JUST RELEASED: Easing Pain on the Western Front (McFarland, 2020)

We are pleased to announce the publication of Easing Pain on the Western Front: American Nurses of the Great War and the Birth of Modern Nursing Practice, the book that has grown out of Paul Stepansky’s popular series of blog essays, “Remembering the Nurses of WWI.”  It has been lauded as “an important contribution to scholarship on nurses and war” (Patricia D’Antonio, Ph.D.) that is simultaneously “the  gripping story of nurses who advanced their profession despite the emotional trauma and physical hardships of combat nursing” (Richard Prior, DNP).  The Preface is presented to the readers of “Medicine, Health, and History” in its entirety.

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PREFACE

Studies in the history of nursing have their conventions, and this study of American nursing in World War I does not adhere to them.  It is not an examination of the total experience of military nurses during the Great war.  Excepting only the first chapter, which addresses the American war fever of 1917 and the shared circumstances of the nurses’ enlistment, little attention is paid to aspects of their lives that have engaged other historians.  I do not review the nurses’ families of origin, their formative years, or their reasons for entering the nursing profession.  Similarly, there is relatively little in these pages of the WWI nurses as women, of their role in the history of the women’s movement, or of their personal relationships, romantic or otherwise, with the men with whom they served.

In their place Easing Pain on the Western Front focuses on nursing practice, by which I mean the actual caregiving activities of America’s Great War nurses and their Canadian and British comrades.  These activities comprise the role of nurses in diagnosis, in emergency interventions, in medication decisions, in the use of available technologies, and in devising creative solutions to treatment-resistant and otherwise atypical injuries. And it includes, in these several contexts, nurses’ evolving relationship with the physicians alongside whom they worked.  Among historians of nursing, Christine Hallett stands out for weaving issues of nursing practice into her excellent accounts of the allied nurses of WWI, with a focus on the nurses of Britain and the British Dominions.  Hallett has no counterpart among historians of American nursing, and as a result no effort has been made to gauge the impact of WWI on the trajectory of nurse professionalization in America, both inside and outside the military.

This study begins to address this lacuna from a perspective that stands alongside nursing history.  It  comes from a historian of ideas who works in the history of American medicine.  It is avowedly historicist in nature, grounded in the assumption that nursing practice is not a Platonic universal with a self-evident, objectivist meaning.  Rather this type of practice, like all types of practice, is historically determined, with the line between medical treatment and nursing care becoming especially fluid during times of crisis.  It is intended to supplement the existing literature on WWI nurses, especially the excellent work of Hallett and other informative studies of British, Canadian, and Australian nurses, respectively.  The originality of the work lies in its focus on American nurses, its thematic emphasis on nursing activities, and its argument for the surprisingly modern character of the latter.  Close study of nursing practice, especially in the context of specific battlefield injuries, wound infections, and infectious diseases, yields insights that coalesce into a new appreciation of just how much frontline “doctoring” these nurses actually did.

The case for modern nursing practice in WWI is strengthened by comparative historical inquiry that renders the study, I hope, a more general contribution to the history of military nursing and medicine.  In each of the chapters to follow, I work into the narrative comparative treatment of WWI nursing with nursing in the American Civil War of 1861-1865, the Spanish-American War of 1898, and/or the Anglo-Boer War of 1899-1902.  The gulf that separates Great War nursing from that of wars only two decades earlier, we will see, is wide and deep.  In the concluding chapter, I invert the case for modernity by looking forward from America’s Great War nurses to the American nurses who served in World War II and Vietnam.  If Great War nurses had little in common with the Civil War nurses who preceded them by a half century, they share a great deal, surprisingly, with their successors in Vietnam a half century later.

The focus on nursing practice, then, far from being restrictive in scope, opens to a wide range of issues – medical, cultural, political, and military. Consider, for example, the very notion of healthcare practice, which is determined by a confluence of factors.  Specific theories of disease, rationales for treatment of specific conditions, putative mechanisms of cure, and the grounds for “proving” cure are all central to the historical study of healthcare practice.  Female nursing practice, with the bodily intimacies it entails, also implicates considerations of gender – of what, keeping to the time frame of this study, early-twentieth-century female hands might do to male bodies, and what the males who “owned” these bodies might comfortably permit female hands to do.  Depending on the historical location of nursing practice, issues of social class, nationality, ethnicity, and race may count for as much or more than gender.

By channeling our gaze onto what nurses of the Great War actually did with wounded, suffering, distraught, and dying soldiers, we learn about the many factors that enter into combat nursing at one moment in modern history.  The focus on nursing practice provides a new perspective on the medical advances of the Great War; the role of nurses in making and implementing these advances; the new professional status that accompanied this process; and the American military’s emerging appreciation of trained nurses, indeed of female officers in general.  The focus on nursing practice draws a different picture of the evolution of military personnel policy and the changing social mores and political pressures that accompanied this evolution.

The fate of WWI combat nurses’ role back on the homefront in the aftermath of war is a separate story that I address but briefly in the concluding chapter.  More work should be done on the relationship between military and civilian nursing practice, especially the fate of combat nurses who return to civilian nursing after wartime service.  To keep to the subject matter of this study, the experience of America’s WWI nurses back in civilian hospitals offers an illuminating window into the frustrations and accomplishments of nurses, indeed of professional women in general, in the American workplace in the two decades between the world wars.

For American readers Easing Pain on the Western Front may prove interesting for another reason.  Our increasing reliance on nurses to meet the health care challenges of the twenty-first century, especially in the realm of primary care, underscores the relevance of the unsuspectedly modern Great War nurse providers.  Indeed, they offer a fascinating point of departure for ongoing debates by nurses, physicians, social scientists, and politicians about the scope of practice of nurse practitioners in relation to physicians.  This is because America’s Great War nurses, no less than the nurses of other combatant nations, had to step up during battle “rushes” that overwhelmed their surgeon colleagues.  At such times, and in the weeks and months of intensive care that followed, they became autonomous clinical providers, true forebearers of the nurse practitioners and advanced practice nurses of the present day.  The fact that their professional leap forward occurred in understaffed casualty clearing stations and field hospitals on the Western front during the second decade of the twentieth century lends salience to their accomplishments.

Notwithstanding the many streams of contingency that flow into nursing practice at a given moment in history, I hasten to point out that I am not a historian of gender and that my comments on gender, not to mention ethnicity and race, are sparing.  I invoke them only in the context of specific nursing activities, especially when they were raised by the nurses themselves.  The same may be said of the nurses’ personal lives.  I ignore neither the emotional toll of combat nursing nor the psychological adaptations to which it gave rise.  But here again these issues are addressed primarily in relation to nursing activities, especially the nurses’ perceptions of and reactions to the wounded, ill, and dying they cared for.  I leave to others more comprehensive study of the gender-related, racial, and psychological aspects of American military nursing in World War I and other wars, noting only that the scholarship of Darlene Clark Hine, Margaret Sadowski, and Kara Dixon Vuic has begun to mine this rich vein of nursing history to great effect.

The cohort of nurses at the heart of this study is not limited to American nurses.  They include Canadian and British nurses as well.  In the case of the former, the ground for inclusion is not especially problematic, since many Canadian nurses trained in the United States; indeed, some both trained and worked in the States prior to their wartime service.  Ella Mae Bongard, for example, a Canadian from Picton, Ontario, trained at New York Presbyterian Hospital, practiced in New York for two years after graduating in 1915, and then volunteered with the U.S. Army Nursing Corps.  She ended up at a British hospital in Étretat, where she served with several of her Presbyterian classmates.  The Canadian Alice Isaacson, who served with the Canadian Army Medical Corps, was a naturalized American citizen.  Among other members of the Canadian Nurse Corps,  Mary Catherine Nichols Gunn trained in Ferrisburg VT and initially worked at Nobel Hospital outside Seattle; Annie Main Gee trained at Minneapolis City Hospital with postgraduate studies at New York Polyclinic; and Eleanor Jane McPhedran trained at New York Hospital School of Nursing and worked in the area for three years after graduating.  In all, the training of Canadian nurses and the nursing services they provided were  very much in line with American nursing.

In the case of several prominent British nurses cited throughout the work – Kate Luard, Edith Appleton, Dorothea Crewdson – I am arguably on less certain ground.  British nurses – veiled and addressed as “Sister” –cannot strictly speaking play a role in American nursing practice during the Great War.   I include them nonetheless for several reasons.  The fact is that many British nurses, no less than the Canadians, served abroad for the duration of the war; usually their wartime service extended beyond the Armistice of November 1918 by up to a year.   The duration of their wartime experience makes their diaries and letters, taken en masse, more revelatory of treatment-related issues than those of their American colleagues, whose term of service  was a year or less.  The reflections of Canadian and British nurses on nursing practice on the Western front lend illustrative force to the same battlefield injuries, systemic infections, and psychological traumata encountered by the America nurses as well.

Shared nursing practices were reinforced by considerable interchange among the allied nurses.  Within months of the outbreak of war, American Red Cross (ARC) nurses, all native born and white per ARC requirements, sailed to Europe to lend a hand.  On September 12, 1914, the first 126 departed from New York Harbor on a relief ship officially renamed Red Cross for the duration of the voyage.  A second group of 12 nurses joined three surgeons on a separate vessel destined for Serbia.  Other nurse contingents followed over the next several months, all part of the American Red Cross’s “Mercy Mission.”

Technically ARC nurses were envoys of a neutral nation, and those in the initial group ended up not only in England and France but in Russia, Austro-Hungary, and Germany as well.   In the last the ARC worked in concert with the German Red Cross, and American nurses like Caroline Bauer, stationed in Kosel, Germany in 1915, expressed genuine fondness for the “brave and good” German soldiers under her care.  For the majority of nurses, however, pre-1917 service in British and French hospitals, despite some initial tensions with British supervisors, reinforced ideological and emotional bonds and introduced American nurses to the realities of combat nursing on the Western front.

Even after America’s entry into the war in 1917, American nurses were typically assigned on arrival to British or Canadian hospitals, where they continued their tutelage under senior Canadian and British nursing sisters until returning to their units once their hospitals were ready for them.  Allowing for occasional exceptions, the same medicines (sometimes with different names) were administered, the same procedures performed, and the same technologies employed by the nurses of the allied nations.  To ignore what the Canadian and British nurses have to say about the same issues of nursing practice encountered by the Americans would enervate the study without leading to any refinement of its thesis.

And so, aided by the testimony of Canadian and British nurses,  I am secure in my thesis as it pertains to American nursing and the birth of modern nursing practice.  That being said, I leave it to scholars more knowledgeable than I about Canadian and British nursing history to validate, amend, or reject the thesis in relation to their respective nations.

Finally, it bears noting that in a work about nursing practice that draws on the recollections of a cohort of American, Canadian, and British nurses, each nurse is very much her own person with a personal story to tell.  The memoirs, letters, and diaries that frame this study provide elements of these stories, of how each nurse’s experience interacted with her family history, training, personality, temperament, and capacity for stress management.

In a general way, reactions to the actualities of nursing on the Western front fall along a spectrum of psychological and existential possibilities. At one pole is the affirmation of the combat nursing life provided by Dorothea Crewdson: “I enjoy life here very much indeed. Wonderfully healthy and free.”   At the opposite pole are the mordant reflections of the writer Mary Borden, for whom “The nurse is no longer a woman.  She is dead already, just as I am – really dead, and past resurrection.”  The gamut of reactions, and the richly idiomatic language through which they were expressed, are woven into my narrative at every turn.  I am most concerned, however, with the nurses’ transition from one mindset to another, especially the abruptness with which the life-affirming brio of Crewdson gave way to the horror, demoralization, and depersonalization of Borden. The happy excitement and prideful sense of participation in the war effort with which American nurses set out for the front often dissipated shortly after they arrived and saw the human wreckage that would be the locus of their “nursing.”

