A look back in history: Nurses in times of crisis



If you followed the coverage of Hurricane Sandy and its aftermath earlier this fall, you know that nurses have proven once again that they are ready to jump into action in times of crisis. Some braved flood waters to get to work. Today, many continue to pull long shifts while their own homes still lie in ruins. As it turns out, things weren’t that different in the past. Here’s a look at some of the brave work of nurses going all the way back to the founding of our country.

Revolutionary Actions
Although nursing as a modern profession hadn’t yet been invented, women still filled this role as needed during the Revolutionary War. For example, Abigail Hartman Rice and Christina Hench served at the Yellow Springs hospital, bathing patients, cooking meals and doing laundry. Both women made extraordinary sacrifices while carrying out these seemingly mundane tasks. Rice spent precious time at the hospital while shouldering the responsibility of being a mother to her 22 children. Hench lost all seven of her sons in the war effort. Both women contracted typhus and died while nursing soldiers during an epidemic at Valley Forge.

You Give Me Fever
The late 1700s through late 1800s saw one yellow fever pandemic after another in the United States. Rather than running from these horrific outbreaks, nurses ran toward them—often with fatal consequences. African American nurses provided medical aid to yellow fever victims in the Philadelphia epidemic of 1784. They received these work assignments based on the idea that African ethnicity was correlated with higher levels of natural immunity (an assumption that turned out to be tragically untrue). The disease killed indiscriminately. Even so, in 1887, many nurses traveled to Tampa to help assess and contain an outbreak there. In 1901, still more U.S. nurses volunteered to be deliberately infected as part of Walter Reed’s yellow-fever commission in Cuba. They helped prove once and for all that mosquitoes were the carriers of this disease, making effective prevention and treatment possible.

Petticoats in a Pinch
Forty-five-year-old Mary Ann Bickerdyke, a private duty nurse, became a very public figure during the Civil War. She spent as much time fighting with the military bureaucracy as the Union Army spent fighting the Confederates. She usually won her battles. Bickerdyke’s most notable skills were commandeering supplies, pressing others into service and being insubordinate to military brass when it was necessary to get things done. Formal reprimands didn’t even slow her down in her quest to ensure wounded Union soldiers received the food, shelter and medical care they needed to recover. She also didn’t have much use for propriety. At one church gathering, she convinced an entire group of women to lift up their skirts and strip off a layer of petticoats to donate for use as bandages.

Trial by Fire
The great 1906 earthquake and subsequent fire in San Francisco was yet another opportunity for nurses to jump into action. As refugee camps sprang up around the demolished city, one area in particular was known as the “Nursing Settlement.” At this community center, refugees could seek medical care from nurses. The center was also a haven of safety where children gathered to play. One survivor recalled many years later pretending to be a refugee child just so he could go and play at the Nursing Settlement. Army nurses as well as local volunteer nursing staff also stepped in to provide emergency burn care for thousands of injured residents. Presidio Chief Nurse Dora Thompson and her team treated patients in tents at a makeshift field hospital after an entire medical supply depot was destroyed.

Never Too Old to Care
In 1900, a hurricane killed more than 6,000 residents of Galveston, Texas. This storm remains one of the most horrific natural disasters of all time. The notorious tragedy gained the attention of one of the most famous nurses of all time: Clara Barton. She traveled to Galveston with a team of nurses and the Red Cross to assist with the recovery. Barton went right to work, organizing the setup of a distribution center as well as a fundraiser to rebuild homes and construct an orphanage to house survivors. She was 78 years old at the time. Here’s to nurses who never give up!


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