December 31, 2006, 10:44 am

The Story in Your Eyes


I swear I was born thirty years too late.

I was meant to wear this uniform.

This is the coolest thing I’ve ever seen!

Navy nurses had the best nursing caps, too! Perfect shape with your rank in stripes across the top!

I rue the day padded shoulders went out of style.

Everything I wore had padded shoulders in the ’80s.

It is sort of ironic.

By the time I was in a position to join the military, they told me I was too old.

Cherry Ames never aged, we don’t have that luxury in real life.

How my inner hippie manages to co-exist peacefully with my inner military officer persona is something I will never understand!



Not quite end-stage, but the patient couldn’t talk.

Couldn’t cooperate with any procedures.

Needed three people to hold her arm down for a blood draw.

Definitely felt discomfort when straight cathed for a urine specimen.

Just another elderly patient with advanced alzheimers and a fever who required a full septic workup.

Could do it with my eyes closed.

Except she looked me in the eye. She didn’t flinch when I told her I was going to put a tube for oxygen in her nose and gee, wasn’t that mask uncomfortable.

Dorothy was in there.


Dorothy was a nurse.

Oh, she had been retired for years.

She had served in the United States Navy Nurse Corp in World War II.

In the Pacific, and in Japan after the war.

Following her service with the Navy, she was a staff nurse in the midwest.

After taking a few years off to have children she returned to the profession as a school nurse for a decade, followed by community nursing for another decade.


I asked her son if she had gone to school through the Nursing Cadet program.

He didn’t know.

I asked him if she had ever told him any stories of her work in the navy.

He couldn’t remember any.

I would have given anything to have her tell me some of those stories.

I would have remembered them.


Dorothy had lived through an amazing era.

She had experiences and experience now lost to history. Stories she could no longer relate.

To anyone.


Dorothy is a member of what has been termed “the greatest generation”.

And we are losing them daily.

So many times I have sat at the bedside of a veteran of World War II who will regale me with stories of their time in the Pacific theater or in Europe.

“I was a fighter pilot, you know.” (Translation: please see me as a productive human being and not just this elderly shell of a person in a gurney).

So many times I have sat vigil as my patient was dying, hearing stories from their family about how proud the patient was to have served during the war.

But they’ve never been nurses.

Now I had in front of me a real “Cherry Ames”.

How I would have loved to sit with a cup of coffee and talk about her life.

I like to think she would have been willing to tell me her story.


That patient with advanced alzheimers, Dorothy, came alive for me that night.

She was a human being, not just a febrile elderly body.

She is a nurse.

For you see, although Dorothy had been retired for many years, once you are a nurse you are always a nurse.

I am proud to consider myself her colleague.

She is a veteran.

For that she has my respect.


If you know an elderly nurse, talk to her. Write the stories down. Tape the conversations.

The pioneers of our profession are getting older and someday their stories will be lost to us forever.

Before we are resigned to reading their stories in history books, let’s take advantage of their vast experiences while we still have the opportunity.

Nursing practice has changed dramatically in just the 29 years that I’ve been privileged to be a part of the profession.

But the basics of nursing, the heart of the profession has not changed.

It lives on in nurses like Dorothy.

Let’s find them and learn from them.

Before they are gone forever.


  • universalhealth

    December 31, 2006 at 11:16 am

    Excellent, exquisite post! I hope we get to hear ANY of the stories. I blogged about that recently in “Where’s the Wiki? Nursing’s Mystery History”

    There is a nursing history organization, The American Association for the History of Nursing (AAHN) and it does do great research, but you are so dead on about losing the stories of individual nurses.

    Happy New Year, Kim!

  • A Bohemian Road Nurse...

