Category Archives: War & Medicine

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.  Indeed, 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 until 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.

Remembering the Nurses of WWI (I)

“Real war at last.  Can hardly wait.  Here we go!”

[The first 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]

It was the all-too-common story of the WWI nurses, the narrative thread that linked the vagaries of their wartime experiences.  The war was to be the adventure of a lifetime. The opportunity to serve on the Western Front was not to be missed, not by hospital-trained nurses and not by lightly trained volunteer nurses.  For both groups, the claim of duty was suffused with the excitement of grand adventure.  Beginning in the spring of 1917, the war abroad was the event of the season.  Julia Stimson, a Vassar graduate who, as superintendent of nursing at Barnes Hospital, led the St. Louis base hospital unit to Europe in May, 1917, was overwhelmed with the honor bestowed on her and the opportunities it promised.  “To be in the front ranks in this most dramatic event that ever was staged,” she wrote her mother, was “all too much good fortune for any one person like me.”  For 28-year-old Shirley Millard, a Red Cross volunteer nurse from Portland, Oregon rushed to a field hospital near Soissons in March, 1918, the prospect of nursing work at Chateau Gabriel, close to the Front, was a dream come true:  “It is so exciting and we are all thrilled to have such luck.  Real war at last.  Can hardly wait.  Here we go!” “I haven’t the least fear or worry in the world.  Am ready for anything,” averred Minnesotan Grace Anderson, a reserve nurse and nurse-anesthetist who embarked from New York harbor in July, 1918.  Serving in a base hospital or, more exciting still, in a field hospital or casualty clearing station only miles from the Front, was to be invited to the Grand Cotillion.  Volunteer and army nurses alike were typically well-bred young women of substance, often upper-class substance. They were adventuresome and patriotic and given over to a sense of  duty informed by literary culture, not battlefield experience.  So they experienced  happiness on receiving the call; they would make their families proud.[1]

But their sense of exhilaration at being invited to the Patriotic Ball quickly gave way to stunned amazement at the “work” before them.  The wounds of French, British, and, soon enough, American troops were literally unimaginable to them and then, in the fevered atmosphere of post-battle “rushes,” wrenchingly imaginable, indeed omnipresent. They grew familiar with the horrid stench of gas gangrene, which crackled beneath the surface of the infected body part or parts and almost always presaged quick death. Under the mentoring of senior nurses, the Sisters, young American women learned how to prep patients for surgery.  In the process, they encountered cases in which “there are only pieces of men left.”  And yet, having no choice, they quickly made their peace with the stumps of severed limbs and concavities of missing stomachs, faces and eyes and began to help clean, irrigate, and dress what remained, before and after surgery, if surgery could even be attempted.  Like their seniors, they learned to remain unflinching in the face of the many soldiers who arrived “unrecognizable as a human being.”  And they retained composure before soldiers as young as sixteen or seventeen  — “children,” they would say — who arrived at Casualty Clearing Stations (CCSs) caked in mud and blood and covered with lice – children with three, five, nine, even eleven wounds.  They learned to accept that many soldiers would die in a matter of hours or days, but to join this realization to an obligation to provide what comfort they could.  They ended up working hard to keep the dying alive long enough to warm up and pass under morphine and chloroform, all the while holding their nurse-mother’s hand.[2]

They could not operate on Rochard and amputate his leg, as they wanted to do.  The infection was so high, into the hip, it could not be done.  Moreover, Rochard had a fractured skull as well.  Another piece of shell had pierced his ear, and broken into his brain, and lodged there.  Either wound would have been fatal, but it was the gas gangrene in his torn-out thigh that would kill him first.”[3]

Here is  “a poor youngster with both legs broken, both arms wounded, one eye shot out and the other badly damaged,” there a “poor lad” who “had both eyes shot through and there they were, all smashed and mixed up with the eyelashes.  He was quite calm, and very tired.  He said, ‘Shall I need an operation?  I can’t see anything’.”  Within a week of arrival at her field hospital, Shirley Millard wrote of “bathing [a soldier’s] great hip cavity where a leg once was,” while “a long row of others, their eyes fastened upon me, await their turn.  And she followed with the kind of litany offered by many others:  “Gashes from bayonets. Flesh torn by shrapnel.  Faces half shot away.  Eyes seared by gas; one here with no eyes at all.  I can see down into the back of his head.” Helen Dore Boylston, an MGH-trained nurse who served with the Harvard Medical Unit from 1915 on, presents an indelible image that affected her for life and  affects us still:

There were strings of from eight to twenty blind boys filing up the road, clinging tightly and pitifully to each other’s hands, and led by some bedraggled limping youngster who could still see . . . I wonder if I’ll every be able to look at marching men anywhere again without seeing those blinded boys, with five and six wound stripes on their sleeves, struggling painfully along the road.[4]

A soldier with gangrenous wounds oozing everywhere might morph into a “mass of very putrid rottenness long before he died.”  Such was the experience of Edith Appleton, who continued:  “The smell was so very terrible I had to move him right away from everyone, and all one could do was dress and redress. Happily I don’t think he could smell it himself but I have never breathed a worse poison.”[5]