Signposts of personal transformation, which I gather together as epiphanies, represent my point of departure in chapter 1.  But in the chapters that follow, these elements of personal biography are subordinate to my focus on nursing practice through a cohort analysis.  Fleshing out the individual stories that undergirded such transformations – the   chronicles of strong, often overpowering emotions that took nurses to the point of physical or nervous collapse – is the stuff of biography and falls beyond the task I have set myself.  It suffices to recall that nurses, no less than the soldiers they cared for, fell victim to what, in the parlance of the war, was termed “shell shock,” even though medical and military personnel steadfastly refused to pin this label on them.  But most of the time the nurses’ descent into the horrific gave rise to adaptive strategies – compartmentalization, dissociation, psychic numbing, black humor – that enabled them to labor on in the service of their soldiers, their “boys.”.

It is with respect to the nurses’ shared ability to bracket their personal stories in the service of a nascent professionalism – a professionalism that segued into medical diagnosis and procedural caregiving far removed from the world of their training and prewar experience – that they reached their full stature.  In so doing, they provide an historical example, deeply moving, of the kind of self-overcoming for which we reserve the term “hero.”

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EASING PAIN ON THE WESTERN FRONT

American Nurses of the Great War and the Birth of Modern Nursing Practice

Paul E. Stepansky

McFarland & Co.     978-1476680019     2020     244pp.     19 photos     $39.95pbk.

Available now from Amazon 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Telemedicine Rising

In a “Viewpoint” published in JAMA a month ago,[1] Michael Nochomovitz and Rahul Sharma suggest that the time has come to create a new medical specialty: virtual medicine.  Extrapolating from the manner in which medical specialties have traditionally arisen (viz., “by advances in technology and expansion of knowledge in care delivery”), they submit that telemedicine has advanced to the point of providing the basis for a new kind of specialty care.  Telemedicine, as they define it, comprises various web-based telecommunications modalities, social media, teleconferencing, video face-to-face communications with patients, among them.  They place before us  medical virtualists, physicians who “will spend the majority or all of their time caring for patients using a virtual medium.”

Unlike today’s physicians, who make use of this or that “virtual medium” haphazardly and without formal training, the virtualist will achieve a set of “core competencies” through formal training.  Their curriculum for certification, according to the authors, should include “knowledge of legal and clinical limitations of virtual care, competencies in virtual examination using the patient or families, ‘virtual visit presence training,’ inclusion of on-site clinical measurements, as well as continuing education.” Among the techniques in their arsenal will be those aimed at achieving “good webside manner” (authors’ italics).

Now, far be it from me to discourage the use of  remote technologies to render health care delivery more efficient and especially to bring primary care to underserved communities. The value of “remote surgery” that ranges from telementoring and remote guidance to actual robotic operations is well-documented.  But is a new medical virtualism specialty really in our best interest?  Certainly,  telemedicine will play an  increasing role in medicine; the question is whether this “role” should become the basis of a bounded specialty.  This would make the medical virtualist the first medical practitioner whose practice excluded (or drastically marginalized) patients, making it radically different from nonpractice specialties such as pathology or diagnostic radiology.

It is problematic especially in the cognitive specialties.  We would have a subspecies of primary care doctors who specialized in care that was patient-uncentered, i.e., that was premised on the self-sufficiency of piece-person care as opposed to whole-person care.  The proposal takes the current fragmentation of care among subspecialists and refashions it into a virtue.  That is, we will have virtuous physicians who only practice virtual medicine and feel good about doing so.  Such care differs from subspecialty care in a key respect:  we typically see our subspecialists in the flesh.  We can ask them questions, demand explanations, and criticize them for not giving us the time and attention we seek.  In the absence of adequate time and attention, we can seek out a different subspecialist who is more patient-centered and welcoming.   With the medical virtualist, on the other hand, dehumanization is integral to the specialty itself.  The patient has no recourse; he is outside the virtualist’s purview altogether.

It is striking that the issue of patient trust is nowhere mentioned in the article,   even though empirical research suggests that trust is the “basic driver” of patient satisfaction.  It has been linked to less treatment anxiety, greater pain tolerance, and greater compliance.[2]  But the authors subordinate all such issues to their focus on efficiency and ease of use.   As such, their case rests on the assumption that informed the patient rights movement of the 1970s and ’80s:  that patients are simply consumers in search of a commodity.  Now, a half century after passage of the Patient’s Bill of Rights, the commodity is increasingly mediated by technology.[3]  And “the success of technology-based services,” according to the authors, “is not determined by hardware and software alone but by ease of use, perceived value, and workflow optimization.”  The need to humanize the delivery of technology, to convey to the patient some sense of what I have termed “caring technology,”[4] falls outside a conversation framed in terms of consumerist values.

But once we factor trust into the equation, we open a can of worms.  For patient trust implicates the doctor’s touch, which includes both the laying on of hands and the implementation of office-based procedures.  It also implicates human qualities such as caring, empathy, and the willingness to tolerate ambiguity.  Finally, it puts us in contact with the  Hippocratic Oath, in which ethical obligations revolve entirely around physicians treating patients who are full-fledged human beings, fellow sufferers.  This is why Jennifer Edgoose and Julian Edgoose, writing in a recent issue of Annals of Family Medicine about “Finding Hope in the Face-to-Face,” begin with this sentence:  “The daily work of clinicians is conducted in face-to-face encounters, whether in exam rooms, homes, or alongside hospital beds, but little attention has been paid to the responsibilities and ethical implications generated by this dimension of our relational work.”[5]  Among these implications is the physician’s obligation not merely to be an instrument of diagnosis and treatment, but also to contain the patient’s “wounded humanity” in the sense of Pellegrino.[6]

I wrote In the Hands of Doctors precisely to explore, both historically and in the present, this dimension of physicians’ “relational work,” including the better and worse ways in which it can appropriate technologies that are not only sought after by patient-consumers, but viewed as remote and intimidating by patient-persons.  Physicians who know their patients as wounded and vulnerable can humanize technology by pulling it into a trusting doctor-patient relationship.

These thoughts are a counterpoise to the authors’ brief for “the medical virtualist.”  Their proposal is provocative and troubling.  It inverts figure and ground, so that telemedicine, heretofore an adjunct to face-to-face care, becomes the ground of a specialty in which face-to-face care is incidental at best.  In the domain of primary care, it segues into the philosophical question of who or what primary care virtualists are being trained to care for.  Can one be a primary care physician of any type and care for some “thing” other than whole persons?  The status of virtualism in surgical specialties is no doubt different.

I invite others to reply to this posting with their thoughts on a topic that will only grow in importance in the years ahead.

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[1] Michael Nochomovitz & Rahul Sharma, “Is It Time for a New Medical Specialty?  The Medical Virtualist,” JAMA, 319:437-438, 2018.

[2] Paul E. Stepansky, In the Hands of Doctors: Touch and Trust in Medical Care (Montclair: Keynote, 2017), 21 and references cited therein.

[3] Stepansky, In the Hands of Doctors, 133-135

[4] Stepansky, In the Hands of Doctors, 82-98.

[5] Jennifer Y. C. Edgoose & Julian M. Edgoose, “Finding Hope in the Face-to-Face,” Ann. Fam. Med., 15:272-274, 2017.

[6] E. D. Pellegrino, Humanism and the Physician (Knoxville:  University of Tennessee Press, 1979), 124, 146, 184, and passim.

 

The Politics of Medical Freedom

Winner of an Independent Publisher Books Award Bronze Medal for 2017, Paul Stepansky’s In the Hands of Doctors:  Touch and Trust in Medical Care is now available in paperback and as an eBook.  For the paperback edition, Stepansky has written a new preface, a stirring defense of Obamacare as a path to universal health care in America.  It is given here in its entirety in appreciation of the readers of “Medicine, Health, and History.”

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In the Hands of Doctors:  Touch and Trust in Medical Care

Preface to the Paperback Edition
Copyright © 2017 by Paul E. Stepansky.  All rights reserved.

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 In our time, political speech and writing are largely the defense of the indefensible.
                                         — George Orwell, “Politics and the English Language” (1946)

