My mother, Doris June Horst, passed away in June of 2021 at the age of 94. Mom was a Registered Nurse who was recruited by McKinley Hospital in 1945 right out of her High School in New Brunswick, New Jersey.
To hear mom tell it : “They came to my school and asked if any girl would like to train to be a nurse. My girlfriend and I looked at each other and raised our hands! It was an adventure! All the costs were paid. We lived in dorms at McKinley–nurses on one side, doctors on another.”
Three Fountain Pen Letters
As I was going through mom’s papers, I found three letters written from the hospitals where she trained, written by her in fountain pen and sent to her family. They offer a real insight into the life of a nurse trainee in the late 1940s. On a personal note–I learned a great deal about my mother’s life as a nurse trainee from these letters; things I had never heard her talk about. They are indeed precious to me!
I’ll quote a bit from these letters below, but what I want you to notice first is that great penmanship. It’s this beautiful hand, far better than mine–I got”C’s” in penmanship in school– that contributes to my interest in nurse’s pens. Remember, the pens were made for nurses who did medical charting, by hand, throughout the day. Good penmanship was essential to the success of the job. As you can see–my mother had it!
Training: JERSEY CITY MEDICAL CENTER
Even though mom was recruited to train at McKinley Hospital (that’s where she spent most of her time and where she eventually graduated) the nurse trainees were also sent to a much bigger hospital, The Jersey City Medical Center, specifically for training in pediatrics.
I can tell you, after the comfort of a smaller hospital, my mother’s experience with a big city hospital shocked her. From her letters, she says:
“I’m at Jersey City Medical Center now for my Pediatrics Affiliation. …This place is such a miserable hole [and] I don’t like it too much. The work is nice because it’s with children and the girls I work with are pretty nice, but this hospital is such a filthy place– & the things they expect the nurses to do! Every morning after you finish your patients you have to wash the woodwork and lemon oil it and wash the glass cubical windows. In the afternoon you get an assignment like working the desk and chart racks, or scouring all the sinks, cleaning the hopper rooms, etc. I never heard of such a thing!Personal letter, February 11, 1947
The dorm rooms also left a bit to be desired, according to mom:
“The part of the residence we live in is miserable. There are dirty, dark narrow corridors and little 2×4 rooms. They don’t allow outsiders in the part of the residence where the rooms we live in are. I can see why. The kids all told us this place was miserably dirty but I’d never believe it until I saw it with my own eyes. Even the kids in training here admit that they hate it. I feel sorry for them having to spend 3 year in a place like this. I can’t wait to get back to McKinley!”Personal letter, February 11, 1947
The job of a nurse also had it’s occupational hazards, as my mother points out:
“Right now I’m working days with infants–under 1 year. It’s O.K. but you’re continuously feeding and changing kids. Most of them are sick with upper respiratory infections, bronchitis, and diarrhea, and honestly I think I caught it. Yesterday I had a temperature of 101 and I have the most miserable cold.”Personal letter, February 11, 1947
Life at a big city hospital also had another kind of of surprise for the nurse trainees:
“The February class just came in this place. Golly the enrollment has dropped so much in the past year. They used to have 150-200 kids in a class.. [but] this class only has 49 and 11 of them are fellas! The fellas are all ex-servicemen and they look about 25. I should think they’d feel silly being in nurses training. They certainly look funny. Male nurses get paid more than female nurses and they don’t have to take obstetrics or pediatrics…”Personal Letter, February 11, 1947
It’s obvious from this letter that my mother was homesick, actually sick, and feeling overwhelmed, overworked, and under appreciated. I imagine this letter is no different than any other from a new trainee who is away from home and overwhelmed with the huge changes that being in school bring.
But it wasn’t all grim. There were lighter moments too:
“From the Surgical Building at night I have quite a view of New York City, Statue of Liberty and all. It really is quite pretty to see all those lights.
We had quite a snow storm last Saturday… The interns were out skiing on the grass the other day. They even rated a picture in the paper!”Personal Letter, February 25, 1947
There were also some hijinks between the nurses and the kids in pediatrics:
“All last week I worked 3-11 and it was some fun. I never realized it was so much trouble to get a gang of kids in bed and quiet. The boys caused us so much trouble, one night we had to take their pajama bottoms away from them because they wouldn’t stay in bed. I don’t know what got into them but they kept getting out of bed and sneaking in the kitchen to steal food. I wouldn’t have minded but the maid would have a fit the next day so we had to stop that business. Another night we had to ask the policeman to go in there and scare them into being quiet. After that we never had anymore trouble. All we had to say was, ‘Another sound in here and we’ll call the policeman’ and they always went right to sleep!”Personal Letter, February 25, 1947
McKinley Memorial Hospital, Trenton
Mom’s base of training was The McKinley Memorial Hospital in Trenton, New Jersey, the state capital and close to the New Brunswick Hospital where she was recruited.
After she returned from her rotation at Jersey City Medical, it is clear from her letters she was much happier.
“It felt good to get back here. I’m working in the clinic now and like it a lot. One day a week we spend in outside Public Health work. I visited the Well-Baby Clinic held in one of the grammar schools and the T.B, Clinic held in City Hall. Last week I made rounds with one of the Visiting Nurses. She was swell and I liked it a lot!”Personal Letter, May 13, 1947
Mom survived all the trials and tribulations of her training, and successfully graduated from McKinley Hospital School of Nursing in 1948, ready to begin her life as a professional nurse.
(To be continued…)