All too soon after arrival, then, the cheery young American nurses beheld the fearless young soldiers – or remnants thereof – who came to clearing stations and base hospitals in funereal processions of ambulances. The fearless young men had become “wretched, restless beings.”  For Shirley Millard, “The crowded, twisted bodies, the screams and groans, made one think of the old engraving in Dante’s Inferno.  More came, and still more.”  In Helen Boylston’s field hospital, a “rush” during the German offensive of late March, 1918 brought 1,100 wounded to her base hospital in 24 hours, with three operating teams performing some 90 emergency operations that night and the nights to follow.  The operating room nurse, she recalled, “walked up and down between the tables with a bottle of aromatic spirits of ammonia in one hand and a bottle of brandy in the other, ready to pounce on the next person who wilted.” At Beatrice Hopkinson’s CCS 47, just outside Amiens, the situation was even worse.  During the March rush many thousands of patients passed through the doors in only a few days and kept seven operating tables working day and night.[6]

And so the narratives captured in these diaries, journals, and memoirs turn a corner into blackness, as the nurses themselves undergo a kind of existential decomposition.  The volunteer nurses in particular, many little older than the combatants, became war-weary and war-wise in ways that choked off the childish exhilaration with which they had embarked. They found themselves at the threshold of their own nonnegotiable no-woman’s land. The nurse, wrote Mary Borden in The Forbidden Zone,

is no longer a woman.  She is dead already, just as I am – really dead, past resurrection.  Her heart is dead.  She killed it.  She couldn’t bear to feel it jumping in her side when Life, the sick animal, choked and rattled in her arms.  Her ears are deaf; she deafened them.  She could not bear to hear Life crying and mewing.  She is blind so that she cannot see the torn parts of men she must handle.  Blind, deaf, dead – she is strong, efficient, fit to consort with gods and demons – a machine inhabited by the ghost of a woman – soulless, past redeeming, just as I am – just as I will be.[7]

Nurses bore up, but in the process many were ground down, their pre-war values pulverized into dust.  Comprehending trench warfare in bodily perspective, they became freighted with the pointlessness of the horror, the multitude of mutilated, infection-saturated, and lifeless young bodies.  It was, for Helen Boylston, less tragic than unutterably stupid.

Today a ditch is full of Germans, and tomorrow it is full of Englishmen.  Neither side really wants the silly muddy ditch, yet they kill each other persistently, wearily, ferociously, patiently, in order to gain possession of it.  And whoever wins, it has won – nothing.[8]

They pondered the paradox of pain – the impossibility of knowing its nature in another along with the inability to nurse without imagining it.  They grew into a capacity for shame – shame in  their own strength, in their ability to stand firm and straight alongside a bedside “whose coverings are flung here and there by the quivering nerves beneath it.”  They empathized with shell-shocked patients who, having endured the prospect of “glorious death” under the guns, were sent home “to face death in another form. Not glorious, shameful.”  And finally there was the shame, thinly veiled, attendant to witnessing the unremitting pain of the dying.  “No philosophy,” reflected Enid Bagnold, “helps the pain of death.  It is pity, pity, pity, that I feel, and sometimes a sort of shame that I am here to write at all.”[9]

And then, as hostilities drew to a close, there were the larger reflections, the alterations of life philosophy that grew out of nursing their boys. For Helen Boylston,

The war has done strange things to me.  It has given me a lot and taken away a lot.  It has taught me that nothing matters, really.  That people do not matter, and things do not matter, and laces do not matter, except for a minute.  And the minute is always now.[10]

For Shirley Millard, Armistice Day and the immediate dismissal of her unit of volunteer nurses marked her epiphany:

Only then did the enormous crime of the whole thing begin to come home to me.  All very well to celebrate, I thought, but what about Charley?  All the Charlies? What about Donnelly, Goldfarb, Wendel, Auerbach? And Rene?  And the hundreds, thousands of others.”[11]

The enormity of the crime and the absurd reasoning that justified it coalesced in the wartime essays of Ellen LaMotte and Mary Boyden, one recurrent theme of which is the impossibility of a good death in war, where the very effort to “restore” bodies and minds that are shattered, literally and figuratively, becomes oxymoronic.  War, they insist, occurs in an alternate universe where any claim to morality is, from the standpoint of ordinary life, self-willed delusion.  In this universe, surgeons function as cavalier automatons and even life-saving surgery is specious, because the lives saved, more often than not, are no longer human lives, psychologically or physically. In this alternate universe, death withheld, ironically, is the ultimate act of inhumanity.[12]

What makes the nurses of World War I gallant is that so many of them were able to bracket their encroaching horror, with its undercurrents of anger, depression, and numbing – and simply care for their patients.  They were able to function as nurses in a nurses’ hell.  Military directives pushed them to an even lower circle of the Inferno, since the nurses’ primary task, they were told over and over, was to get injured troops back to the Front as soon as possible.  They were to fix up serviceable (and hence service-able) soldiers so that they could be reused at least one more time before breakdown precluded further servicing and the soldier’s obligation to serve further.

But the nurses knew better and unfailingly did better.  Nursing practice, it turns out, had its own moral imperative, so that military directives were downplayed, often cast to the wind.  As the nursing historian Christine Hallett observes, the emotional containment nurses provided for suffering and needy soldiers did not – indeed could not – preclude caring.[13]  In essays to follow, I hope to explore further the remarkable elements of this caring, which blurred the boundary between comfort care and healing and took nursing practice into the domains of emergency medicine, infectious disease management, surgery, and psychotherapy.  It is as agents of care and caring that the nurses of World War I rose to the status of gallants.  Flying in the face of military priorities and surgical fatalism, they bravely dispensed cure in a manner true to the word’s etymology, the Latin curare, a taking care of that privileges the patient’s welfare above all else.

