I need you to suspend your disbelief as what I’m about to tell you, although absurd, was how a student nurse lived in the sixties. While the sixties have been portrayed as a time of freedom, lots of sex and lots of tripping around, for student nurses it was akin to living in a monastery. Nursing students lived in residences maintained and staffed by the hospital. There was always a housemother who could be a tyrant or a kindly older woman, and one of her principle responsibilities was to make sure the student nurses obeyed the rules. There were rules about everything!
The student nurse wore a starched white bib and apron over a blue and white striped dress, and a white cap.
So, now that I’ve set you up for the story….
Student nurses wore a navy-blue cape over their uniform to get from the residence to the hospital, every morning, rain, shine, snow, sleet, or whatever. There are still tales of nurses seen flying Mary Poppins style, skidding along the streets propelled by a gust of wind that had gotten up under the heavy wool cape.
Student nurses wore a striped dress that had to be precisely 11 inches from the floor to the bottom of the hem of the dress. That meant that the five-foot student looked very feminine in a dress that touched down around her knees, while the six-foot nurse had a dress that crested around the middle of her lower leg, a most unattractive body part, creating a matronly appearance.
Student nurses could not speak to a doctor unless he spoke to her. And it was always a ‘he’. There were very few ‘she’ doctors in the hospitals of the 1960’s. That meant that any communication you needed to make with the doctor was determined by factors out of your control, including whether the nurse attending the doctor would include your assessment of the situation. How we pined to be a registered nurse. We’d speak up then!
Student nurses always had to give up a chair in the nursing station to any doctor, intern, resident, or any doctor’s son trailing along behind his dad. One of the single biggest causes of anxiety disorders in student nurses was the fear of having to leap from a chair, chart in hand, and make yourself invisible, lest you be reprimanded for not showing respect.
Student nurses had precisely 30 minutes to get to the cafeteria several floors away, line up in the cafeteria line, pick out food, eat said food, go to the bathroom, return to the unit, knowing that even a minute late meant you could be staying behind after your shift to make up the time. One of the biggest determinants of whether you ate was how quickly you could climb the stairs.
Yes, the hospital had elevators. But here’s the deal.
A student nurse could not enter an elevator ahead of:
A member of administration.
A department supervisor.
A registered nurse.
A student nurse who was in a class ahead of you.
Two things came out of that. Student nurses could eat a full meal in under ten minutes. Student nurses had Popeye legs, very strong and very firm.
Student nurses kept the peanut butter producers in business. Why? Because the only food provided in the residence was bread and peanut butter, (occasionally cereal but only if you got there first). Yes, we had access to the cafeteria seven days a week, for precise hours every day. Outside of those hours you either had a boyfriend who would take pity on you and take you to A&W, or you ate…peanut butter on bread. Making 11 dollars a month did not allow you to frequent the few restaurants that were available in town.
Why did student nurses miss meals?
Getting off at 11:30 after a shift where dinner break didn’t happen due to the grave illness of a patient.
Waking up too late in the morning to make it to breakfast because you’d decided to take your once-a-month pass that lasted until the stroke of midnight.
Being so tired after your day shift that you slept through supper.
So, why did so many women live three years of their life that way?
Of course, the obvious one was to get to be a registered nurse.
But when work was hard, the rules were tough and the penalties preposterous, we had each other. We developed friendships in those years that have lasted for our entire lives. We shared the hardships, the pain, the excitement of being at the delivery of a baby, the thrill of working in the operating room, the tension of working in a one room emergency department, and the quiet proof that what we did mattered to the people we cared for. We were essential to their lives. And we shared those moments with those students in our residence. We became a family, more important in many ways than our own family. Ask any student nurse who made it back to residence after being part of the team that saved someone’s life, who shared her experience between bouts of crying. She will tell you that all of it was worth the effort to obey the rules, silly as they seem in today’s world.