Today is Memorial Day, and we’re supposed to enjoy brats and beer, get a good bargain on a new car, go fishing and … remember something … or someone … or maybe some dead guy, right?
Well, yes, there’s all that, but actually Memorial Day is also to appreciate the subset of veterans who gave their lives for the U.S. (Veterans Day is for the rest of us veterans). In part because I spent 20 years in the Air Force Reserves, and in part because I’ve been a nurse for 28 years, and because—like most of you—I love peace, I have a deep, personal appreciation for all veterans. I’d like to dedicate this post to the veteran soldiers/nurses who’ve given so much.
Did you know that nurses were part of the D-Day invasion?
Second Lt. Frances Slanger was the first American nurse to die in Europe during WWII. Part of the D-Day invasion, she waded ashore at Normandy with 17 other Army nurses. A letter she wrote the day before she died was published posthumously in the Stars and Stripes newspaper and touched the lives of many servicemen and women as well as their families. The first two paragraphs of the letter read:
“It is 0200 hours and I have been lying awake for an hour listening to the steady even breathing of the other three nurses in the tent, thinking about some of the things we had discussed during the day.
The fire was burning low, and just a few live coals are on the bottom. With the slow feeding of wood and finally coal, a roaring fire is started. I couldn’t help thinking how similar to a human being a fire is. If it is not allowed to run down too low, and if there is a spark of life left in it, it can be nursed back. So can a human being. It is slow. It is gradual. It is done all the time in these field hospitals and other hospitals in the ETO.”
What perfect insight! I like this woman already; I wish I’d known her.
Personally, I went to nursing school with the sole goal of getting into graduate school for nurse anesthesia. One of the prerequisites was that I have at least one year of critical care training in an Intensive Care Unit. I’ll never forget my first day in ICU. An old, former Army nurse was slated to train me. I only remember that her name was Susan, but everyone called her Attila. I could tell from the get-go that she was not to be trifled with, and that having me at her heels was, for her, a pain in the ass. In our very first conversation, rather than saying hello, welcome, or any other cordial greeting, she turned to me and said, “You’re an ICU nurse, now. When you think of vital signs, think yes-and-no.”
Her advice served me well. For instance, as a prior floor nurse, one of our top priorities when administering morphine was to document the event in three separate places on the patient’s chart. (Nope, I’m not making this up). While in ICU, however, I quickly learned to multi-task. I still needed to document—fast—not at the nurses station but rather at the immediate bedside while simultaneously keeping an eye on my frail patient. Had the medicine kicked him over the edge? Vital signs – was he still BREATHING?
In the year that followed, I got to know a little of Attila’s story. She had graduated from the Army’s nursing school when she was twenty years old; ninety-six hours later she was at a MASH unit in Vietnam. Her first day on the job she placed three central lines in the external jugulars of wounded soldiers. (Central lines are large-bore IVs that are, still today, inserted only by advanced-practice personnel in the states). Basically, she was thrown in the deep end and had to not only survive, but make sure that others did as well.
When I became a nurse anesthetist, I had the privilege to read portions of the diary of another Army nurse anesthetist who’d served in WWII. I don’t remember her name, either, and can’t find her diary in the appropriate archives, so unfortunately her story will probably be forgotten, as well. Anyway, what struck me was her written complaint that during blackouts, when all non-essential lights were off so as not to attract the attention of overhead enemy air fire, she had to deliver anesthesia in the dark. She griped that only the surgeons were given flashlights. Moreover, she frequently sat between patients, delivering two anesthetics at the same time. She would feel with her hand over their mouths and noses for a few beats, and determine by the rapidity of their respirations whether or not they needed more anesthetic. As a modern-day nurse anesthetist who relies on a host of gadgets and innovations, words cannot express the anxiety her story brings to me. MY RESPIRATIONS are faster just imagining it.
Sadly, many of even the most extraordinary contributions of nurses throughout U.S. history have been distorted and disregarded. The reasons for this are many: nurses have traditionally been women (so how could anything they have done be worth recording?!), nurses caring for soldiers have often been members of the American Red Cross (rather than the U.S. military), etc. Accurate historical documentation is rare, so scholars are left to quilt together the historical bits and pieces that remain.
I think that for all veterans, another reason their histories have been lost is that they can’t tell their stories in the exciting way Hollywood can. Many vets have mental illnesses (we’ve lost more Iraqi and Afghanastan war vets to suicide than combat), many aren’t especially articulate, and their stories are painful to say out loud. But maybe for today, if you’re enjoying a beer or a brat with a vet, ask him or her to try. Hear their story.
And to all the Attila’s, all the nurse anesthetists who didn’t get a flashlight, all the nurses/soldiers that history forgot, we thank you. But most of all, for those of you who gave your all, THANK YOU.