_____________________

[1] Julia, C. Stimson, Finding Themselves: The Letters of an American Army Chief Nurse in a British Hospital in France (NY: Macmillan, 1918), 3-4.; Shirley Millard, I Saw Them Die: Diary and Recollections, ed. E. T. Gard (New Orleans: Quid Pro, 2011), location in Kindle edition (loc), 388; Shari Lynn Wigle, Pride of America: The Letters of Grace Anderson, U.S. Army Nurse Corps, World War I (Rockville, MD: Seaboard, 2007), 9.

[2] Agnes Warner, ‘My Beloved Poilus’ (St. John: Barnes, 1917), loc 75; Beatrice Hopkinson, Nursing Through Shot & Shell: A Great War Nurse’s Story, ed. V. Newman (South Yorkshire: Pen & Sword, 2014), loc 1425; Helen Dore Boylston, Sister: The War Diary of a Nurse (NY: Washburn, 1927), loc 463; Enid Bagnold, A Diary Without Dates (London: Heinemann, 1918),  125: “Among his eleven wounds he has two crippled arms.”

[3] 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), 51-52.

[4] Edith Appleton, A Nurse at the Front: First World War Diaries, ed. R. Cowen (London: Simon & Schuster UK, 2012), 138, 161; Millard, I Saw Them Die, loc 428; Boylston, Sister, loc 463.

[5] Dorothea Crewdson, Dorothea’s War: A First World War Nurse Tells her Story, ed. Richard Crewdson (London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2013, 2013), loc 1189; Appleton, Nurse at the Front, 189.

[6] Crewdson, Dorothea’s War, loc 1192; Millard, I Saw Them Die, loc 388; Boylston, Sister, loc 1101; Hopkinson, Nursing Through Shot & Shell, loc 1719, 1780.

[7] Mary Borden, The Forbidden Zone, ed. H. Hutchison (London: Hesperus, 1928/2008), 44.

[8] Boylston, Sister, loc 648.

[9] Bagnold, Diary without Dates, loc 25, 104; LaMotte, Backwash of War, 139.

[10] Boylston, Sister, loc 1373.

[11] Millard, I Saw Them Die, loc 1562.

[12] All the brief essays in LaMotte’s The Backwash of War and Borden’s The Forbidden Zone circle around these and related themes.  Among them,  I was especially moved by LaMotte’s  “Alone,” “Locomotor Ataxia,” and “A Surgical Triumph,”  and Borden’s “Rosa,” “Paraphernalia,” and “In the Operating Room.”

[13] Christine E. Hallett, Containing Trauma:  Nursing Work in the First World War (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2009), 177.

Copyright © 2017 by Paul E. Stepansky.  All rights reserved.

You Touch Me

Etymologically, the word “touch” (from the old French touchier) is a semantic cornucopia.  In English, of course, common usage embraces dual meanings. We make tactile contact, and we receive emotional contact.  The latter meaning is usually passively rendered, in the manner of receiving a gift:  we are the beneficiary of someone else’s emotional offering; we are “touched” by a person’s words, gestures, or deeds.  The duality extends to the realm of healthcare:  as patients, we are touched physically by our physicians (or other providers) but, if we are fortunate, we are also touched emotionally by their kindness, concern, empathy, even love.  Here the two kinds of touching are complementary.  We are examined (and often experience a measure of  contact comfort through the touch)  and then comforted by the physician’s sympathetic words; we are touched by the human contact that follows from physical touch.

For nurses, caregiving as touching and being touched has been central to professional identity.  The foundations of nursing as a modern “profession” were laid down on the battlefields of Crimea and the American South during the mid-nineteenth century.  Crimean and Civil War nurses could not “treat” their patients, but they “touched” them literally and figuratively and, in so doing, individualized their suffering.  Their nursing touch was amplified by the caring impulse of mothers:  they listened to soldiers’ stories, sought to keep them warm, and especially sought to nourish them, struggling to pry their food parcels away from corrupt medical officers.  In the process, they formulated a professional ethos that, in privileging patient care over hospital protocol, was anathema to the professionalism associated with male medical authority.[1]

This alternative, comfort-based vision of professionalism is one reason, among others, that nursing literature is more nuanced than medical literature in exploring the phenomenology and dynamic meanings of touch. It has fallen to nursing researchers to isolate and appraise the tactile components of touch (such as duration, location, intensity, and sensation) and also to differentiate between comforting touch and the touch associated with procedures, i.e., procedural touch.[2]  Buttressing the  phenomenological viewpoint of Husserl and Merleau-Ponty with recent neurophysiologic research, Catherine Green has recently argued that nurse-patient interaction, with its “heavily tactile component” promotes an experiential oneness:  it “plunges the nurse into the patient situation in a direct and immediate way.”  To touch, she reminds us, is simultaneously to be touched, so that the nurse’s soothing touch not only promotes deep empathy of the patient’s plight but actually “constitutes” the nurse herself (or himself) in her (or his) very personhood.[3]  Other nurse researchers question the intersubjective convergence presumed by Green’s rendering.  A survey of hospitalized patients, for example, documents that some patients are ambivalent toward the nurse’s touch, since for them it signifies not only care but also control.[4]

After World War II, the rise of sophisticated monitoring equipment in hospitals pulled American nursing away from hands-on, one-on-one bedside nursing.  By the 1960s, hospital nurses, no less than physicians, were “proceduralists” who relied on cardiac and vital function monitors, electronic fetal monitors, and the like for “data” on the patients they “nursed.”  They monitored the monitors and, for educators critical of this turn of events, especially psychiatric nurses, had become little more than monitors themselves.