    December 31, 2006 at 3:58 pm

    Yes! The wonderful stories! I LOVE those patients’ stories. I blogged about it once, putting in some stories from my patients who were pilots from WWII. My company currently has a patient who survived smallpox (in her 20’s) during an outbreak in this area about 80 years ago–her story is fascinating. (I could sit and listen to these patients all day…)

  • RM

    December 31, 2006 at 7:52 pm

    I agree with “UniversalHealth” on how this is an exquisite post. You have the most amazing blend of poignant, funny, stirring, and disturbing stories in your blog. I enjoy them all.

    My mother is a retired nurse who once was a head nurse in a nursing home; while waiting for her shift to end, I spent many after-school afternoons talking with and playing checkers with the old folks there. The stories are wonderful, aren’t they? I think that hearing their stories and seeing them as real individuals helped me develop empathy for the journalism career I enjoyed for almost 15 years.

    Best regards from a long-lurking reader!

  • beastarzmom

    January 1, 2007 at 8:31 am

    When I was a new graduate nurse, I worked in the local VA hospital. Overwhelmed with sometimes 40 patients to care for (yeah – can you believe THAT?)with the help of one LVN, I remember hearing the stories of several wartime nurses, but they didn’t stick. Youth, too much responsibility too soon, whatever, it makes me sad that I didn’t have the time or the whatever it took to remember these. They are lost to me forever. I hope this post starts a string of nurse stories – like you, I’m thirsty for them!

  • beastarzmom

    January 1, 2007 at 8:32 am

    by the way – Happy New Year!

  • Deb

    January 1, 2007 at 11:07 am

    Wishing you a GREAT 2007, Kim.

  • Amanda

    January 1, 2007 at 3:55 pm

    Thank God we don’t have to wear these uniforms!! As a Burn RN I can go on and on, on why this uniform would be h*ll on my day, and what my dry cleaning bill would be like!

    By the way am also Irish and my father worships the ground Notre Dame stands on.

    Good Luck with BSN, husband is getting NP, after obtaining BSN post ADN. Had ADN for 10 years.

  • Musings of a Distractible Mind

    January 1, 2007 at 10:39 pm

    […] Kim at Emergiblog writes about encountering a “typical Alzheimer’s patient” that turned out to affect her more than she expected. […]

  • Steve

    January 2, 2007 at 12:25 am

    Here is a tangent that I’ve always wondered. If they are really “the greatest generation”; how could they have produced subsequent generations that aren’t worth the powder to blow them to hell!?!?!?
    I mean “the greatest generation” produced the hippies of the 60’s and they produced the me generations of the X Y AND Z tripe. We have lost our compass that this country was founded on. And now we are wallowing in multiple entities of Britney Spears/Jessica Simpson/porn/bad character ad nauseum. Maybe the “great generation” should have practiced self restraint and not generated the baby boomers!

  • Shinga

    January 2, 2007 at 1:29 am

    A very touching post. However, I know with my own relatives, most of them take the attitude, “I fought that war so that you would never have to know about things like this”: my relatives don’t/didn’t to talk about their wartime experiences and it would seem inappropriate to push them.

    It’s very different when people are happy to tell you their stories. Yes, I do wish that there were a way of recording them.

    Regards – Shinga

  • Mama Mia

    January 2, 2007 at 10:51 am

    I, too, envisioned myself in a uniform just like this, a la Cherry Ames. I am thankful now that I don’t have to wear it, but I do wish we had a ‘dress uniform’ like this for special events, like the paramedics do…

  • UP Nurse

    January 3, 2007 at 3:41 am

    First Steve, I’m one of those old hippies…baby boomer persons… and think you are wrong about who and what most of us are…please don’t make sweeping generalizations…thank you.
    I’ve been a nurse “forever”…wore those white uniforms, caps, and capes in the very beginning. I also am a veteran of the Viet Nam era (USAF-NC). Now I wear scrubs, and still work full-time (B shift 1900-0700 three shifts/wk). My Mom was a nurse for about 50 years and her sister went through the cadet program just after Mom went into nursing school. Some of the stories I grew up with and still went into nursing!
    Kim…did I understand you are going back to school at the U of W? Great school, I think. And good luck…I went back (was a diploma grad) and even if it didn’t change what I do right now, it changed me. And gave me some opportunities, if I want them.
    Happy New Year everyone.