Now, less than a year after publication of In the Hands of Doctors, the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act of 2010 (aka Obamacare), which I roundly endorse in this book, is gravely imperiled.  Congressional Republican legislators have joined a Republican President in a commitment to repeal the bill that has provided health insurance to over 20 million previously uninsured Americans.  The legislation thus far presented to replace it by the U.S. Senate  (the “Better Care Reconciliation Act of 2017”) would, according to the Congressional Budget Office, leave 15 million Americans uninsured in 2018 and 22 million by 2026.   Proposed cuts and caps to the Medicaid budget, which are part of the legislation, would, according to the CBO, decrease enrollment in the program by 16% over the next decade.  In brief, these cuts and caps would jeopardize the health and well-being of the one in five Americans and one in three American children dependent on the support provided by Medicaid.  Disabled and other special-needs children as well as elderly nursing home residents would suffer the most.  A Congressional vote simply to repeal Obamacare absent new legislation would have even more catastrophic consequences.
      Congressional opponents of the Affordable Care Act, no less than President Donald Trump, appear to live in a hermetically sealed bubble that makes only grazing contact with the socioeconomic ground below.  They share space in the bubble with colliding political abstractions that they grasp, one after the other, and radio back down to earth.  The political bubble dwellers offer us yet again the palliatives of context-free “medical choice” and “medical freedom” as remedies for the real-world suffering addressed by Obamacare.
     But these terms, as used by politicians, do not speak to the realties of American health care in  2017.  Rather, they hearken back to the era of the Founding Fathers, when issues of health, illness, freedom, and tyranny were much simpler.  Freedom, as the founders understood it, operated only in the intertwined realms of politics and religion.  How could it be otherwise?   Medical intervention did not affect the course of illness; it did not enable people to feel better and live longer and more productive lives.  With the exception of smallpox inoculation, which George Washington wisely made mandatory among colonial troops in the winter of 1777, governmental intrusion into the health of its citizenry was nonexistent, even non-sensical.
     Until roughly the eighth decade of the nineteenth century, you got sick, you recovered (often despite doctoring), you lingered on in sickness, or you died.  They were the options.  Medical freedom, enshrined during the Jacksonian era, meant being free to pick and choose your doctor without any state interference.  So liberty-loving Americans picked and chose among mercury-dosing, bloodletting “regulars,” homeopaths, herbalists, botanical practitioners, eclectics, hydropaths, phrenologists, Christian Scientists, folk healers, and faith healers.   State legislatures stood on the sidelines, rescinding or gutting medical licensing laws and applauding the new pluralism.  It was anarchy, but anarchy in the service of medical freedom of choice.
     Now, mercifully, our notion of medical freedom has been reconfigured by two centuries of medical progress.  We don’t just get sick and die.  We get sick and get medical help, and, mirabile dictu, the help actually helps.  In antebellum America, deaths of young people under 20 accounted for half the national death rate, which was more than three times the death rate today.  Now our children  don’t die of  small pox, cholera, yellow fever, dysentery, typhoid, and pulmonary and respiratory infections before they reach maturity.  When they get sick in early life, their parents take them to the doctor and they almost always get better.  Their parents, on the other hand, especially after reaching middle age, don’t always get better.  So they get ongoing medical attention to help them live longer and more comfortably with chronic conditions such as diabetes, coronary heart disease, inflammatory bowel disease, Parkinson’s, and many forms of cancer.
     When our framers drafted the Constitution, the idea of being free to live a productive and relatively comfortable life with long-term illness did not compute.  You died from diabetes, cancer, bowel obstruction, neurodegenerative disease, and major infections.  Among young women,  such infections included the uterine infection that routinely followed childbirth.  A major heart attack simply killed you.  You didn’t receive dialysis and possibly a kidney transplant when you entered kidney failure.  Major surgery, performed on the kitchen table if you were of means or in a bacteria-infested public hospital if you were not, was rarely attempted because it invariably resulted in massive blood loss, infection, and death.
     So, yes, our framers intended our citizenry to be free of government interference, including the Obamacare “mandate” that impinges on Americans who choose to opt out of the program.  But then, with the arguable exception of Benjamin Franklin, the framers never envisioned a world in which freedom could be extended by access to expert medical care that relieves suffering, often effects cure, and prolongs life.  But then, neither could they envision the enfranchisement of former slaves and women, the progressive income tax, compulsory vaccination, publicly supported health clinics, mass screening for TB, diabetes, and  syphilis, or Medicare and Medicaid.  Throughout the antebellum era, when physicians were reviled by the public and when neither regular medicine nor the rival alternative sects could stem the periodic waves of cholera, yellow fever, and malaria that decimated local populations, it mattered little who provided one’s doctoring.  Many, like the thousands who paid $20.00 for the right to practice Samuel Thomson’s do-it-yourself botanical system, chose to doctor themselves.
     Those who seek repeal of Obamacare without a credible legislative alternative that provides equal, preferably greater, health benefits to all Americans seem challenged by the very idea of medical progress.  Their use of terms like “choice” and “freedom” invokes an eighteenth-century political frame of reference to deprive Americans of a kind of freedom associated with a paradigm-shift that arose only in the final quarter of the nineteenth century.  It was only then that American medicine began its transition to what we think of as modern medicine.  Listerian antisepsis and asepsis; laboratory research in bacteriology, immunology, and pharmacology; laboratory development of specific remedies for specific illnesses; implementation of public health measures informed by bacteriology; modern medical education; and, yes, government regulation to safeguard the public from incompetent practitioners and toxic medications – all were part of the transition.  The Jacksonian impulse persisted into the early twentieth century, flaring up in organized opposition to compulsory childhood vaccination, and  finally petering out in the 1930s, by which time it was universally accepted that scientific medicine was, well, scientific, and, as such, something more than one medical sect among many.
     “We hold these truths to be self-evident,” Thomas Jefferson began the second paragraph of the Declaration of Independence, “that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”  What Jefferson did not stipulate, indeed what he could not stipulate in his time and place, were the hierarchical relationships among these rights.  Now, in the twenty-first century, we are able to go beyond an eighteenth-century mindset in which  “Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness” functioned as a noun phrase whose unitary import derived from the political tyrannies of King George III and the British parliament.  Now we can place life at the base of the pyramid and declare that quality of life is indelibly linked to liberty and the pursuit of happiness.  To the extent that quality of life is diminished through disease, liberty and the pursuit of happiness are necessarily compromised.  In the twenty-first century, health is life; it is life poised to exercise liberty and pursue happiness to the fullest.
     Why, then,  is it wrong to require all citizens to participate in a national health plan, either directly or through a mandate (i.e., a tax on those who opt out), that safeguards the right of people to  efficacious health care regardless of their financial circumstances, their employment status, and their preexisting medical conditions?  What is it about the Obamacare mandate that has proven so troubling to our legislators?  When you buy a house in this country, you pay local property taxes that support the local public schools.  These taxes function like the mandate:  They have a differential financial impact on people depending on whether they directly benefit from the  system sustained by the tax.  To wit, you pay the tax whether or not you choose to send your children to the public schools, indeed, whether or not you have children at all.  You are obligated to subsidize the public education of children other than your own because public education has been declared a public good by the polity of which you are a part.  The same goes for that portion of local taxes that provides police and fire protection.  We accept a mandate to support policemen and firefighters whether or not we will ever need them, in the knowledge that other members of the community assuredly will.  Similarly, those who opt out of Obamacare should pay a price, because they remain part of a society committed to health as a superordinate value without which liberty and the pursuit of happiness are enfeebled.
     It is inconceivable that the Founding Fathers would have found unconstitutional or unfair or governmentally oppressive a law that provided life-promoting health care that enabled more Americans to discharge the duties of citizenship and live more freely and productively in pursuit of happiness.  They declared that citizens – all of whom, be it noted, were white, propertied males – were entitled to life consistent with the demands and entitlements of representative democracy.  Their pledge, their declaration, was not in support of a compromised life that limited the ability to fulfill those demands and enjoy those entitlements.
     When, in our own time, the word “choice,” as used by Republican politicians, means that millions of Americans who rely on Obamacare will end up leading compromised lives, the word becomes semantically contorted and ethically bankrupt.  The absence of Obamacare does not, ipso facto, empower lower-income, assistance-dependent Americans to buy the comprehensive health insurance they need, especially when the tax credits under legislation proposed thus far provide far less support than the subsidization lower-income families now receive.  Freeing insurers from Obamacare regulations so that they can offer inadequate policies that lower-income Americans can afford to buy does nothing but maximize the medical risks of these financially choice-less Americans.  Here is a fact:  Economic circumstances wipe out the prerogative to make prudent choices in one’s own best interest.  For lower-income Americans, a panoply of inadequate choices is not the pathway to right-minded decision making.  With the Senate’s “Better Care Reconciliation Act,” unveiled in June and updated in July, 2017, millions of low-income Americans, especially those dependent on Obamacare subsidies and Medicaid, would have had an absence of credible and affordable choices for obtaining health care adequate to their needs.  The call simply to repeal the Affordable Care Act, which the Senate has rejected as of this writing, would take us back to a status quo ante when millions of Americans were either priced out of, or completely denied, health coverage.
     Of course, adult citizens may repudiate mainstream health care altogether on the basis of philosophical or religious  predilections.  Christian Scientists and Jehovah’s Witnesses, for example, hold theological beliefs that often lead them to refuse medical treatment.  Certainly, they are free to pursue health through spiritual healing or, in the manner of medieval Christians, to disavow corporeal health and earth-bound life altogether.  But by law they cannot deny their children, who deserve to live to maturity and make their own choices, the healing power of modern medicine, whether it comes in the form of insulin, antibiotics, blood transfusions, or surgery.  Nor should they be allowed to undermine social and political arrangements, codified in law, that support everyone else’s right to pursue life and happiness through twenty-first century medicine.  Those who, prior to the Affordable Care Act, had inadequate insurance or no insurance at all are not struggling to free themselves from the clutches of federal regulation; they are not crying out for new free market health plans through which they can exercise freedom of choice.  Rather, they are struggling to put food on the table and keep themselves and their families healthy.  To this end, they need to be free to avail themselves of what modern medicine has to offer, unencumbered by politically debased notions of freedom and choice.
     At this moment in history, in a fractionated society represented by a President and Congressional leaders whose daily missives bear out George Orwell’s acute observation about the corruption of language brought on by political orthodoxies, In the Hands of Doctors may have a wistful ring.  I hope not.  I am addressing the personal side of health care – the reality of a doctor and patient, alone in a consulting room, often surrounded by high-tech diagnostic aids but always containing those vital low-tech instruments with which one person reaches out to the other:  the physician’s eyes and hands and voice.  The human face of doctoring, which now includes the doctoring of nurse practitioners and physician assistants, remains essential to the success of any doctor-patient relationship, whatever the institutional arrangements that bring together this doctor and this patient, the former to help the latter.
     Endeavoring to understand the several aspects – and possibilities – of the doctor-patient relationship, I write about the nature of clinical caring; the relation between caring and patient trust; the need to recruit and train physicians who can bring this caring sensibility to their patients; the role of empathy in medical caring; and the obligation of medical educators to revivify primary care medicine to meet the critical shortage of frontline physicians within underserved American communities.  These issues will not go away, whatever the fate of Obamacare.
     When federal legislation, through the practical assistance it provides, extends the reach of trusting doctor-patient relationships to the most vulnerable  groups in society, it has a  function that is both binding and enabling.  It fortifies the webbing that underlies the increasingly disparate parts of our national mosaic.  Obamacare, the Children’s Health Insurance Program, Medicaid – these programs do not “bring us together” in a feel good way.  They do, however, prevent a free fall in which the subcommunities and interest groups into which society has decomposed land so far apart they are no longer in hailing distance of one another.  As to the enabling function, a comprehensive medical safety net for all Americans – let’s call it what it is: universal health care – revitalizes political democracy by extending to all Americans a greater possibility of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.  In the everyday world, this pursuit boils down to the ability of more people to stay on the job or to work from home rather than not work at all.  Society benefits, since chronically ill people pursuing happiness under the umbrella of universal health care will better resist the complications and collateral illnesses that follow from their primary illness or illnesses.  Society also benefits by enabling healthier happiness-pursuers to avoid hospitalization and, among the elderly, to push back the time when nursing home care is required.  And finally, society benefits by seeing to it that all children, especially those who are disabled, receive every medical advantage as they traverse their own challenging paths to productive, choice-wielding citizenship.
     Obamacare is a far cry from universal health care, but for all its limitations and current financial straits, it has provided these binding and enabling functions for millions of Americans previously without a medical safety net.  Woe to politicians who shred it in the name of choice, a pleasing vacuity that evades the reality of disease and pain among many who are relieved to have a single avenue of subsidized care where none was previously available.
     Health care should be a national trust; everyone deserves what twenty-first century medicine has to offer, regardless of how much or how little choice can be worked into the offering.  Politicians who feel otherwise are enemies of the polity.  Jefferson, who as president helped set up the first smallpox vaccination clinics in the south and then, in retirement, planned a state-supported clinic to provide free medical care to those who could not afford it, would not have brooked the empty insistence that medical freedom and medical choice, unhinged from socioeconomic reality, trump access to medical care per se.  Nor, for that matter, does choice, whatever it may or may not mean, obviate our moral obligation as a society to see to it that best available treatment, whatever the pathway that leads to it, means treatment rendered by caring doctors willing to know their patients as people.

~

In the Hands of Doctors:  Touch and Trust in Medical Care, 1st pbk ed

Paul E. Stepansky

978-0983080770        2016/2017pbk        348pp        $26.95pbk

Release date: September 12, 2017

Order now at Amazon.com

 

 

 

Remembering the Nurses of WWI (VI)

[The sixth and final essay about the gallant nurses of World War I commemorating the centennial of America’s entry into the war on April 6, 1917]

PLAGUE

Influenza.  The Plague. The Great Pandemic of 1918.  The Spanish Flu, which, as best we can determine, originated not in Spain but in Camp Funston in northeastern Kansas and Camp Oglethorpe in northwestern Georgia in March and April, 1918.  From there it spread to other army camps, then to France via troops disembarking at Brest, then to the rest of Europe, then to the rest the world.  By the time the epidemic had passed, world population was reduced by 50 to 100 million, or from 3% to 5%.[1]  

During 1918 and 1919, 47% of all deaths in the United States were from influenza and its complications, with over 675,000 deaths in all.   The first wave of the disease in March and April 1918 was relatively mild, as the virus learned to adapt to humans via passage from person to person.  But the second wave, which began in August, was deadly.  Philadelphia officials foolishly refused to cancel a Liberty Loan Parade scheduled for September 28.  Within three days, every hospital bed in the city’s 31 hospitals was filled; within 10 days the pandemic exploded to hundreds of thousands ill, with hundreds of deaths each day. By October 12, 4,500 Philadelphians had died from the flu; a few weeks later the total was nearly 11,000.  Neighboring New York City lost over 21,000 during the same period.

One characteristic of the Spanish flu was that, unlike typical influenza, it targeted younger victims, aged 20-40.  The fault was in their very youth, as   their immune systems mounted a massive response to the virus, filling their lungs with so much fluid and debris that the exchange of oxygen became impossible.  Victims lapsed into unconsciousness and drowned on their own internal secretions.  Others remained alive long enough to have bacteria swarm into their compromised lungs and compound viral infection with bacterial pneumonia; the result was either death or a lengthy convalescence.

