5 reasons I’m thankful to be a 21st century nurse

Shutterstock | artnana
Shutterstock | artnana

Those uncomfortable skirted uniforms, that unwieldy equipment, the lack of antibiotics…can you imagine?!?!

Here’s why I thank my lucky stars to be a nurse today and not any other time in history.

1.  Clogs and sneakers and scrubs, oh my!
Remember that picture of the nurse getting kissed by the Navy guy at the V-J Day celebration in 1940-something? Did you see what she was wearing on her feet? Heels. White heels. Moving up from there, she had seamed white stockings (not even pantyhose, not at that time—those suckers were held up with garters), a skirted uniform and a cap. She almost certainly had on a girdle as well. Just trying to keep your girdle from crawling and your seams straight must’ve been a full-time job.

2. Plastic IV bags

Have you ever tried to hang a glass IV bottle? It stinks. There’s all this jimmying about with bubbles and widgets that you have to flip open, and eventually the machine just keeps alarming. Things were worse back in the Second World War, when bombs would drop and bottles would fall and shatter, and IV tubing was often made of solid rubber. Yikes. (Don’t even get me started on how nice it is not to have to calculate drip rates by counting drops.)

3. Also, hooray for plastic IV cannulas
I have a book on the treatment of syphilis that dates from the 1930s, prior to the invention of antibiotics. In it, there’s a long chapter on what to do if the infusion needle you’re using breaks off in the patient’s body. Needles back in the day didn’t come with flexible cannulas; they were metal. And the arsenic compounds used to treat the Pox were caustic.

4. While we’re at it, let’s hear it for antibiotics
Yes, yes, I know all about antibiotic-resistant infections. They are a problem. They are not, however, as much of a problem as having your metal infusion needle break off in somebody’s spinal canal, because that’s the only way you can get treatment for neurosyphilis to the source. Now we have antibiotics that’ll cross the barrier between blood and nervous system, and everybody’s happier.

5. Soap and water and razors
Remember Ignaz Semmelweis? He was the dude who, back in the 1840s, told doctor types to start washing their hands. Of course, everybody thought he was crazy (and he did end up dying—of septicemia, ironically—in a mental asylum), because back then, the caked-up blood and pus on your doctoring coat was a badge of honor. Beards were seen as a permanently attached surgical mask of sorts.

As you gather round the breakroom table this year for your turkey sandwiches, say a little thank-you to the folks who made modern nursing and medical care possible. You don’t have to mention the uber-gross frock coats if you don’t want to.

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Agatha Lellis

Agatha Lellis is a nurse whose coffee is brought to her every morning by a chipmunk. Bluebirds help her to dress, and small woodland creatures sing her to sleep each night. She writes a monthly advice column, "Ask Aunt Agatha," here on Scrubs; you can send her questions to be answered at askauntieaggie@gmail.com.

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8 Responses to 5 reasons I’m thankful to be a 21st century nurse

  1. mywizofoz RN

    Wow have times changed!

  2. ndelacourt Student

    I love this BBC series, London Hospital. It is based on actual records of what nursing was like in Victorian England.

  3. BarrySchoenborn

    Yes, but in the Bad Old Days, nurses got more attention and respect. In the 1930’s. Helen Dore Boylston was a nurse in World War I and later helped the Red Cross in Europe. She wrote seven Sue Barton books between 1936 and 1952. Sue Barton starts as a student nurse and goes on to work in many settings. Nurses were role models and heroes!

    Nursing in fiction got bigger in the 1940’s. Grosset & Dunlap published 27 Cherry Ames books. Cherry starts as a student nurse, goes to war, and later solves many mysteries while she’s on nursing assignments. These books are prized by collectors.

  4. nursingin50s

    We used to sharpen the needles and autoclave them and the glass syringes. The night before surgery, we would scrub and shave the body area that would be operated on.
    Rubber urinary catheters and tubing were drained into open “recycled” glass IV bottles that sat on the floor. When you turned the patient to the other side, you had to be sure to put the bottle on the other side of the bed. If the patient turned over by him/herself, the tubing would come out of the bottle!

    • rnsurgery

      Oh, I remember this so well. I worked in the hospital, where I went to school, from 1960 until I started school in 1964. I graduated in ’67. Other things that I remember, are the rubber sheets under draw sheets, cleaning thermometers with green soap, the old sphygmomanometers with the dial. In the OR we had cloth caps and masks, reusable gloves, had to wear 100% cotton slips and had shoe covers with a black strap that you had to put in your shoe or have conductive shoes, then you would have to go to the meter on the wall, step on the plates on the floor and press the lever to be sure that you were conductive. We had pads at the entrance doors that were saturated with and antibacterial. All stretchers had to be rolled over them and everyone had to walk through them.

      • Dmjdrn

        I miss my white uniform and my white nylons and my cap. None of that ever got in my way and people knew they were talking to a nurse which is a complaint I hear from a lot of people. I wear scrubs now lab coat which is required and of course in a school setting no cap.Yes we used glass IV bottles but that was all we knew so no complaints, we were on call for OB, surgery during our rotations and we had to live in the dorm at the hospital. We were a close group and last year we celebrated our 50 yr reunion 1/2 of our class came many others sent notes and we keep in touch on Facebook. Hospital trained nurses lived ,worked, cried, laughed together and stayed close something the modern day nurses do not have. I have heard that complaint from the younger nurses. Guess you know I have no regrets about the good old days.

  5. obiwanfan

    As a 1985 graduate, we still occasionally used glass IV “bags.”

  6. SueGallenstein

    Generally speaking, life as a nurse is way better. But, it’s way more complicated, too. The one big thing I miss, is my fav dress uniform, circa 1979. It was, of course white. Shirt dress style, full skirt, fitted bodice, 3/4 length sleeves. It did wonderful things for hiding figure flaws! I’d wear it today, if I could find one, but it doesn’t fit into my hospital’s nursing dress code! Wonder if they make it in navy blue….

    When I started out, it was all IV bottles, no bags, but quickly transitioned. I remember one of the medical TV shows back then frequently featured paramedics showing an IV bag under the pt’s pillow…we laughed!