on this rah-rah chest-thumping holding-up-half-the-sky International Women’s Day 2023. Nurses are the lifeblood of our society. I may be a bit biased because my daughter is an RN, soon to be a nurse practitioner. Here she is all rigged out to do battle with Covid.
Brava Maud! I like to talk about nurses when I give Hard Hat Tours of the abandoned hospital complex at Ellis Island, because they were so fundamental there.
As they always are. Ellis Island Hospital employed great doctors – it was a fine hospital, one of the best in the country in the early years of the 20th century. But nurses’ great skills and essential kindness were absolutely vital.
Elements of their existence persist in the ruined spaces. A scrap of shower curtain holds on in one of the washroom’s in the nurses’ quarters.
I always point out a rainbow that appears on a wall there every day, at some times fainter than others, which I’m pretty sure is the nurses’ way of communicating with us.
One nurse who was pretty much the patron saint of Ellis Island is someone everyone’s heard of: Florence Nightingale.
I love this photo because in it she looks so old-fashioned, sort of like an old fuddy duddy, but in fact she was anything but. She was a radical, a pioneer. Her beliefs when applied at Ellis Island probably account for an extraordinarily high survival rate among the 500,000 people who were treated there over the years before the hospital closed in 1954. A British nurse who practiced during the Crimean War–before antibiotics, before penicillin–she believed in a few simple tenets. Sunshine. Fresh air. You can see a vestige of her philosophy in the baby-cage rage of the 1930s.
Another of her beliefs was hygiene, translated specifically at Ellis to handwashing. She was nicknamed the Lady of the Lamp for her personal vigilance in soldiers’ wards.
Life before hand washing could be dirty, yes, but also dangerous.
Before the nineteenth century a bacterial infection known as childbed fever claimed the lives of the many thousands of women going to hospitals to give birth. Doctors hadn’t yet come around to the idea that handwashing was important. Ignorant about germs, they didn’t bother.
Most doctors, naturally, were male. Puerperal fever was both common and tragic. Two of Henry XIII’s wives died this way. So did Mary Wollstonecraft, who wrote the seminal Vindication of the Rights of Women in 1792.
It seems obvious now, especially with the Pandemic, when we’re always washing our hands. But in the mid-1800s, birthing practices had not come far beyond what they were in the seventeenth century.
And childbed fever continued to be a scourge, though so few people remember it now.
Women’s history, please! Let’s be more than a footnote.
Around 350 babies came into this world at Ellis Island. In the abandoned hospital you can find handwashing sinks throughout, not placed there by accident or as a nicety — evidence that medical practitioners knew how important it was to simply wash your hands before and in between procedures so as not to spread infection.
I had a smart teenager on a tour who termed them the Nightingale sinks, his eyes filled with new knowledge.
The grounds at the Hospital once featured beautifully landscaped gardens, compared by some to the finest spas in Europe, so that patients, doctors, and sailors would be able to get that sun and fresh air that Nightingale considered so critical. The wards were created with huge windows to admit light and ventilation.
One medical researcher who was crucial to eradicating childbed fever was Hungarian physician Ignaz Semelweize. Scorned and ridiculed by the medical establishment, he wound up dying in 1865 in an insane asylum after a savage beating by guards left him with an untreated gangrenous wound on his hand.
In 1847, Semelweize famously decreased death from the disease in the First Obstetrical Clinic of Vienna from nearly 20% to 2% through the use of handwashing with calcium hypochlorite. He had observed that some women even preferred to give birth in the streets rather than going to a hospital. A street birth, they knew, was more survivable than delivery by a doctor with dirty hands. Much later, Semelwieze would receive his due.
When doctors got with the program and finally began washing their hands, the incidence of childbed fever plummeted and women survived. At around the time the Ellis Island Hospital opened its doors in 1900, handwashing was just becoming routine.
The nurses at Ellis were reportedly formidable. There’s a story about a patient who suffered from mental anguish after a horrible ocean passing and typhus – she tried to do away with herself by jumping into the harbor in winter, and a heroic nurse jumped in after her and saved her. Try to fathom that.
Long since the hospital’s abandonment by humans, we see other critters’ nurturing here.
Nurses at Ellis didn’t make a lot of money. They had to remain single. We know that they went out of their way to teach immigrant children reading and writing. Seventy percent of immigrants did not speak English, and nurses knew how important that was to being successful in their new country. We also have a set of directives for nurses, and while some are ho-hum one pops out: You shall not kiss or hug your patients. What does this suggest? It’s probably not wise to embrace your measles patient, you might catch measles – but these nurses were so caring and compassionate, they had to be told not to. Nurses knew how important nurturing was to the healing process.
As they still do.
At the end of a tough day at the hospital where she works, Maud comes home and decompresses by relaxing with her pups and husband and tuning in to true crime podcasts.
We have only scant evidence of Florence Nightingale’s personal life, how she might have decompressed, so I appreciate these artifacts. Comfy moccasins!
She deserved them. And then some.