The American Expeditionary Force (AEF) consisted of healthy young men.  Influenza hit them hard.  At home, things grew desperate in army training camps and cantonments.  It was the first and only time the number of seriously ill soldiers exceed the military’s total hospital capacity; the army had to take over barracks and use them as hospitals.  It was no better overseas, where the virus took advantage of the conditions of trench warfare to evolve into its lethal form.  By the U.S. War Department’s own reckoning, the flu eventually sickened 26% of the AEF – over a million men – and accounted for  82% of the army’s total deaths from disease.[2]

Influenza patients at a naval training station in California, 1918

The serious shortage of nurses to care for stricken soldiers spurred the American Red Cross to action.  It struggled to ship out the 1,000 nurses a week requested by the army. On the home front, it set aside its policy of racial exclusion and enrolled African American nurses for “special service.” In early December, two emergency detachments of nurses of color set out for army hospitals at Camp Sherman in Ohio and Camp Grant in Illinois, respectively. There they were assigned to general wards filled with white soldiers.  To the surprise of skeptical white chief nurses, their service was exemplary, whatever the drudgery assigned them.[3]

____________

The story of the pandemic of 1918 is the story of modern medicine not yet modern enough to grasp the characteristics of viruses:  their structure; the manner in which they invaded and infected cells; even whether they were liquid or particle in nature.   The best laboratory techniques of the time could identify viruses only as the mysterious “something”  left over after infected blood samples or respiratory secretions were passed through a Chamberland filter, whose minute pores filtered out all known bacteria.  Since, with  hoof-and-mouth disease and  yellow fever, filtered solution or “filtrate” had been shown to make healthy animals sick, it must contain an imperceptible, nonspecifiable something  that passed on the disease.  But this eliminative logic had no operational consequences; it was a therapeutic dead end.  So researchers played to the strength of their time, a golden age for linking specific bacteria to specific illnesses:  they searched for a bacteriological culprit for The Great Flu.  And they thought they had found one.  Plausibly, they believed the Spanish flu was caused by the Bacillus influenzae discovered by the German bacteriologist Richard Pfeiffer in 1892.  And they were wrong.

Bacteriology  in 1918 might be adequate, at least some of the time, to the secondary bacterial infections (especially pneumonia) that followed the weakening of the immune system caused by the virus.  But in the face of the virus itself,  it was helpless.  Only in 1934, when a new flu epidemic raged in Puerto Rico, would Thomas Francis of the Rockefeller Institute, utilizing a technique for viral transmission in animals developed by his colleague, Richard Shope, isolate the Type A influenza virus.

_____________

If the warring armies of 1918 were hit hard by the flu, it was often the nurses, no less than the infected soldiers, who took it on the chin. This included the nurses of the Allied Expeditionary Force.  During the initially mild phase of the epidemic, ignorant of what was to come, overseas nurses were content to add the flu to the list of infections they combatted and to which, often enough, they fell victim.  Being bedridden themselves was simply a vicissitude of the job – a cost of the business of frontline nursing.  “It’s not that I mind being in bed,” wrote Helen Boylston in February, 1918.  “I don’t even mind having flu and trench fever.”  Two months later, she recorded that the flu was back again, “and everybody has it, including me.  I’ve run a temperature of one hundred and two for three days, can hardly breathe, and have to sleep on four pillows at night.” But she kept her suffering to herself and soldiered on:  “But I’m not talking about it, because I don’t want to be sent to Villa Tino[for rest and treatment].”   Of course, when the influenza struck in full force in the fall of 1918, nurses, whatever their resolve, were not spared.  In the U.S., 127 army nurses died from flu, and an untold number, probably another 100, died in Europe.  Katherine Magrath, the chief nurse of Base Hospital 68 in Nièvre in central France, buried 12 of her nurses in a single month. After each funeral, she avoid looking at the faces of her surviving nurses lest she wonder “which would be the next to be absent from the dismal scene.” [4]

Unable to treat the flu at its source, the nurses did what they had grown accustomed to doing for the desperately ill:  They bore witness to suffering and tried to ease it.  Their witnessing was different from that of the doctors.  In their diaries, for example, they record the sensory experience of hands-on care of those who grew sicker and then died.  Influenza cases had swamped the nurses, wrote Shirley Millard at the beginning of April, 1918. And the soldiers, “When they die, as about half of them do, they turn a ghastly dark gray and are taken out at once and cremated.”  Forty of 160 patients had the flu, and the staff was coming down with it  So reported Hoosier nurse Maude Essig from Base Hospital 32 in the French resort town of Contrexéville in November.  “The odors,” she added, “are bad.”[5]

Treatment of the flu-ridden called forth everything in the nurses’ toolbox. They quickly learned the course of the illness, and they took from the toolbox everything they had to strengthen the heart, ease respiration, and attenuate suffering.  If they could not tame the virus, they could, with luck, keep patients alive long enough for their immune systems to rally and join the struggle.  During the early days of the pandemic, Beatrice Hopkinson wrote in her diary how flu-ridden patients were stripped of their clothing in one tent, bathed in disinfectant and distributed among different wards.  But disinfectants, she and others quickly learned, were unavailing.  Patients who were very ill often died from pneumonia within days, Hopkinson found.[6]  For those whose fate was not sealed, the trick was to bring down their high fevers with alcohol baths and to keep their hearts beating and their lungs exchanging oxygen and carbon dioxide.  Here is how nurses coped with a signal corps switchboard operator – one of the first “Hello Girls” – stricken with influenza on board the transport ship Olympic in September 1918:

Risking their own lives, nurses placed warm mustard packs on her chest to dilate the capillaries, stimulate her nervous system, and help her cough up the mucus that could drown her.  They aspirated her lungs, sponged her body with alcohol, applied camphorated oil every hour, gave  her salt-solution enemas, and spoon-fed her concoctions of milk, eggs, and whiskey.  The first week, Conroy received four hypodermic injections of digitalis to control her pulse and strengthen her heartbeat.[7]

None of these ministrations attacked the virus, but they kept Conroy alive, and after 17 days her fever finally broke.  She, no less than the nurses who saved her, went on to contribute to the war effort in France.

In 1916, prior to the epidemic, nurses who began to feel “influenza-ish” might resort to brisk walks and a “good hot mustard bath.”  But when they took ill after the epidemic set in, they resorted to large doses of quinine and aspirin or, alternatively, to quinine and “a stiff dose of whiskey” to keep going.[8] By the fall of 1918, their wards had become “influenza departments,” and they wondered how long they could resist infection.  Inevitably, nurses became patients, taking to their beds to await transfer to nearby convalescent homes set aside for them, referred to colloquially as “Sick Sisters,” for treatment and recuperation.[9]  For some, only physical collapse on the wards could remove them from the second battlefield.

The flu paid no heed to the Armistice that ended hostilities on November 11, 1918.  It raged on in base hospitals. It subsided in intensity in the final month of the year only to  return with renewed virulence in the new year. The nurses, for their part, remained in base hospitals throughout France and Belgium, serving not only bedridden soldiers but the local populace as well.  Then, pooling their efforts with the women physicians serving in American Women’s Hospitals (AWH) sponsored by the Medical Women’s National Association, they fanned out from northern France and Belgium to Serbia, the Near East, and even Russia.  Working hand in hand with medical colleagues, the nurses established public health programs for civilian populations that had gone without medical, surgical, dental, and nursing care since 1914.  Divided into mobile units, AEF nurses and AWH physicians established weekly house call and dispensary routes that took them to battle-scarred villages throughout the regions they served.  During the seven months that AWH No. 1 was based in Luzancy in northcentral France, for example, its units  made 3,626 house calls to the 20 villages on their regular schedule and to 45 outlying villages as well.  In virtually every village, chronic disease management shared center stage with dental and gynecological care.  And among the diseases with which nurses and physicians continued to do battle, typhoid fever and influenza had pride of place.[10]

We have considered the manner in which nursing interventions could become curative by simple dint of their frequency and intensity  – not to mention the confident bravado with which they were administered.  No where was this in greater evidence than with the soldiers and civilians stricken with virulent flu in the fall of 1918 and winter of 1919.  Nurses in the Allied Expeditionary Force, no less than their sisters-in-arms in the British Expeditionary Force, stayed on and nursed on, no matter the  apparent inevitability of death.  There was this implicit hope that caring interventions could at any point turn the tide, if only in the sense of gaining a brief reprieve during which the body’s depleted healing resources might rally.

Nurses were great naturalists.  Fevers might break.  Hearts might resume normal rhythms.  Lungs might expel enough infectious matter to resume respiration. To be sure, the worst of the influenza victims almost always died.  But then so did the worst of the postsurgical patients, the worst of the gassed patients, the worst of the soldiers with multiple injuries and multiple amputations. It mattered not.  Nursing professionals professed an ethic of caring grounded in, but not limited by, the scientific medicine of the time.  When all else had failed, when surgeons and physicians had given up on a patient, nursing care could still be a clinical tipping point that loosened the grasp of the grim repeater.  Always the nurses gave it their all.  Bits from the wreckage might still be saved despite the “unutterable woe.”[11]  Let one nurse, Britain’s Kate Luard, distinguished recipient of the Royal Red Cross Medal and Bar, speak for all in a diary entry from the fall of 1916:

There is no form of horror imaginable, on any part of the human body, that we can’t tackle ourselves now, and no extreme of shock or collapse is considered too hopeless to cope with, except the few who die in a few minutes after admission.[12]

__________________

[1]There is abundant secondary literature on the Great Pandemic of 1918.  An excellent, readable  overview is John M. Barry, The Great Influenza: The Epic Story of the Deadliest Plague in History (NY: Viking, 2004).  Those interested in the pandemic’s impact on the American Expeditionary Force and the war in general should begin with Carol R. Byerly, Fever of War:  The Influenza Epidemic in the U.S. Army during World War I (NY: New York University Press, 2005).  A lively account of the search for the virus that caused the pandemic in the decades after the war is Gina Kolata, Flu:  The Story of the Great Influenza Pandemic of 1918 and the Search for the Virus That Caused It (NY: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2011).

[2] Cited by Byerly, Fever of War, 6.

[3] Lavinia L. Dock, et al.,  History of the American Red Cross (NY: Macmillan, 1922), 404-410.

[4] Helen Dore Boylston, Sister: The War Diary of a Nurse (NY: Ives Washburn, 1927), loc 694; Mary T. Sarnecky, A History of the U.S. Army Nurse Corps (Phila:  University of Pennsylvania Press, 1999),  121.

[5] Shirley Millard, I Saw Them Die: Diary and Recollections (New Orleans, LA: Quid Pro, 2011), loc 472; Alma S. Wooley, “A Hoosier Nurse in France:  The World War I Diary of Maude Frances Essig” ( https://scholarworks.iu.edu/journals/index.php/imh/article/view/10683/15077), entry of October 7, 1918.

[6] Beatrice Hopkinson, Nursing through Shot & Shell: A Great War Nurse’s Story, ed. Vivien Newman (South Yorkshire: Pen & Sword, 2014), loc 1999.

[7] Elizabeth Cobbs, The Hello Girls:  America’s First Women Soldiers (Cambridge:  Harvard University Press, 2017), 134.

[8] Edith Appleton, A Nurse at the Front:  The First World War Diaries, ed. R. Cowen (London:  Simon & Schuster UK, 2012), 102; Maude Essig, “World War I Diary,” entry of October 27, 1918; Boylston, War Diary, loc 1348.

[9] Dorothea Crewdson, Dorothea’s War: A First World War Nurse Tells her Story, ed. Richard Crewdson (London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2013), loc 5344, 5379.

