounding with our doctor so that we knew what the plan was for the patient. We had really good relationships with our docs.” Kahn agrees: “The relationship between doctors and nurses was good. Personally, I had a great relationship with doctors.” However, all the nurses agree the focus is much more collegial in today’s nursing than it was back then.

Technology
Some nurses would be lost without their technology. What was the height of technology in the ’60s? Kahn jokes, “There was very little so-called ‘technology.’ You could make a telephone call. Is that technology?” Lawrence remembers the first time she had a phone in the OR. “When I worked in an OR with a phone in the room, I was shocked. You didn’t have intercoms, either. If you needed help in a room, you ran out into the hallway and yelled for help.”

Rauner recalls some of her interactions with ’60s technology. “We had cardiac monitors in that day, but the only place was in the ICU, where they were hardwired. Telemetry was unheard of. Smaller hospitals had less technology. My first IV pump, I thought I died and went to heaven.” Some of the routine things nurses use today were simply dreams for nurses in the ’60s.

Lawrence brings home an important point about how far we’ve come in saving lives since the ’60s. “In nursing school we didn’t have a crash cart. When we were students, no one coded. They just died. The golden hour with traumas only came around in the ’80s. I don’t think we had CPR in the ’60s.” Thanks to technology like heart monitors, ACLS algorithms, CPR and newer drugs, patients who code now have a better chance of surviving the incident. In the 1960s, that was just unheard of. Technology has certainly made nursing better in that regard in the past 40 years.

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Lynda Lampert

Lynda Lampert is a registered nurse and a certified third shift worker. She has worked with many different patient populations, including post-op open heart, post-op gastric bypass, active chest pain, congestive heart failure, poorly controlled diabetics and telemetry 'wonders'. She now focuses all of her effort on educating the populace -- both the nursing world and the normal folk -- through her web writing. She hopes one day to publish another romance novel, travel to England and become a web rock star. She feels she is on her way . . . mostly. You can learn more about Lynda and her work at lyndalampert.com.
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