“Runaway Girl: A Nurse’s Story,” by nurse writer Lois Gerber, RN, BSN, MPH, is an account of one young woman’s trials and triumphs as she seeks to make it on her own in nursing school in the era after WWI. Connie Sinclair must get away from an abusive father and a bleak marriage arrangement. At only 15, she hopes to make a living so that she can help her mother and sister follow, in their own escape.Lois Gerber, RN, BSN, MPH
Initially planning to attend secretarial school, Connie shows the pluck and fortitude of a nurse from the very beginning, when she helps a nurse deliver a baby on a train en route to Pittsburgh. Little does she know, this will be the start of a lifelong profession. When her secretarial plans go awry, she finds herself lying about her identity and her age so that she can get into nursing school. She climbs her way through her training, keeping her identity a secret, afraid that her father will find her and force her to come home. Worried that her true age will be discovered, she tries — under the alias Amanda Baxter — to work hard and stay out of trouble.
Gerber provides loads of historical detail, taking what most of us think of as black-and-white photographs of nursing days gone by and infusing them with color. Some of the old ways seem archaic, and yet a surprising number of techniques and nursing knowledge are consistent with how nurses practice today:
When I peeked, Patricia’s fingers were moving around pushing different places on Eleanor’s tight, swollen belly, covered with white zigzagged scar lines. I kept watching, fascinated at the intensity in her voice.
I stood up straight. “Yes, tell me what to do.”
“We need to wash our hands.” She poured water into both basins, nearly spilling it when the train went around a curve. We lathered up using the water in one basin and rinsed in the other. “Germs on our hands can give Eleanor an infection, a bad one. In France we used Dakin’s Solution to kill the germs when we treated injured soldiers.”
Despite the difference in nursing education, some things haven’t changed. I was still reminded of my own modern nursing school days:
Perspiration dripped from my forehead as I struggled to make the bed correctly. My biggest mistake was lightly shaking a sheet after taking it off the bed.
“Stop!” Patricia yelled. “Airborne bacteria. You’re sending germs all through the room. Roll the sheet up carefully and keep it away from your uniform.
I trembled with shame; my face felt hot. If there were a trap door in the floor, I would have opened it and stepped in. “I, I’m sorry. I’ll do it right the next time.”
It took me three tries before Patricia put a check by my name in her notebook. First my draw sheet was not tucked in tight enough. On my second try, the corners on the top sheets weren’t folded right. I felt like crying. I made my bed at home every day, but here I couldn’t do it right.
I rooted for Connie through her trials and triumphs, and I experienced her fears, her pride and her happiness as she doggedly moves forward to become a nurse. Will Connie make it through her training without being discovered? Will she learn how to balance her connection with patients without caring too much? And can she keep a clear head in the face of danger?
“Runaway Girl” is as much a glimpse into the past as it is a symbol of the timeless, collective nurse experience.
Want to read it?
Due to an issue with printing, “Runaway Girl” will be available by the end of June.
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