[10] On the role of American women physicians in WWI and its aftermath, see Ellen S. More, “’A Certain Restless Ambition’: Women Physicians and World War I,” Amer. Quart., 41:1989, 636-660; Lettie Gavin, American Women in World War I  (Niwot, CO: University Press of Colorado, 1997), 157-178; and Kimberly Jensen, Mobilizing Minerva: American Women in the First World War (Urbana:  University of Illinois Press, 2008), 77-97. Statistics on AWH No. 1’s service while based in Luzancy are given in Jensen, Mobilizing Minerva, 110.

[11] [Kate Norman Derr], “Mademoiselle Miss”:  Letters from an American Girl Serving with the Rank of Lieutenant in a French Army Hospital at the Front, preface by R. C. Cabot (Boston:  Butterfield, 1916), 21.

[12] John & Caroline Stevens, eds., Unknown Warriors: The Letter of Kate Luard, RRC and Bar, Nursing Sister in France, 1914-1918 (Stroud: History Press, 2014), loc 1277.

Copyright © 2017 by Paul E. Stepansky.  All rights reserved.  The author kindly requests that educators using his blog essays in their courses and seminars let him know via info[at]keynote-books.com.

 

Remembering the Nurses of WWI (V)

“They were very pathetic, these shell shocked boys.”

[The fifth of a series of essays about the gallant nurses of World War I commemorating the centennial of America’s entry into the war on April 6, 1917]

Every war has mental casualties, but each war has its own way of understanding them.  Each war, that is, has its own nomenclature for what we now term “psychiatric diagnosis.”  To Napoleon’s Surgeon in Chief, Dominique-Jean Larrey, we owe the diagnosis nostalgie   (nostalgia); it characterized soldiers whose homesickness left them depressed and unable to fight.   This was in 1815.  During the American Civil War, nostalgia remained in vogue, but a new term, “irritable heart” (aka  “soldier’s heart” or “Da Costa’s Syndrome”) was coined just after the war to label soldiers whose uncontrollable shivering and trembling had been accompanied by rapid heart beat and difficulty breathing.  During the 10-week Spanish-American War of 1898, soldiers who broke down mentally amid heat, bugs, bullets, and rampant typhoid fever were diagnosed with “tropical weakness.”

And this brings us to World War I, the war that bequeathed the diagnosis of shell shock.  At first, the nurses of WWI were no less baffled by variable expressions of shell shock – most cases of which, it was learned, arose some distance from the exploding shells at the Front – than the doctors.  The term was coined in 1915 by the British physician and psychologist Charles Myers, then part of a volunteer medical unit in France.  Myers immediately realized the term was a misnomer:  he coined it after seeing three soldiers whose similar psychological symptoms followed the concussive impact of artillery shells bursting at close range, only to discover that many men with the same symptoms were no where near exploding shells.   In May, 1917, the American psychiatrist Thomas Salmon, with the approval of the War Department, traveled to England to observe how the British treated their shell shocked soldiers; he returned home convinced that shell shock was a real disorder, not to be taken for malingering, and a disorder that was amenable to psychological treatment.  Salmon was the Medical Director of the National Committee for Mental Hygiene, so his report to the Surgeon General carried weight, and the Army began making arrangements for treating the mental casualties that, he predicted, could flood overseas and stateside hospitals following America’s entry into the war.[1]

Nurses were unconcerned with the animated debate among physicians on the nature of shell shock.  Was it a kind of brain concussion that resulted from the blast force of exploding shells? A physiological response to prolonged fear?  A psychological reaction to the impact of industrial warfare?  A product of nervous shock analogous to  that suffered by victims of railway accidents in the later nineteenth century?   A Freudian-type “war neurosis”  that plugged into earlier traumas  that the soldier had suffered?  They did not care.  Theirs was the everyday world of distressed soldiers, whose florid symptoms overlaid profound anxiety and for whom the reliving of trauma and its aftermath occurred throughout the day.  Theirs was the world, that is, of management and containment.

A shell shocked soldier in a trench during the Somme offensive of September, 1916

The management part could be bemused, good-naturedly patronizing, a tad irritated.  Shell shock victims, after all, made unusual demands on nurses.  The patients were always falling out of bed and otherwise “shaking and stammering and looking depressed and scared.”  Simple tasks like serving meals could be a project, as attested to by the British nursing assistant  Grace Bignold, who, prior to becoming a  VAD in 1915, worked as an orderly at a London convalescent home.  There, she recalled,

One of the things I was told was that when I was serving meals . . . always to put the plate down very carefully in front of them and to let them see me do it.  If you so much as put a plate down in front of them in the ordinary way, when they weren’t looking, the noise made them almost jump through the roof – just the noise of a plate being put on a table with a cloth on it? [2]

Accommodation by the orderlies at mealtime paled alongside the constant burden on ward nurses who had to calm hospitalized shell shock soldiers when exploding shells and overhead bombs rocked the hospital, taking patients back to the Front and causing a recurrence of the anxiety attendant to what they had seen or done or had done to them or to others.  And both, perhaps, paled alongside the burden of nurses in the ambulance trains that transported the shell shocked out of the trenches or off the battlefield.  “It was a horrible thing,” wrote the British VAD and ambulance nurse, Clair Elise Tisdall,

because they sometimes used to get these attacks, rather like epileptic fits in a way.  They became quite unconscious, with violent shivering and shaking, and you had to keep them from banging themselves about too much until they came round again.  The great thing was to keep them from falling off the stretchers, and for that reason we used to take just one at a time in the ambulance. . . . these were the so-called milder cases; we didn’t carry the dangerous ones.  They always tried to keep that away from us and they came in a separate part of the train.”[3]

The latter were the “hopeless mental cases” destined, Tisdall recalled, for “a special place,” i.e., a mental hospital,  in England a “neurasthenic centre.” But how to tell the difference?  The line between “milder” and “severe” cases of shell shock was subjectively drawn and constantly fluctuating; soldiers who arrived in the hospital with some combination of headaches,  tremors, a stutter,  memory loss, and vivid flashback dreams might become psychosomatically blind, deaf or mute or develop paralyzed or spastic limbs after settling into base hospitals and the care of nurses.  In their diaries and letters home, the nurses’ characterizations were not only patronizing but sometimes unkind:  shock patients, often incontinent, were “very pathetic”;  they formed “one of the most pitiful groups” of soldiers.  Dorothea Crewdson referred to them as “dithery shell shocks” and “old doddering shell shocks.” A patient who without warning got out of bed and raced down the hall clad only in his nightshirt was a “dotty poor dear.”  “It is sad to see them,” wrote Edith Appleton.  “They dither like palsied old men, and talk all the time about their mates who were blown to bits, or their mates who were wounded and never brought in.  The whole scene is burnt into their brains and they can’t get rid of the sight of it.”[4]

It is in the containment aspects of their care of the shell shocked that the nurses evinced the same caring acceptance they brought to all their patients.  After, all, shell shocked patients, however they presented, were wounded soldiers, and their suffering was as real and intense as that of comrades with bodily wounds.  The nursing historian Christine Hallett, who writes of the WWI nurses with great sympathy and insight, credits nurses working with the shell shocked with an almost preternatural psychoanalytic sensibility in containing the trauma that underlay their symptoms.  The nurses, she claims, aligned themselves with the patients, however disruptive their outbursts and enactments, since they “sensed that insanity would be a ‘normal’ response for any man who fully realized the deliberateness of the destruction that had been unleashed on him.”  Hence, she continues,

Nurses conspired with their patients to ‘ignore’ or ‘forget’ the reality of warfare until it was safe to remember.  In this way they ameliorated the effect of the ‘psychic splintering’ caused by trauma.  They contained the effects of this defensive fragmentation – the ‘forgetting’ and the ‘denial’ – until patients were able to confront their memories, incorporate them as part of themselves and become ‘whole’ beings again.[5]

I follow Hallett in her insistence that nurses usually ignored the directive not to “spoil” shell shocked patients.  All too often, they let themselves get involved with them at the expense of maintaining professional distance.[6]  

But then the nurses were equally caring and equally prone to personal connection with all their patients, mental or not.  They were not psychotherapists, and the dizzying demands of their long days and nights did not permit empathic engagement in the psychoanalytic sense, beyond the all-too-human  realization that the shell shocked had experienced something so horrible as to require a gentleness, a lightness of touch, a willingness to accept strange adaptive defenses that, with the right kind of nursing,  might peel away slowly over time.  Here, for example, is one of Hallett’s examples of “emotional containment” on the part of  the Australian army nurse Elsie Steadman:

It was very interesting work, some of course could not move, others could not speak, some had lost their memory, and did not even know their own names, others again had very bad jerks and twitching.  Very careful handling these poor lads needed, for supposing a man was just finding his voice, to be spoken to in any way that was not gentle and quiet the man ‘was done,’ and you would have to start all over again to teach him to talk, the same things applied to walking, they must be allowed to take their time.”[7]

This sensitivity, this “very careful handling” of the shell shocked, was no different than the sensitivity of the mealtime orderlies, who knew to “put the plate down very carefully in front of them,” always making sure that the shell shocked saw them do it.  And of course there were accommodations out of the ordinary, a remarkable example of which comes from Julia Stimson, the American chief nurse of British Base Hospital 21 (and amateur violinist). Writing to her parents in late November, 1917, she related “an interesting little incident” that began when a patient knocked on her door and asked for the Matron:

He was so wobbly he almost had to lean up against the wall.  “Somebody told me,” he said, “that you had a violin.  I am a professional violinist and I have not touched a violin for five months, and today I couldn’t stand it any longer, so I got up out of bed to come and find you.”  I made him come in and sit down.  As it happened I had a new violin and bow, which had been bound for our embryo orchestra, here in my office.  The violin was not tuned up, but that didn’t matter.  The man had it in shape in no time and then he began to play and how he could play!  We let him take the violin down to his tent, and later sent him some of my music.  He was a shell shock, and all the evening and the next few days until he was sent to England he played to rapt audiences of fellow patients.[8]

With the shell shocked, the therapeutic gift of the WWI nurses resided less in their ability to empathize than in their acceptance that their patients had experienced horrors that could not be empathized with.  Their duty, their calling, was simply to stay with these soldiers in an accepting manner that coaxed them toward commonality among the wounded, the sense that their symptoms and the underlying terror were not only understandable but unexceptional and well within the realm of nursing care.  In this sense – in the sense of a daily willingness to be with these soldiers in all their bodily dysfunction, mental confusion, and florid symptomatic displays – the nurses strove to normalize shell shock for the shell shocked. After all, the shell shocked, however dithery, shaking, and stammering, were depressed and scared “only at times.”  Otherwise, continued Dorothea Crewdson, “they are very cheery and willing.”  Mary Stollard, a British nurse working  with shell shocked soldiers at a military hospital in Leeds, noted that many of the boys were very sensitive to being incontinent.

They’d say, ‘‘I’m  terribly sorry about it, Sister, it’s shaken me all over and I can’t control it.  Just imagine, to wet the bed at my age!”  I’d say, “We’ll see to that.  Don’t worry about it.”  I used to give them a bedpan in the locker beside them and keep it as quiet as possible.  Poor fellows, they were so embarrassed – especially the better-class men.”[9]

But such embarrassment was a relic of civilian life.  It had no place among battle-hardened nurses who coped daily with the sensory overload of trench warfare:  the overpowering stench of gangrenous infections and decaying flesh; the sight of mutilated soldiers without faces or portions of torso, not to mention missing arms and legs; the screams of gassed soldiers, blind and on fire and dying in unspeakable pain.  Alongside such things, how off-putting could incontinence be?  The fact is that shell shocked soldiers, no less than the nurses themselves, were warriors. Warriors are wounded and scarred in many ways; nurses themselves fell victim to shell shock, even if they were not officially diagnosed as such.[10]   Knowing full well that shell shocked soldiers declared physically unfit and shipped back home were often subject to stigma and humiliation,  Ellen La Motte offered this dismal prognosis for one who had lost the ability to walk and could no longer serve the nation:  “For many months he had faced death under the guns, a glorious death.  Now he was to face death in another form.  Not glorious, shameful.”[11]

_________________________

[1] Earl D. Bond, Thomas W. Salmon – Psychiatrist  (NY: Norton, 1950), 83-84.