As the historian Margarete Sandelowski has elaborated, this transformation of hospital nursing had both an upside and a downside.  It elevated the status of nurses by aligning them with postwar scientific medicine in all its burgeoning technological power.  Nurses, the skilled human monitors of the machines, were key players on whom hospitalized patients and their physicians increasingly relied.  In the hospital setting, they became “middle managers,”[5] with command authority of their wards. Those nurses with specialized skills – especially those who worked in the newly established intensive care units (ICUs) – were at the top of the nursing pecking order.  They were the most medical of the nurses, trained to diagnose and treat life-threating conditions as they arose.  As such, they achieved a new collegial status with physicians, the limits of which were all too clear.  Yes, physicians relied on nurses (and often learned from them) in the use of the new machines, but they simultaneously demeaned the “practical knowledge” that nurses acquired in the service of advanced technology – as if educating and reassuring patients about the purpose of the machines; maintaining them (and recommending improvements to manufacturers); and utilizing them without medical supervision was something any minimally intelligent person could do.

A special predicament of nursing concerns the impact of monitoring and proceduralism on a profession whose historical raison d’être was hands-on caring, first on the battlefields and then at the bedside.  Self-evidently, nurses with advanced procedural skills had to relinquish that most traditional of nursing functions: the laying on of hands.  Consider hospital-based nurses who worked full-time as x-ray technicians and microscopists in the early 1900s; who, beginning in the 1930s, monitored  polio patients in their iron lungs; who, in the decades following World War II, performed venipuncture as full-time IV therapists; and who, beginning in the 1960s, diagnosed and treated life-threatening conditions in the machine-driven ICUs.  Obstetrical nurses who, beginning in the late 1960s, relied on electronic fetal monitors to gauge the progress of labor and who, on detecting “nonreassuring” fetal heart rate patterns, initiated oxygen therapy or terminated oxytocin infusions – these “modern” OB nurses were worlds removed from their pre-1940s forebears, who monitored labor with their hands and eyes in the patient’s own home.  Nursing educators grew concerned that, with the growing reliance on electronic metering, nurses were “literally and figuratively ‘losing touch’ with laboring women.”[6]

Nor did the dilemma for nurses end with the pull of machine-age monitoring away from what nursing educators long construed as “true nursing.”  It pertained equally to the compensatory efforts to restore the personal touch to nursing in the 1970s and 80s.  This is because “true nursing,” as understood by Florence Nightingale and several generations of twentieth-century nursing educators, fell back on gendered touching; to nurse truly and well was to deploy the feminine touch of caring women.  If “losing touch” through technology was the price paid for elevated status in the hospital, then restoring touch brought with it the re-gendering (and hence devaluing) of the nurse’s charge:  she was, when all was said and done, the womanly helpmate of physicians, those masculine (or masculinized) gatekeepers of scientific medicine in all its curative glory.[7]  And yet, in the matter of touching and being touched, gender takes us only so far.  What then of male nurses, who insist on the synergy of masculinity, caring, and touch?[8]  Is their touch ipso facto deficient in some essential ingredient of true nursing?

As soon as we enter the realm of soothing touch, with its attendant psychological meanings, we encounter a number of binaries.  Each pole of a binary is a construct, an example of what the sociologist Max Weber termed an “ideal type.”  The question-promoting, if not questionable, nature of these constructs only increases their heuristic value.  They give us something to think about.  So we have “feminine” and “masculine” touch, as noted above.  But we also have the nurse’s touch and, at the other pole, the physician’s touch.  In the gendered world of many feminist writers, this binary replicates the gender divide, despite the historical and contemporary reality of women physicians and male nurses.

But the binary extends  to women physicians themselves.  In their efforts to gain entry to the world of male American medicine,  female medical pioneers adopted two radically different strategies.  At one pole, we have the touch-comfort-sympathy approach of Elizabeth Blackwell, which assigned women their own  feminized domain of practice (child care, nonsurgical obstetrics and gynecology, womanly counseling on matters of sanitation, hygiene, and prevention).  At the opposite pole we have the research-oriented, scientific approach of Mary Putnam Jacobi and Marie Zakrezewska, which held that  women physicians must be physicians in any and all respects.  Only with state-of-the-art training in the medical science (e.g., bacteriology) and treatments (e.g., ovariotomy) of the day, they held, would women docs achieve what they deserved:  full parity with  medical men.  The binary of female physicians as extenders of women’s “natural sphere” versus female physicians as physicians pure and simple runs through the second half of the nineteenth century.[9]

Within medicine, we can perhaps speak of the generalist touch (analogous to the generalist gaze[10]) that can be juxtaposed with the specialist touch.  Medical technology, especially tools that amplify the physician’s senses –  invite another binary.  There is the pole of direct touch and the pole of touch mediated by instrumentation.  This binary spans the divide between “direct auscultation,” with the physician’s ear on the patient’s chest, and “mediate auscultation,” with the stethoscope linking (and, for some nineteenth-century patients, coming between) the physician’s ear and the patient’s chest).

