Notes from the antique nurse

July 24, 2013


The antique nurse, mom and grandmother is on board again with articles of faith, precious memories and laughter. My nursing days are over, my husband has retired, my daughters are married and I have three wonderful grandchildren. You cannot be more blessed than that!

Time, according to the dictionary, is term, age, duration, interim, period, tempo, interval, space, spell and season. Any way you say it, the meaning is clear. Time is fleeting and everchanging. As I finish this sentence, I can’t grab back the seconds it took to write … for time has already claimed that interval of activity.

I had a lot of fun creating articles for the “Update” for the Holzer Health Systems when I was nursing, and I am looking forward to tickling your funnybone, as well as creating a “little tear” now and then.

God Bless,

Sharon McNabb


My daughter bought me a totebag last year, which proclaimed the person carrying it was an “Antique Nurse … been there, done that and made it all better!” It made me laugh until it hit me I really am an antique nurse!

Memories came rushing forward when I thought of those first few months of training … away from home, scared, yet excited, feeling grown up, proud to be in the company of so many real nurses and a whole bunch of “wanna be’s”.

Everything was a big deal. The uniform rules were: clean, fresh from the laundry, the hem was to be 13 inches from the floor. This was darling on a 4 foot 11 inch gal, as the hem was just at the knee or above, which was the fashion of the day. It was not becoming on a 5 foot 5 inch skinny frame gal who looked a little like a pink and white peppermint stick! Shoes had to be polished and sparkling. Of course, the hose were white and no runs. Hair off the collar, minimal make-up, clear or light pink nail polish with nails cut short, no perfume, always wear a girdle (didn’t matter if you were a size 6 or 14 … and believe me there were no overweight student nurses in our school!) lf you were a few pounds up, you were put on a diet and had to lose two pounds a week (or convince them you were trying!) or you were campused (which meant you couldn’t leave the hospital block, except for classes). We all “weighed in” every week with our health director making our charts. We also had to participate in fitness classes twice a week, despite the fact we walked up and down 8-10 blocks of hills to the University of Tennessee campus for classes.

Every school is different, I know, but I felt one important (maybe not written) objective for our leaders was to turn their small town bumpkins into walking, talking proper young ladies. In addition to the classes all day, we were sent downtown to a modeling class, where we were taught how to walk, how to talk, how to sit, how to get in and out of a car or seat, what utensils to use at the table, how to apply make-up and do our hair, among other things. It wasn’t a long class … but it’s effect was everlasting! Looking back, I see it heightened our confidence and self esteem and this was good.

Our class started out with 42, and we graduated 17 (which included two transfers from another school). The schedule was rigorous, and I remember going to a high school in my starched uniform (with hem 13 inches from the floor) as part of our hospital’s recruitment program and telling those young ladies they had to be in shape and healthy … because no one wanted to see an out-of-shape or sick nurse. After all, we were the caregivers and role models.

Our training was a three-year diploma program … that was all year every year times three! The year I went into training, our hospital had decided the students would not be used as regular staffing during the junior and senior years, so even though, there was an Registered Nurse (RN) on the floor during those last months, we did run the floor and took the heat or praise for our work and leadership.

From the very beginning, we heard about “ethical conscience” which is a system of principles governing the conduct of a nurse. It deals with the relationship of a nurse to the patient, the patient’s family, associates and fellow nurses, and society at large. The “EC” was instilled in our souls, as we thought about the ramifications of errors not reported and of horror stories, when you made a mistake and did not hastily report and correct it.

Everyone makes mistakes because we are not perfect … and if you have ever worked with someone who acted or claimed to know it all … my advice? Run, they’re trouble! As nurses, new or antique, we must keep our minds open for learning from our patients, families, doctors and every other source available to us. Living means learning, until the day we give up this life!

Nurse’s training, in the first year, meant learning each department and all aspects of your hospital. So we worked in Central Supply, folding/wrapping trays, sterilizing and autoclaving items; in Physical Therapy, we served the special assistant to the PT: in Dietary, we set up trays for the patients and delivered them on carts to the floors. Working in Central Supply those first few days (prior to the mind-boggling anatomy classes) helped us to keep our cool and our seat, when we were on the floor orientation and the staff nurse requested we go to the CS for Fallopian tubes.

Looking back, I’m not sure how there were enough hours in the day to do all we were expected to do. I do know no one had any trouble sleeping and lights out at nine (except nights before tests) was no problem. All was quiet on the floor, and if you did wake, the only sound you might hear was a siren as an ambulance pulled into the Emergency Department or the housemother checking rooms. At 5:30 a.m., it was a different story … the dead came alive as 30-40 alarms went off!

As the pressure built with increased responsibilities, we helped each other to “hang in there”. I called home several times crying, “I can’t take it anymore, come and get me.” Mother would ask me to give it one more day and if I still felt the same, she would come for me. Everyone would rally around, encouraging, sympathizing and begging you to stay … and you stayed.

We learned from the upper classmen how to get around some of the rules, and we bent them almost to the breaking point at times. One thing we did was send a note with our uniforms to the laundry saying “please hem one inch” … so by the senior year, we were in style with our uniforms, just at the knee or above.

Now, I’m not sure why we weren’t reprimanded about this, unless the instructors realized how important it was for us to have a little power to flaunt.

When graduation came around, we all swore we would keep in touch. We cried as each went their own way. In the 49 years, since that big day, I have only seen four or five of those girls. Our lives moved on … families were established, and we each went on to make our mark on this earth. Armed with our knowledge and precious memories, we moved through the years to this point.

Been there, done that, and I sincerely hope I have made it all better!