[2] Julia C. Stimson, Finding Themselves:  The Letters of an American Army Chief Nurse in a British Hospital in France (NY: Macmillan, 1918), 41; Dorothea Crewdson, Dorothea’s War:  A First World War Nurse Tells her Story, ed. Richard Crewdson (London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2013), loc 4383; Grace Bignold, in Lyn MacDonald, The Roses of No Man’s Land (London: Penguin, 1993), 233.

[3]  Claire Elise Tisdall, in MacDonald, Roses of No Man’s Land, 233-34.

[4] Mary Stollard, in MacDonald, Roses of No Man’s Land, 231-32; Stimson, Finding Themselves, 41; Crewdson, Dorothea’s War, loc 967; Edith Appleton, A Nurse at the Front:  The First World War Diaries, ed. R. Cowen (London:  Simon & Schuster UK, 2012), 184.

[5] Christine Hallett, Containing Trauma:  Nursing Work in the First World War (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2009), 163.

[6] Hallett, Containing Trauma, 165, 177.

[7] Hallett, Containing Trauma, 172-73.

[8] Stimson, Finding Themselves, 163.

[9] Crewdson, Dorothea’s War,  loc 4383; Stollard, in MacDonald, Roses of No Man’s Land, 232.

[10] E.g., Crewdson, Dorothea’s War, loc 4914; In “Blind,” Mary Borden writes of herself as “jerk[ing] like a machine out of order.  I was away now, and I seemed to be breaking to pieces.”  She was sent home as “tired.”  Mary Borden, The Forbidden Zone (London: Hesperus, 2008[1929], 103).  On the military’s unwillingness to diagnose women as “shell shocked,” see Hannah Groch-Begley, “The Forgotten Female Shell-Shock Victims of World War I,” The Atlantic, September 8, 2014 (https://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2014/09/world-war-ones-forgotten-female-shell-shock-victims/378995).

[11] Ellen N. La Motte, The Backwash of War: The Human Wreckage of the Battlefield as Witnessed by an American Hospital Nurse (NY: Putnam’s, 1916), 239.

Copyright © 2017 by Paul E. Stepansky.  All rights reserved.  The author kindly requests that educators using his blog essays in their courses and seminars let him know via info[at]keynote-books.com.

Remembering the Nurses of WWI (IV)

“Mustard gas burns.  Terrific suffering.”

 [The fourth of a series of essays about the gallant nurses of World War I commemorating the centennial of America’s entry into the war on April 6, 1917]

Now, sadly, chemical weapons are back in the news.  But large-scale chemical warfare  reaches back over a century.   In WWI, Germany released 5,730 cylinders of chlorine gas across a four-mile stretch of no-man’s-land into the Allied lines during the Second Battle of Ypres in April, 1915. Thus the birth of chemical warfare.  Britain replied in kind, releasing cylinders of chlorine gas during the Battle of Loos the following summer, and  Germany upped the horror in July, 1917, delivering artillery shells filled with dichlor-ethyl-sulphide or “mustard gas” just prior to the Third Battle of Ypres.

Chlorine gas attacked the airways.  Severe respiratory swelling and inflammation killed many instantly and the rest struggled to nearby casualty clearing stations with acute congestion of the lungs, pneumonia, and blindness.  Soldiers who had inhaled the most gas arrived  with heavy discharge of a frothy yellow fluid from their noses and mouths as they drowned in their own secretions.  For the rest, partial suffocation persisted for days, and long-term survivors had permanent lung damage, chronic bronchitis, and occasionally heart failure.  Mustard gas burned the skin and respiratory tract, stripping the mucous membrane off the bronchial tubes and causing violent inflammation of the eyes.  Victims were left in excruciating pain and utterly helpless.[1]

Nurses, no less than physicians, were initially confused about the nature of the gas and the severity of its effects.[2]  But they quickly came up to speed and realized that soldiers suffering from poison gas posed a nursing challenge no less formidable than those dying from gangrenous wounds.  Nurses were accustomed to losing patients, but not to being powerless to provide comfort care, to  ease  patients’ agony during their final days.  How to nurse on when nursing was unavailing, when the burns were so terrible that “nothing seems to give relief”?[3]

WWI nurses in gas masks treat soldiers after a gas attack

Of course, nurses did what little they could.  Inflamed eyes were repeatedly irrigated with alkaline solution.  Respirators soaked in hyposulphate could be provided to patients able to use them.  At American Base Hospital 32, soldiers who had breathed in mustard gas were given a mixture of guiacol, camphor, menthol, oil of thyme, and eucalyptus that caused them to expectorate inflammatory material.   According to Maude Essig, an American Red Cross Nurse who worked at the hospital, the nurses helped devise it.[4]

According to Essig, the mixture provided some temporary relief to soldiers with burning throats and mouths.  But nurses otherwise echoed a shared sense of impotence when it came to making gassed patients comfortable.  During the Second Battle of Ypres, when chlorine gas was first used by the Germans, Canadian nurse Agnes Warner recalled the initial wave of gassed troops:  “There they lay, fully sensible, choking, suffocating, dying in horrible agonies.  We did what we could, but the best treatment for such cases had yet to be discovered, and we felt almost powerless.”[5]   Shirley Millard was graphic in describing the severe burn patients who rendered nursing futile.  “Gas cases are terrible,” she wrote at war’s end in November, 1918.

They cannot breathe lying down or sitting up.  They just struggle for breath, but nothing can be done . . . their lungs are gone . . . literally burnt out.  Some with their eyes and faces entirely eaten away by the gas, and bodies covered with first degree burns.  We try to relieve them by pouring oil on them.  They cannot be bandaged or even touched.[6]

Whereas soldiers with even the worst of battlefield wounds usually did not complain,  the gas cases “invariably are beyond endurance and they cannot help crying out.” Millard’s judgment was affirmed by many others.  Maude Essig wrote of a “star patient,” one Leo Moquinn, who “was terribly burned with mustard gas while carrying a pal of his three-quarters of a mile to safety after the gas attack.  Except for his back, she added, his “entire body is one third-degree burn.  He cannot see and has  developed pneumonia and he is delirious.”[7]  Such were the burn patients.

Essig’s reference to pneumonia alludes to the multitude of infectious diseases that accompanied battlefield wounds and complicated (or prevented) recovery. Pneumonia could be rampant during winter months; gangrene and tetanus were prevalent year round.  Typhoid was partially  controlled by the antityphoid serum injections troops received, usually prior to disembarkation but otherwise in the reception huts of clearing stations and field hospitals. But bronchitis, trench fever, diphtheria, cholera, dysentery, meningitis, measles, mumps, erysipelas,[8] and, finally, influenza, were not.  Nurses recorded deaths resulting from various combinations of the foregoing, such as Edith Appleton’s “poor little boy, Kerr,” who died of gas, pneumonia, and bronchitis.[9]

Infected shrapnel and gunshot wounds could be irrigated or bathed continuously in antiseptics, first developed in the 1870s and packed in sterile dressings available in sealed paper packages since 1893.[10]  But in the preantibiotic era, nursing care of systemic infections was limited to the same palliatives we employ today:  rest, warmth, hydration, nutrition, aspirin (and, back then, quinine), all amplified by the nurse’s caring, maternal presence.

Trench foot, a combination of fungal infection, frostbite, and poor circulation, was endemic during the winter months, when soldiers lived in trenches flooded with icy water, often waist-high, for days on end.  They struggled into clearing stations with feet that were “hideously swollen and purple,” feet “that were “raw with broken blisters and were wrapped in muddy, dripping bandages.”[11] But trench feet, however disabling, at least  permitted more active measures.   In addition to giving morphine, there was a treatment protocol to follow, such as this one at a British Military Hospital in the winter of 1917:

We had to rub their feet every morning and every evening with warm olive oil for about a quarter of an hour or so, massage it well in and wrap their feet in cotton wool and oiled silk – all sorts of  things just to keep them warm – and then we put big fisherman’s socks on them.  Their feet were absolutely white, swollen up and dead.  Some of their toes dropped off with it, and their feet looked dreadful.  We would say, ‘I’ll stick a pin in you.  Can you feel it?”  Whenever they did feel the pin-prick we knew that life was coming back, and then we’d see a little bit of pink come up and everybody in the ward would cheer.”[12]

It is the dizzying  confluence of multiple battlefield injuries, many gangrenous, with the effects of poison gas and intercurrent infectious diseases that threatened to, and occasionally did,  overwhelm the WWI nurses.  Reading their diaries and memoirs, one sees time and again how the nurses’ calling, amplified by the camaraderie of other nurses, surgeons, and orderlies who felt similarly called, overpowered resignation and despair.  In a diary entry of September 14, 1916,  Kate Luard referred to the “very special nursing” required by soldiers with multiple severe injuries.  She had in mind

The man with two broken arms has also a wound in the knee – joint in a splint – and has had his left eye removed today.  He is nearly crazy.  Another man has compound fractures of both legs, one arm, and head, and is quite sensible.  Another has both legs amputated, and a compound fracture of [the] arm.  These people – as you may imagine – need very special nursing.[13]

If one adds to such clusters the serious general infections that often accompanied battlefield injuries, one has some sense of what nurses were up against, and just how special their nursing had to be.   When influenza, the deadly Spanish flu, began to swamp clearing stations and hospitals in the spring of 1918, nurses simply added it to the list of challenges to be met with the resources at hand. And they did so in the knowledge that as many as half of the infected would die.[14]  Beatrice Hopkinson, a British auxiliary nurse, recorded the new protocol developed at her General Hospital in St. Omer to meet the rush of influenza patients:

During those early days of the flu the treatment was to strip the patients in one tent, their clothing going immediately to the fumigator.  Then, the patient was bathed in disinfectant and taken to the different wards.  Some of the patients were very ill and died with pneumonia after a few days.[15]

The early days of the pandemic gave way to the later days, and after the Armistice was signed on November 11, 1918, nurses occasionally felt boredom, even mild malaise, when the demands of “special nursing” relented and they increasingly found themselves nursing “mostly mild influenza cases.”[16]

I admire the nurses of WWI because they did what was required of them absent any preexisting sense of what they could be required to do, absent, that is,  anything approaching a  “job description.” Without medical residents, internists, and infectious disease specialists to fall back on, they collapsed specialism into global care-giving identities.  This meant they managed multiple war wounds and  intercurrent infections, prioritizing among them and continuously adjusting treatment goals in the manner of highly skilled primary care physicians.  By the same token, they realized the importance of compassion in the face of ameliorative impotence.  Somehow they found  time to be present, to slip into a ward with a soldier dying of gas gangrene every few minutes “to do something perfectly useless that might perhaps give a ray of comfort.”[17]

Ironically, given the environment in which they labored and their “patient population” of soldiers in extremis, the nurses embodied the values of primary care medicine, since they took upon themselves the role of primary caregivers obligated to stay with their patients through thick and thin, to summon senior colleagues and surgeons as needed, and to ease life transitions, whether to recovery,  convalescence, lifelong disability, or death.[18]   And they did so whatever the weight of multiple assaults on their own bodily and mental integrity.