Broader than any of the foregoing is the binary that pushes beyond the framework of comfort care per se.  Consider it a meta-binary.  At one pole is therapeutic touch (TT), whose premise of a preternatural human energy field subject to disturbance and hands-on (or hands-near) remediation is nothing if not a recrudescence of Anton Mesmer’s “vital magnetism” of the late 18th century, with the TT therapist (usually a nurse) taking the role of Mesmer’s magnétiseur.[11]  At the opposite pole is transgressive touch.  This is the pole of boundary violations typically, though not invariably, associated with touch-free specialties such as psychiatry and psychoanalysis.[12]  Transgressive touch signifies inappropriately intimate, usually sexualized, touch that violates the boundaries of professional caring and results in the patient’s dis-comfort and dis-ease, sometimes to the point of leaving the patient traumatized, i.e., “touched in the head.”  It also signifies the psychological impairment of the therapist, who, in another etymologically just sense of the term, may be “touched,” given his or her gross inability to maintain a professional treatment relationship.

These binaries invite further scrutiny, less on account of the extremes than of the shades of grayness that span each  continuum.  Exploration of touch is a messy business, a hands-on business, a psycho-physical business.  It may yield important insights but perhaps only fitfully, in the manner of – to invoke a meaning that arose in the early nineteenth century – touch and go.


[1] See J. E. Schultz, “The inhospitable hospital: gender and professionalism in civil war medicine,” Signs, 17:363-392, 1992.

[2]  S. J. Weiss, “The language of touch,” Nurs. Res., 28:76-80, 1979; S. J. Weiss, “Psychophysiological effects of caregiver touch on incidence of cardiac dysrhythmia,” Heart and Lung, 15:494-505, 1986; C. A. Estabrooks, “Touch in nursing practice: a historical perspective: 1900-1920,” J. Nursing Hist., 2:33-49, 1987; J. S. Mulaik, et al., “Patients’ perceptions of nurses’ use of touch,” W. J. Nursing Res., 13:306-323, 1991.

[3] C. Green, “Philosophic reflections on the meaning of touch in nurse-patient interactions,” Nurs. Phil., 14:242-253, 2013; quoted at pp. 250-251.

[4] Mulaik, “Patient’s perceptions of nurses’ use of touch,” pp. 317-318.

[5] “Middle managers” is the characterization of the nursing historian Barbara Melosh, in “Doctors, patients, and ‘big nurse’: work and gender in the postwar hospital,” in E. C. Lagemann, ed., Nursing History: New Perspective, New Possibilities (NY: Teachers College Press, 1983), pp. 157-179.  

[6] M. Sandelowski, Devices and Desires:  Gender, Technology, and American Nursing (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2000), p. 166.

[7] On the revalorization of the feminine in nursing in the Nursing Theory Movement of the 70s and 80s, see Sandelowski, Devices and Desires, pp. 131-134.

[8] See R. L. Pullen, et al., “Men, caring, & touch,”  Men in Nursing, 7:14-17, 2009.

[9] The work of Regina Morantz-Sanchez is especially illuminating of this binary and the major protagonists at the two poles.  See R. Morantz, “Feminism, professionalism, and germs: the thought of Mary Putnam Jacobi and Elizabeth Blackwell,” American Quarterly, 34:459-478, 1982, with a slightly revised version of the paper in R. Morantz-Sanchez, Sympathy and Science: Women Physicians in American Medicine (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2000 [1985]), pp. 184-202.

[10] I have written about the “generalist gaze” in P. E. Stepansky, The Last Family Doctor:  Remembering my Father’s Medicine (Montclair, NJ: Keynote Books, 2011), pp. 62-66, and more recently in P. E. Stepansky, “When generalist values meant general practice: family medicine in post-WWII America” (precirculated paper, American Association for the History of Medicine, Atlanta, GA, May 16-19, 2013).

[11] Therapeutic touch was devised and promulgated by the nursing educator Delores Krieger in publications of the 1970s and 80s, e.g., “Therapeutic touch:  the imprimatur of nursing,” Amer. J. Nursing, 75:785-787, 1975; The Therapeutic Touch (NY: Prentice Hall, 1985); and Living the Therapeutic Touch (NY:  Dodd, Mead, 1987).  I share the viewpoint of Therese Meehan, who sees the technique as a risk-free nursing intervention capable of potentiating a powerful placebo effect (T. C. Meehan, “Therapeutic touch as a nursing intervention,” J. Advanced Nursing, 1:117-125, 1998).

[12] For a fairly recent examination of transgressive touch and its ramifications, see G. O. Gabbard & E. P. Lester, Boundary Violations in Psychoanalysis (Arlington, VA: Amer. Psychiatric Pub., 2002). 

Copyright © 2013 by Paul E. Stepansky.  All rights reserved.

An Irony of War

“There are two groups of people in warfare – those organized to inflict and those organized to repair wounds – and there is little doubt but that in all wars, and in this one in particular, the former have been better prepared for their jobs” (Milit. Surg., 38:601, 1916).  So observed Harvey Cushing, the founder of modern neurosurgery, a year before America’s entry into World War I.  Cushing’s judgment is just, and yet throughout history “those organized to repair wounds” have risen to the exigencies  of the war at hand.  In point of fact, warfare has spurred physicians, surgeons, and researchers to major, sometimes spectacular, advances, and their scientific and clinical victories are bequeathed  to civilian populations that inherit the peace.  Out of human destructiveness emerge potent new strategies of protection, remediation, and self-preservation.  Call it an irony of war.

