“Heroic Measures,” a book by Jo-Ann Power, is a historical drama that tells the gripping story of a young nurse, Gwen Spencer, who volunteers to serve in the Army Nurse Corp during World War I. She travels to France shortly after receiving her diploma to work on the front lines, treating men severely wounded in battle in a grueling military OR.
What Gwen lacks in experience, she makes up for tenfold with razor-sharp intelligence, a stalwart sense of duty and an unquenchable thirst for doing the most good for the most people. Growing up as a poor orphan to a cold and resentful aunt, Gwen learns early on what it takes to fight for survival.
Power spends a great deal of time focused on the work, all of the hard, incredible work, that nurses accomplished for months on end in the most difficult of circumstances. She succeeds in painting a realistic portrait of societal rules and way of life in the early years of the 20th century. Her detailed description of day-to-day living, in the midst of war, gives color to a time that seems impossible to imagine. Woven throughout is an underlying current of what it was like for women to fight for personal independence and stature, and how little opportunity and choice was afforded them.
Gwen and her comrades suffer stark conditions, working long hours with few comforts and even fewer supplies. Still, they manage to find small ways to rejuvenate, by caring for one another, indulging in romance, and finding the ability to laugh when laughter is their only saving grace. The cumulative toll of seeing injured, maimed and dying Doughboys roll through the revolving trauma doors haunts each nurse. Most of the men they save still suffer immensely, and they learn very little of what will come of the survivors, most of whom they never see again.
“Gwen girded herself for what she was about to see. But as she passed the gate, it was what she heard that made her skin crawl. A new sound to complement the continuing thump of distant cannon spoke of animals in pain. Gwen halted. The ground on either side of her for yards and yards up to the house crawled with life. Vibrated with desperate murmurs, some for morphine, others for God, many for their mother. Among the writhing, moaning bodies, a few soldiers — medical caduceus on their sleeves — hunched to talk to this man or that. Another soldier put his hands to one man’s neck to take his pulse, then threw a blanket over his face … ”
But there is one caveat that dampens the heart swell that many a nurse may feel while reading along, as Gwen demonstrates her talent and skill with patients in the operating room. She, at one point, questions whether she wants to be a surgeon. In fact, in her own words, whether she wants to be “more than a nurse.”
And that’s when some of the wind comes out of the sails. Why, oh why? Of course, there is nothing at all wrong with the emergence of a new passion from a current one. And truly, there’s nothing wrong with wanting to be a doctor. The early 20th century was a time when nurses were not afforded the autonomy they are today. Perhaps at that time, the only way to practice to the fullest scope was to become a doctor. If she considered becoming an artist instead, or a lawyer, would I even care? Probably not.
Ultimately, I’ve forgiven it. The story has a strong, riveting current that pulls the reader under. Gwen is a plucky, determined sharp-shooter that questions surgeons and army officials alike. She and the nurses by her side set a beautiful example for readers of the true essence of nursing. This is who nurses are, this is what nurses do.
“Heroic Measures” is a worthy portrait of nursing life, both in the French battlefields of World War I and in the United States at the turn of the century. And Gwen Spencer and her fellow nurses are a testament to the young women who risked literal life and limb, in the name of duty, to save those wounded in battle.