  • Sandra Miller

    January 3, 2007 at 7:06 am

    An eloquent, moving tribute to both the woman and the profession.

    So glad I found your site.


    p.s. Thank you for the kind words about my son– kids do indeed know the score. 🙂

  • TC

    January 3, 2007 at 10:31 am

    Kim, I can so relate. I am a total granola girl who always wanted to be a military nurse. Maybe I got the bug from my mom who wanted to go to Korea, but was too young. Then, when she graduated in ’57, she started a family right away. But listening to her talk about what it was like being a nurse in the 50’s and 60’s is so interesting (like folding and sterilizing the reusable OR drapes, or how about sharpening the reusable syringes-eek!)

    And Steve, lighten up. I think you’re buying into a myth. My daughter is 15 and she is no slacker and neither are most of her friends. If the 50’s begat the 60’s, maybe there’s a reason for that.

  • drcharles

    January 3, 2007 at 2:26 pm

    such a great post, thank you.

    you could say the same of any professional, friend, or family member of the older generation – their stories are precious, and if only more of them blogged we could learn from them – but until then we should at least listen and ask.

    happy new year, kim!

  • mcewen

    January 3, 2007 at 9:56 pm

    My Granny, wasn’t a nurse, but she drove an ambulance during the war. I remember [as a smallish child] her sitting in her wing backed chair with a cane nearby for each hand, a woman who was chauffeured by my Grandpa everywhere. I had assumed that she had never learned to drive, like many women born before the turn of the century.

    There are a number of programmes doing the rounds where the oral history of people is being recorded for posterity. See if you can track one down locally so that you can troll your old Gran down there. It is bound to be an eye opening experience.
    Best wishes

  • Steve

    January 4, 2007 at 1:16 pm

    TC, you are probably right; I’m buying into a myth…but what myth is that? I’m not coming at ya with both barrels ablasin’..because I really do want to learn.
    I just came off of 4 straight nocs of being the triage nurse for my ER. I have taken temps (r) of 2-3 year olds that ranged from 101-104 and about half of the parental units didn’t even give the patient ANY tylenol. “We wanted to let you see them with their fever.” (just to let ya know, I’ve SEEN kids with fevers, and I don’t want to see any more!) And the rest of them gave tylenol, “I think it was yesterday”.
    Also, I triaged little ones with green encrusted nasal gunk and the parents insisted that, “he just got sick about 2 hours ago”
    Now if you can’t tell…I’m a little “burnt” with the human condition this week. And I agree that I probably see only the worst of the worst. And I agree with you about your daughter; my own kids are fine upstanding citizens. Its just that we shouldn’t use one or two examples to negate what I see continually.
    People; we collectivaly haven’t done a good job of raising the next generation.
    Sorry to highjack this thread….but we need to straighten things out so that in a couple of generations people will be thinking kind thoughts about us and our generation.

  • Andrew

    January 7, 2007 at 9:36 am

    We need to find you a naval nurses uniform for halloween… or veterans day, or 4-july etc. It would be great.

  • patientanonymous

    January 16, 2007 at 4:09 pm

    Hi Kim, I’m still getting caught up on the this version on Grand Rounds and we’ve got the latest up today! I just wanted to say I really enjoyed your post. So many people simply “give up” on Alzheimer’s patients. It can be a really wrenching disease for everyone involved but those that have it are still people and they still deserve to be treated with care and dignity.

About Me

My name is Kim, and I'm a nurse in the San Francisco Bay area. I've been a nurse for 33 years; I graduated in 1978 with my ADN. My experience is predominately Emergency and Critical Care, and I have also worked in Psychiatry and Pediatrics. I made the decision to be a nurse back in 1966 at the age of nine...

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