Nor are these medical and surgical gifts limited to the era of modern warfare.  The French army surgeon Jean Louis Petit invented the screw tourniquet in 1718; it made possible leg amputation above the knee.  The Napoleonic Wars of the early nineteenth century brought us the first field hospitals along with battlefield nursing and ambulances.  The latter were of course horse-drawn affairs, but they were exceedingly fast and maneuverable and were termed “flying ambulances.”  The principle of triage — treating the wounded, regardless of rank, according to severity of injury and urgency of need – is not a product of twentieth-century disasters.  It was devised by Dominique Jean Larrey, Napoleon’s surgeon-in-chief from 1797 to 1815.

The American Civil War witnessed the further development of field hospitals and the acceptance, often grudging, especially among southern surgeons, of female nurses tending to savaged male bodies.  Hospital-based training programs for nurses were a product of wartime experience.  Civil War surgeons themselves broached the idea shortly after the peace, and the first such programs opened  in New York, Boston, and New Haven hospitals in 1873.  The dawning appreciation of the relationship between sanitation and prevention of infection, which would blossom into the “sanitary science” of the 1870s and 1880s, was another Civil War legacy.

And then there were the advances, surgical and technological, in amputation.  They included the use of the flexible chain saw to spare nerves and muscles and even, in many cases of comminuted fracture, to avoid amputation entirely.  The development of more or less modern vascular ligation – developed on the battlefield to tie off major arteries extending from the stumps of severed limbs – is another achievement of Civil War surgeons.  Actually, they rediscovered ligation, since the French military surgeon Amboise Paré employed it following battlefield amputation in the mid-sixteenth century, and he in turn was reviving a practice employed in the Alexandrian Era of the fourth century B.C.

In 1900 Karl Landsteiner, a Viennese pathologist and immunologist, first described the ABO system of blood groups, founding the field of immunohematology.  As a result, World War I gave us blood banks that made possible blood transfusions among wounded soldiers in the Army Medical Corps in France.  The First World War also pushed medicine further along the path to modern wound management, including the treatment of cellulitic wound infections, i.e., bacterial skin infections that followed soft tissue trauma.  Battlefield surgeons were quick to appreciate the need for thorough wound debridement and delayed closure in treating contaminated war wounds.  The prevalence of central nervous system injuries – a tragic byproduct of trench warfare in which soldiers’ heads peered anxiously above the parapets  – led to “profound insights into central nervous system form and function.” The British neurologist Gordon Holmes provided elaborate descriptions of spinal transections (crosswise fractures) for every segment of the spinal cord, whereas Cushing, performing eight neurosurgeries a day, “rose to the challenge of refining the treatment of survivors of penetrating head wounds” (Arch. Neurol., 51:712, 1994).  His work from 1917 “lives today” (ANZ J. Surg., 74:75, 2004).

No less momentous was the development of reconstructive surgery by inventive surgeons (led by the New Zealand ENT surgeon Harold Gillies) and dentists (led by the French-American Charles Valadier) unwilling to accept the gross disfigurement of downed pilots who crawled away from smoking wreckages with their lives, but not their faces, intact.  A signal achievement of wartime experience with burn and gunshot victims was Gillies’s Plastic Surgery of the Face of 1920; another was the founding of the American Association of Plastic Surgeons a year later.  After the war, be it noted, the pioneering reconstructive surgeons refused to place their techniques at the disposal of healthy women (and less frequently healthy men) desirous of facial enhancement; reconstructive facial surgery went into short-lived hibernation.  One reason reconstructive surgeons morphed into cosmetic surgeons was the psychiatrization of facial imperfection via Freudian and especially Adlerian notions of the “inferiority complex,” with its allegedly life-deforming ramifications.  So nose jobs became all the rage in the 1930s, to be joined by facelifts in the postwar 40s. (Elizabeth Haiken’s book Venus Envy: A History of Cosmetic Surgery [1997] is illuminating on all these issues.)

The advances of World War II are legion.  Among the most significant was the development or significant improvement of 10 of the 28 vaccine-preventable diseases identified in the twentieth century (J. Pub. Health Pol., 27:38, 2006);  new vaccines for influenza, pneumococcal pneumonia, and plague were among them.   There were also new treatments for malaria and the mass production of penicillin in time for D-Day.  It was during WWII that American scientists learned to separate blood plasma into its constituents (albumin, globulins, and clotting factors), an essential advance in the treatment of shock and control of bleeding.

No less staggering were the surgical advances that occurred during the war. Hugh Cairns, Cushing’s favorite student, developed techniques for the repair of the skull base and laid the foundation of modern craniofacial surgery by bringing together neurosurgeons, plastic surgeons, and ophthalmic surgeons in mobile units referred to as “the trinity.”   There were also major advances in fracture and wound care along with the development of hand surgery as a surgical specialty.   Wartime treatment experience with extreme stress, battlefield trauma, and somatization (then termed, in Freudian parlance, “conversion reactions”) paved the way for the blossoming of psychosomatic medicine in the 1950s and 1960s.