Nurses, technically noncombatants, suffered alongside the troops.  During rushes, their clearing stations, hospitals, and living quarters were under land and air assault and occasionally took direct hits.  They contracted infectious diseases, especially flu,[19] during which they usually carried on with the aid of simple analgesics until they felt better or worse.  When Helen Boylston became feverish in November, 1918, a symptom she attributed to diphtheria, she braced herself for a long-awaited evening dance with “quantities of quinine and finally a stiff dose of whiskey, and I felt ready for anything.” But not ready enough, it turned out.  She collapsed at the dance with a bad chill and had to be carried to her bed.  When she went on duty the following day, she became delirious in the ward and was lugged off by an orderly and subsequently seen by a doctor. “So here I am,” she wrote in her diary.  “I’ve developed a heart and a liver, and am as yellow as a cow-lily.  I have to lie flat on my back and be fed.  For three days I lay motionless all day long, not caring to move or to speak, I was so tired.”  Boylston was soon joined by a second nurse with diphtheria, placing the camp “in a panic,” with every staff member now given daily throat cultures.[20]

Despite training in the use of gas masks in the event of direct shelling, mask-less nurses suffered the effects of poison gas from daily proximity to patients on whom the shells had landed.  Their own vulnerability to gas attack and attenuated exposure to the poison lent special intensity to their care of burn victims.  They understood, with Maude Essig, that mustard gas burns indeed meant “terrific suffering.”[21]  Whether infected or poisoned, they usually labored on until they collapsed or were so near collapse that medical colleagues ordered them out of the wards, whether to bed, to a general hospital for treatment, or to a nearby convalescent homes for recuperation and a desperately needed “time out.”[22]

Civil War nurses too eased transitions to death, but their nursing goal during a soldier’s final days was to reconfigure mortal battlefield injury into the promise of a beneficent afterlife.   So they stayed with the dying, soliciting final confessions of sinful living, allowing soldiers to reminisce and reflect, and soliciting (and writing down) words of comfort  to sustain family members in believing that their soldier had died a “good death.”[23]  World War II, on the other hand, witnessed the development of new vaccines, a national blood bank program, the widespread availability of sulfa drugs in 1941 and penicillin in 1944, major advances in the control of shock and bleeding and in battlefield surgery, and much greater speed of evacuation of the seriously wounded to European and stateside base hospitals.  Taken together these advances created a buffer between nurses and the prolonged witnessing  of soldiers dying in unrelievable pain.

It was the nurses of WWI who took it on the chin.  They could not sustain themselves and their patients with the naturalistic view of the afterlife popular during the Civil War.[24]  Nor did they have the benefit of more “modern” technology and organization to shield them, if only somewhat, from the experiential onslaught of  dying soldiers.   It was not death per se but the agony of dying – from infected battle wounds and/or systemic infections,  gas gangrene, chlorine and mustard gas,  rushed amputations followed by reinfection and blood loss –  that took them to their own existential no-man’s-land, the kind we encounter in the writings of Mary Borden and Ellen LaMotte.

In the summer of 1917, the nurses at No. 12 General Hospital on the outskirts of Rouen struggled with a gas victim whose paroxysms of coughing came every minute and a half “by the clock,” and who had not slept in four days.  To quiet him, they rigged up a croup tent under which they took turns holding a small stove that heated a croup kettle from which the soldier could breathe the steam.  When sleep finally came, they were “ready to get down on their knees in gratitude, his anguish had been so terrible to watch.”  To their head nurse, Julia Stimson, they remarked that “they could not wish the Germans any greater unhappiness than to have them have to witness the sufferings of a man like that and know that they had been the cause of it.”[25]

It was bearing witness to unrelievable suffering that was the worst assault borne by the nurses.  “It is dreadful to be impotent, to stand by grievously stricken men it is impossible to help, to see the death-sweat gathering on young faces, to have no means of easing their last moments.  This is the nearest to Hell I have yet been.”  This is the voice of an anonymous British Red Cross nurse, unsettled by the dying Belgium soldiers she encountered on ambulance runs in the fields of West Flanders in the winter of 1915.  The American nurses at No. 12 General Hospital brushed up against this same hell, and they could think of no greater punishment for enemy combatants than to witness what they witnessed, often for weeks on end.  And yet the nurses of WWI were not stymied by seeming impotence in the face of pain.  They labored on to the breaking point in the service of soldiers who, all too often, were already broken.  This makes them warriors of care and, in a devotion to patients that was literally and not metaphorically self-less, heroes of the first rank.

_______________________

[1] Christine E. Hallett, Veiled Warriors:  Allied Nurses of the First World War (Oxford: OUP, 2014), 79-80, 203.

[2] E.g., Julia C. Stimson, Finding Themselves: The Letters of an American Army Chief Nurse in a British Hospital in France (NY: Macmillan, 1918), 80; John & Caroline Stevens, eds., Unknown Warriors:  The Letters of Kate Luard, RRC and Bar, Nursing Sister in France 1914-1918 (Stroud: History Press, 2014), loc 1945.

[3] Maude Frances Essig, My Trip with Uncle Sam, 1917-1919:  How We Won World War I, unpublished journal written during the summer, 1919, entry of March 24, 1918.

[4] Agnes Warner, My Beloved Poilus’ (St. John: Barnes, 1917), loc 861.

[5] Warner, My Beloved Poilus’ , loc 814.

[6] Shirley Millard, I Saw Them Die: Diary and Recollections (New Orleans, LA: Quid Pro, 2011), loc 514.

[7] Essig, My Trip with Uncle Sam,  entry of March 24, 1918.

[8] Erysipelas is an acute bacterial infection of the upper dermis, usually of the arms, legs, and/or face, that is accompanied by red swollen rashes.  Without antibiotic treatment, It can spread through the blood stream and cause sepsis.

[9] Edith Appleton, A Nurse at the Front:  The First World War Diaries, ed. R. Cowen (London:  Simon & Schuster UK, 2012), 111.

[10] Rodney D. Sinclair & Terence J. Ryan, “A Great War for Antiseptics,” Australas. J. Dermatol, 34:115-118, 1993.  These nineteenth-century antiseptics included salicylic, thymol, Eucalyptus oil, aluminum acetate, and boric acid.

[11] Helen Dore Boylston, Sister: The War Diary of a Nurse (NY: Ives Washburn, 1927), loc 154.

[12] Kathleen Yarwood (VAD, Dearnley Military Hospital), in Lyn MacDonald, The Roses of No Man’s Land (London: Penguin, 1993 [1980]), 197-198.

[13] Luard, Letters, loc 1245.

[14] Millard, I Saw Them Die, loc 472.

[15] Beatrice Hopkinson, Nursing through Shot & Shell: A Great War Nurse’s Story, ed. Vivien Newman (South Yorkshire: Pen & Sword, 2014), loc 1999.

[16] Hopkinson, Nursing Through Shot & Shell, loc 2609.

[17] [Kate Norman Derr] “Mademoiselle Miss”: Letters from an American Girl Serving with the Rank of Lieutenant in a French Army Hospital at the Front, preface by Richard C. Cabot (Boston:  Butterfield, 1916), 76-77.

[18] For an exposition of these values and how they gained expression in American medicine in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, extending through “general practice” of the 1950s and ’60s, see Paul E. Stepansky, In the Hands of Doctors:  Touch and Trust in Medical Care (Santa Barbara: Praeger, 2016).

[19] “The flu is back again and everybody has it, including me.  I’ve run a temperature of one hundred and two for three days, can hardly breathe, and have to sleep on four pillows at night.” Boylston, Sister, loc 630.

[20] Boylston, Sister, loc 1350, 1357.

[21] Essig, My Trip with Uncle Sam, entry of March 23, 1918.

[22] E.g., Luard, Letters, loc 1247:  “Sister D, the Mother of all the Abdominals, has her marching orders and goes down to Rouen to a General Hospital tomorrow.  Her loss is irreparable.”  Edith Appleton  recounts taking care of three sick nurses and a sick VAD at one time:  “I have begun to feel like a perpetual night nurse to the sick sisters as I have another one to look after tonight with an abscess in her ear”(A Nurse at the Front, p. 123).  Maude Essig contracted erysipelas in the spring of 1918 and reported feeling “awfully sick” the following fall, when she relied on “quinine and aspirin in large doses” to keep going (My Trip with Uncle Sam, entries of April 9, 1918, April 14, 1918, and October 27, 1918).

[23] Drew Gilpin Faust, This Republic of Suffering:  Death and The American Civil War (New York: Vintage, 2008), chapter 1.

[24] Faust, Republic of Suffering, pp. 178, 187.

[25] Stimson, Finding Themselves, pp. 80-81.

Copyright © 2017 by Paul E. Stepansky.  All rights reserved.  The author kindly requests that educators using his blog essays in their courses and seminars let him know via info[at]keynote-books.com.

Remembering the Nurses of WWI (III)

He’s saved, and that makes up for much.”

[The third of a series of essays about the gallant nurses of World War I commemorating the centennial of America’s entry into the war on April 6, 1917]

Of course the surgeons of WWI could only save so many lives.  During battle “rushes,” when they operated up to 16 hours a day, they had to husband operative energy for soldiers who were savable, especially those whose saving could land them back in the trenches.  Many cases were deemed hopeless and simply handed back to the Sisters, to provide what meager palliative care they could while the soldiers awaited death in the tent set aside for them, the Moribund Ward.  But the Sisters sometimes refused to let matters rest, recognizing that the surgeons, often operating at breakneck speed in a state of exhaustion, did not have the last word on life and death.  So soldiers out of  surgeons’ hands might still find themselves in  nurses’ hands, where they were beneficiaries of  nursing so intensive and prolonged that, against all odds, it segued into a curative regimen.

Mary Norman Derr, an American nurse trained by the French Red Cross in 1914 and assigned to a French Army Hospital near the trenches of the Marne in 1915, recalled an Arab soldier who arrived at the hospital barely conscious.  His seven suppurating wounds led to two successive operations, after which  surgeons  pronounced him hopeless and handed him back to Nurse Derr:

It is one of the few dressings I have had that really frightened me; for it was so long, and every day for a week or more, I extracted bits of cloth and fragments of metal, sometimes at a terrifying depth.  Besides my patient was savage and sullen, all that is ominous in the Arab nature.  Gradually, however, the suppuration ceased, the fever fell, and suddenly one day Croya smiled.[1]

An American Red Cross nurse at work outside a French field hospital, 1915

MGH-trained Helen Dore Boylston, working in the post-surgical bone ward of her Base Hospital in the winter of 1918, was no stranger to surgical aftercare.   Boylston enjoyed her 40 patients, and singled out a pluck Australian of over sixty with a leg “torn to pieces.”  “He’s a Crotchety old darling, always raging and roaring about something,” she wrote her family:

One day, when I was here before, he complained of a pain in his thigh and began to run quite a temp.  As his leg was laid wide open anyhow, I took a look along the bone, Dad meantime cursing the roof off.  I found a walled-in pus pocket, and picking up a scalpel told Dad he’d better look out of the window for a minute, as I was going to have to hurt him.  Then, before he knew what I was about, I had slit the thing open.  At least two cupfuls of pus poured out, and his relief was tremendous at once.  Of course his temp dropped, too.  I put in a packing and watched it for a few days.  It cleared up promptly.  That was absolutely all.”[2]

Nor did interventionist nursing end with bedside surgery.  Nurses often believed rehabilitation was possible when doctors did not, and they proved their point with paralyzed soldiers who, so the surgeons declared, would never walk again.  Consider Agnes Warner, a Canadian nurse working at the American Hospital in Neuilly, France.  Casualties from Alsace poured into the hospital in the spring of 1915, at which time a surgeon remarked that one of her patients, her “poor paralyzed man,” would never walk again.  Unfazed by the pronouncement and unwilling to rest content giving the patient English lessons to help pass the time, she devised a program of rehabilitation that incorporated electrical stimulation, which only became available at the Hospital in late June.  Three weeks later, she had her paralyzed man out on the balcony, where he enjoyed fresh air for the first time in six months.  She was assigned another patient paralyzed from the waist down a month later, and then in mid July she proudly reported on both patients:

My paralyzed man stood up alone last Sunday for the first time and now he walks, pushing a chair before him like a baby.  He is the happiest thing you can imagine; for seven months he has had no hope of ever walking again. . . . My prize patient, Daillet walks down stairs by himself now . . .We are all proud of him.  The doctor who sent him here from Besancon came in the other day to see how he was getting on and he could not believe it when he saw him.[3]

Worst of all were soldiers whose gaping wounds and limbless stumps were saturated with anaerobic bacteria of the genus Clostridium– soil-dwelling bacteria that thrive in the absence of oxygen – from the heavily fertilized fields of Flanders and Northern France.  The bacteria entered cavities through dirt and debris picked up by exploding shell fragments; bullet wounds and shrapnel typically drove into the body with pieces of bacteria-infested clothing.  The result was the dreaded gas gangrene, easily detected by the darkened muscle, bubbling sound, and overpowering stench[4] emanating from the infected limb or body cavity.  Nurses could smell such cases a mile away (so to speak),  and dreaded removing original aid station bandaging, often four or five days old, that revealed the “hideous and hopeless color of gangrene.”[5]  Prompt treatment in a Casualty Clearing Station (CCS), which typically meant amputation of an infected limb and antiseptic irrigation, might save a soldier’s life.  But left unattended in trenches and on battlefields for three, four, even five days, soldiers arrived at clearing stations with septicemia (blood poisoning), which foretold an agonizing death, often within hours, almost always within a few days.

Among the multitude of stressors that made up ward nursing in CCSs and field hospitals, ministering to dying gangrenous soldiers was at the top of the list.  What is remarkable is that even here nurses occasionally rejected the medical verdict and resolved to nurse on with those awaiting death in the Moribund Ward.  This was true of Kate Luard, who, in the midst of the Battle of Arras in May, 1917, battled on for her dying soldiers.  She was, she wrote home, “engaged in a losing battle with gas gangrene again – in the Moribund Tent – a particularly fine man, too.”  But then, a month later, she began working with “two given-up boys” who could not be revived the preceding day.  Still, the boys seemed to her “not hopeless” and she resolved to “work” on them.  The result repaid the effort,  “and after more resuscitation they are now both comfortably bedded in one of the Acute Surgicals, each with a leg off and a fair chance of recovery.”  A few days later, she wrote that her “two resuscitated boys in the Moribund Ward are all right.”  To be sure, many dying soldiers were revived only to develop gangrene above their amputations and die,  but Luard never stopped trying.  If one of her  gangrenous boys was “going wrong” on a particular day,  she would counter that “moribund head cases are smoking pipes and eating eggs and bread and butter. The kidney man is being dressed with [the antiseptic] Flavine and has had a leg off and is nearly convalescent!”[6]

The vast majority of nursing saves went unrecorded, perhaps noticed at the time by a colleague, a supervisor, even the Head Matron.  Without the wartime diaries and letters the nurses left behind, we would have little inkling of their quiet struggles to keep forsaken soldiers alive.  Such struggles take us far from the world of high-tech nursing, even in its low-tech WWI incarnation.  What we behold, rather, is hard-core, soft-touch nursing, abetted by a Rube Goldberg inventiveness in making use of materials at hand, somehow garnering materials not easily obtainable, and then patiently titrating treatments (including food intake) in a manner responsive to states of severe, even deathlike, debilitation.

A little Night Sister in the Medical last night pulled a man round who was at the point of death, in the most splendid way.  He had bronchitis and acute Bright’s Disease, and Captain S. and the Day Sister had all but given him up; but at 10:30 p.m., as a last resource, Captain S. talked about a Vapour Bath [steaming up his room], and the little Sister got hold of a Primus [stove] and some tubing and a kettle and cradles, and got it going, and did it again later, and this morning the man was speaking and swallowing, and back to earth again.  He is still alive tonight, but not much more.[7]

You will like to hear of the living skeleton with wounds in back and hands and shoulder that they brought me filthy and nearly dead from another pavilion.  That was nine days ago.  I diagnosed him as a case of neglect and slow starvation, and treated him accordingly – malted milk, eggs, soap, and alcohol to the fore.  His dressing took one and a half hours every day, and all nourishment given a few drops at a time, and early all the time, for he was almost too weak to lift an eyelid, much less a finger.  This morning he actually laughed with me and tried to clench his fist inside the dressings to show me how strong he was.  He’s saved, and that makes up for much.[8]

I happened on a corpse-like child [a teenage soldier] the other day being brought into the Moribund Ward to die and we got to work on resuscitation, with some success.  He had been bleeding from his subclavian artery and heard them leave him for dead in his shell-hole.  But he crawled out and was eventually tended in a dug-out by ‘a lad what said prayers with me,’ and later the hole in his chest was plugged and he reached us – what was left o of him.  When, after two days, he belonged to this world again, I got Capt. B. to see him, and he got Major C. to operate and tied the twisted artery which I had re-plugged – he couldn’t be touched before – and cover with muscle the hole through which he was breathing, and he is now a great hero known as ‘the Prince of Wales’.”[9]

Nor was orthopedic inventiveness beyond the pale.  In fracture wards up and down the Front, war nurses were  adepts of the Balkan frames affixed to beds, virtuoso adjusters of the heavy weights and cables that maintained constant traction of fractured long bones suspended from above.  But they improvised as well.   Kate Derr provides an example of the ingenious contraption rigged up by war nurses for a soldier with badly damaged joints.  She wrote home from Vitry in April, 1917 of her “lastingly satisfactory” work on a soldier who had “double anthrotomie [deep lacerations] of the knees.”  She explained that

when he came the insteps were bent like a ballet-dancer’s.  Even admitting his recovery, which seemed impossible, he would be obliged to go about on the points of his toes, the knees being permanently stiff.   At first, after ‘peeling’ with every conceivable dissolvent, I began just the slightest effleurissage [circular stroking] which developed into massage, and then I invented an apparatus . . . A board about 14 inches square was padded with cotton and swathed neatly in a bandage.  This was laid vertical against the soles of the feet which I tried to place as nearly as possible in a normal position.  Then I attached a bandage (having no elastic, which would have been better) to the head rail of the bed on one side, passed it around the board and up the other side, fastening it again to the rail as taut as possible.  The knot was tightened twice a day.  Result – in two weeks those refractory feet had regained a proper attitude.[10]

Such dedication to severely injured patients persisted in the face of bombings that reached and sometimes destroyed the clearing stations and field hospitals in which the nurses worked.  Nurses too were casualties of war and disease.  In Belgium in the fall of 1917, enemy bombs destroyed the 58th General Scottish Hospital adjacent to Beatrice Hopkinson’s own 59th.  Hopkinson watched while orderlies from her hospital “stooped over bunches of twigs in various places and picked up something, putting it in the sheet.  They were the arms and legs and other pieces of the patients that had been bombed and blown right out into the [outlying] park.”[11]  Back in her own hospital, with bombs continuing to fall, she confided to her diary that “My knees just shook and, had I allowed it, my teeth would have rattled; but I had to be brave for my patients’ sake.  When they saw the womenfolk apparently without fear it kept them brave.”[12]

Nurses like Hopkinson, Warner, Luard, and Derr did not see themselves as brave.  Rather, their sense of duty was so powerful that it sequestered fear and compelled action in ways that would have been incomprehensible to their non-nursing selves.  “I never realized what the word ‘duty’ meant until this War,” Hopkinson remarked.  Hers was the courage of  the Hippocratic caregiver, who subordinates self-interest to the patient’s well-being.  For the nurses of WWI, such subordination extended to self-preservation itself.  I admire them because their sense of mission remained unswerving as moribund wards swelled and they failed, time and again, to “pull round” those too far gone to be pulled.  Living and working amid the bodies of those they failed to save – perhaps because they lived and worked among those they failed – the nurses remained certain of who they were and what they did.  They were vindicated by their calling.  Thus Kate Luard during the Battle of Arras in the fall of 1916:

There is no form of horror imaginable, on any part of the human body, that we can’t tackle ourselves now, and no extreme of shock or collapse is considered too hopeless to cope with, except the few who die in a few minutes after admission.[13]

And with the resolve to nurse on, even during bombing raids that imperiled them, came defiant resiliency.  The clearing stations right off the Front were, in the words of the American nurse and poet Mary Borden, the second battlefield – a battlefield littered with care giving paraphernalia that combatted and succumbed to the inexorability of death.  So why did the nurses labor on?  “He’s saved, and that makes up for much,” declaimed Kate Derr in the fall of 1915.  To which Kate Luard added her own gloss a year and a half later:

Some of us and Capt. B. have been having a bad fit of pessimism over them all lately, wondering what is the good of operations, nursing, rescues, or anything, when so many have died in the end.  But even a few miraculous recoveries buck one up to begin again.[14]

____________________

[1] [Kate Norman Derr] “Mademoiselle Miss”: Letters from an American Girl Serving with the Rank of Lieutenant in a French Army Hospital at the Front, preface by Richard C. Cabot (Boston:  Butterfield, 1916), 67.

[2] Helen Dore Boylston, Sister: The War Diary of a Nurse (NY: Ives Washburn, 1927), 237.

[3] Agnes Warner, ‘My Beloved Poilus’ (St. John: Barnes, 1917), loc 119,221, 324, 782.

[4] On the stench of gas gangrene, which suffused entire wards, see, for example, Edith Appleton, A Nurse at the Front:  The First World War Diaries, ed. R. Cowen (London:  Simon & Schuster UK, 2012), 194-95, 240:  “One feels the horrible smell in one’s throat and nose all the time.”

[5] Shirley Millard, I Saw Them Die: Diary and Recollections (New Orleans, LA: Quid Pro, 2011), loc 1192.  Even among gangrenous patients who survived, changing the dressings twice a day was an “agonizing procedure.”  Beatrice Hopkinson, Nursing through Shot & Shell: A Great War Nurse’s Story, ed. Vivien Newman (South Yorkshire: Pen & Sword, 2014), loc 409.

[6] John & Caroline Stevens, eds., Unknown Warriors:  The Letters of Kate Luard, RRC and Bar, Nursing Sister in France 1914-1918 (Stroud: History Press, 2014), loc 1790, 1704, 1713, 1722.

[7] Luard Letters, loc 306-315.  Sadly, ‘the Prince of Wales’ died several days later.

[8] Derr, “Mademoiselle Miss, p. 47.

[9] Luard Letters, loc 2232.

[10] Derr, “Mademoiselle Miss,” pp. 95-96.

[11] Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.  See Ann Jones’s graphic description of the work of army specialists in Mortuary Affairs who retrieve and bag body parts and liquefied innards of our fallen soldiers in Afghanistan.  Ann Jones, They Were Soldiers:  How the Wounded Return from America’s Wars – The Untold Story (Chicago: Haymarket, 2013), chapter 1 (“Secrets: The Dead”).

[12] Hopkinson, Nursing through Shot & Shell, loc 1442, 1498.

[13] Luard, Letters, loc 1273.

[14] Mary Borden, The Forbidden Zone (ed. H. Hutchison (London: Hesperus[1928] 2008), 83; Derr, “Mademoiselle Miss,”47; Luard Letters, loc 1767.

Copyright © 2017 by Paul E. Stepansky.  All rights reserved.  The author kindly requests that educators using his blog essays in their courses and seminars let him know via info[at]keynote-books.com.

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