The drum roll hardly ends with World War II.  Korea gave us the first air ambulance service.  Vietnam gave us Huey helicopters for evacuation of wounded soldiers.  (Now all trauma centers have heliports.)  Prior to evacuation, these soldiers received advanced, often life-saving, care from medical corpsmen who opened surgical airways and performed thoracic needle decompressions and shock resuscitation; thus was born our modern system of prehospital emergency care by onsite EMTs and paramedics.  When these corpsmen returned to the States, they formed the original candidate pool for Physician Assistant training programs, the first of which opened its doors at Duke University Medical Center in 1965.  Vietnam also gave us major advances in vascular surgery, recorded for surgical posterity in the “Vietnam Vascular Registry,” a database with records of over 8000 vascular wound cases contributed by over 600 battlefield surgeons.

The medical and surgical yield of recent and ongoing wars in the Persian Gulf will be recorded in years to come.  Already, these wars have provided two advances for which all may give thanks:  portable intensive care units (“Life Support for Trauma and Transport”) and Hem-Con bandages.  The latter, made from extract of shrimp cells, stop severe bleeding instantaneously.

Now, of course, with another century of war under our belt and the ability to play computer-assisted war games, we are better able to envision the horrific possibilities of wars yet to come.  In the years leading up to World War I, American surgeons – even those, like Harvey Cushing, who braced themselves for war – had no idea of the human wreckage they would encounter in French field hospitals.  Their working knowledge of war wounds relied on the Boer War (1899-1900), a distinctly nineteenth-century affair, militarily speaking, fought in the desert of South Africa, not in trenches in the overly fertilized, bacteria-saturated soil of France.  Now military planners can turn to databases that gather together the medical-surgical lessons of two World Wars, Korea, Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan, and any number of regional conflicts.

Military simulations have already been broadened to include political and social factors.  But military planners should also be alert to possibilities of mutilation, disfigurement, multiple-organ damage, and drug-resistant infection only dimly imagined.  Perhaps they can broaden their simulations to include the medical and surgical contingencies of future wars and get bench scientists, clinical researchers, and surgeons to work on them right away.  Lucky us.

Copyright © 2012 by Paul E. Stepansky.  All rights reserved.

Primary Care/Primarily Caring (IV)

If it is little known in medical circles that World War II “made” American psychiatry, it is even less well known that the war made psychiatry an integral part of general medicine in the postwar decades.  Under the leadership of the psychoanalyst (and as of the war, Brigadier General) William Menninger, Director of Neuropsychiatry in the Office of the Surgeon General, psychoanalytic psychiatry guided the armed forces in tending to soldiers who succumbed to combat fatigue, aka war neuroses, and getting some 60% of them back to their units in record time.   But it did so less because of the relatively small number of trained psychiatrists available to the armed forces than through the efforts of the General Medical Officers (GMOs), the psychiatric foot soldiers of the war.  These GPs, with at most three months of psychiatric training under military auspices, made up 1,600 of the Army’s  2,400-member neuropsychiatry service (Am. J. Psychiatry., 103:580, 1946).

The GPs carried the psychiatric load, and by all accounts they did a remarkable job.  Of course, it was the psychoanalytic brass – William and Karl Menninger, Roy Grinker, John Appel, Henry Brosin, Franklin Ebaugh, and others – who wrote the papers and books celebrating psychiatry’s service to the nation at war.  But they all knew that the GPs were the real heroes.  John Milne Murray, the Army Air Force’s chief neuropsychiatrist, lauded them as the “junior psychiatrists” whose training had been entirely “on the job” and whose ranks were destined to swell under the VA program of postwar psychiatric care (Am. J. Psychiatry, 103:594, 1947).

The splendid work of the GMOs encouraged expectations that they would help shoulder the nation’s psychiatric burden after the war. The psychiatrist-psychoanalyst Roy Grinker, coauthor with John Spiegel of the war’s enduring  contribution to military psychiatry, Men Under Stress (1945), was under no illusion about the ability of trained psychiatrists to cope with the influx of returning GIs, a great many “angry, regressed, anxiety-ridden, dependent men” among them (Men Under Stress, p. 450).  “We shall never have enough psychiatrists to treat all the psychosomatic problems,” he remarked in 1946, when the American Psychiatric Association boasted all of 4,000 members.  And he continued:  “Until sufficient psychiatrists are produced and more internists and practitioners make time available for the treatment of psychosomatic syndromes, we must use heroic shortcuts in therapy which can be applied by all medical men with little special training” (Psychosom. Med., 9:100-101, 1947).

Grinker was seconded by none other than William Menninger, who remarked after the war that “the majority of minor psychiatry will be practiced by the general physician and the specialists in other fields” (Am. J. Psychiatry, 103:584, 1947).  As to the ability of stateside GPs to manage the “neurotic” veterans, Lauren Smith, Psychiatrist-in-Chief to the Institute of Pennsylvania Hospital prior to assuming his wartime duties, offered a vote of confidence two years earlier.  The majority of returning veterans would “present” with psychoneuroses rather than major psychiatric illness, and most of them “can be treated successfully by the physician in general practice if he is practical in being sympathetic and understanding, especially if his knowledge of psychiatric concepts is improved and formalized by even a minimum of reading in today’s psychiatric literature”  (JAMA, 129:192, 1945).

These appraisals, enlarged by the Freudian sensibility that saturated popular American culture in the postwar years, led to the psychiatrization of American general practice in the 1950s and 60s.  Just as the GMOs had been the foot soldiers in the campaign to manage combat stress, so GPs of the postwar years were expected to lead the charge against the ever growing number of “functional illnesses” presented by their patients (JAMA, 152:1192, 1953; JAMA, 156:585, 1954).  Surely these patients were not all destined for the analyst’s couch.  And in truth they were usually better off in the hands of their GPs, a point underscored by Robert Needles in his address to the AMA’s Section on General Practice in June of 1954.  When it came to functional and nervous illnesses, Needles lectured, “The careful physician, using time, tact, and technical aids, and teaching the patient the signs and meanings of his symptoms, probably does the most satisfactory job” (JAMA, 156:586, 1954).

Many generalists of the time, my father, William Stepansky, among them, practiced psychiatry.  Indeed they viewed psychiatry, which in the late 40s, 50s, and 60s typically meant psychoanalytically informed psychotherapy, as intrinsic to their work.  My father counseled patients from the time he set out his shingle in 1953.  Well-read in the psychiatric literature of his time and additionally interested in psychopharmacology, he supplemented medical school and internship with basic and advanced-level graduate courses on psychodynamics in medical practice.  Appointed staff research clinician at McNeal Laboratories in 1959, he conducted and published  (Cur. Ther. Res. Clin. Exp., 2:144, 1960) clinical research on McNeal’s valmethamide, an early anti-anxiety agent.  Beginning in the 1960s, he attended case conferences at Norristown State Hospital (in exchange for which he gave his services, gratis, as a medical consultant).  And he participated in clinical drug trials as a member of the Psychopharmacology Research Unit of the University of Pennsylvania’s Department of Psychiatry, sharing authorship of several publications that came out of the unit.  In The Last Family Doctor, my tribute to him and his cohort of postwar GPs, I wrote:

“The constraints of my father’s practice make it impossible for him to provide more than supportive care, but it is expert support framed by deep psychodynamic understanding and no less valuable to his patients owing to the relative brevity of 30-minute ‘double’ sessions.  Saturday mornings and early afternoons, when his patients are not at work, are especially reserved for psychotherapy.  Often, as well , the last appointment on weekday evenings is given to a patient who needs to talk to him.  He counsels many married couples having difficulties.  Sometimes he sees the husband and wife individually; sometimes he seems them together in couples therapy.  He counsels the occasional alcoholic who comes to him.  He is there for whoever seeks his counsel, and a considerable amount of his counseling, I learn from [his nurse] Connie Fretz, is provided gratis.”

To be sure, this was family medicine of a different era.  Today primary care physicians (PCPs) lack the motivation, not to mention the time, to become frontline psychotherapists.  Nor would their credentialing organizations (or their accountants) look kindly on scheduling double-sessions for office psychotherapy and then billing the patient for a simple office visit.  The time constraints under which PCPs typically operate, the pressing need to maintain practice “flow” in a climate of regulation, third-party mediation, and bureaucratic excrescences of all sorts – these things make it more and more difficult for physicians to summon the patience to take in, much less to co-construct and/or psychotherapeutically reconfigure, their patients’ illness narratives.

But this is largely beside the point.  Contemporary primary care medicine, in lockstep with psychiatry, has veered away from psychodynamically informed history-taking and office psychotherapy altogether.  For PCPs and nonanalytic psychiatrists alike – and certainly there are exceptions – the postwar generation’s mandate to practice “minor psychiatry,” which included an array of supportive, psychoeducative, and psychodynamic interventions, has effectively shrunk to the simple act of prescribing psychotropic medication.

At most, PCPs may aspire to become, in the words of Howard Brody, “narrative physicians” able to empathize with their patients and embrace a “compassionate vulnerability” toward their suffering.  But even this has become a difficult feat.  Brody, a family physician and bioethicist, remarks that respectful attentiveness to the patient’s own story or “illness narrative” represents a sincere attempt “to develop over time into a certain sort of person – a healing sort of person – for whom the primary focus of attention is outward, toward the experience and suffering of the patient, and not inward, toward the physician’s own preconceived agenda” (Lit. & Med., 13:88, 1994; my emphasis).  The attempt is no less praiseworthy than the goal.  But where, pray tell, does the time come from?  The problem, or better, the problematic, has to do with the driven structure of contemporary primary care, which makes it harder and harder for physicians to enter into a world of open-ended storytelling that over time provides entry to the patient’s psychological and psychosocial worlds.

Whether or not most PCPs even want to know their patients in psychosocially (much less psychodynamically) salient ways is an open question.  Back in the early 90s, primary care educators recommended special training in “psychosocial skills” in an effort to remedy the disinclination of primary care residents to address the psychosocial aspects of medical care.  Survey research of the time showed that most residents not only devalued psychosocial care, but also doubted their competence to provide it (J. Gen. Int. Med., 7:26, 1992; Acad. Med., 69:48, 1994).

Perhaps things have improved a bit since then with the infusion of courses in the medical humanities into some medical school curricula and focal training in “patient and relationship-centered medicine” in certain residency programs.   But if narrative listening and relationship-centered practice are to be more than academic exercises, they must be undergirded by a clinical identity in which relational knowing is constitutive, not superadded in the manner of an elective.  Psychodynamic psychiatry was such a constituent in the general medicine that emerged after World War II.  If it has become largely irrelevant to contemporary primary care, what can take its place?  Are there other pathways through which PCPs, even within the structural constraints of contemporary practice, may enter into their patients’ stories?

Copyright © 2011 by Paul E. Stepansky.  All rights reserved.