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Bed Pans to Bedlam – A Day in the Life of a 19th Century Nurse

Published 19 May 16 11:32 AM

Between sore feet, long shifts, and fussy patients, you could be feeling like you’re on the edge of a major meltdown at work. To ease your pain just a tad, let us showcase a typical day on the job for a 19th century nurse.

Lucky you – the nurse who arrives before you didn’t bring in the coals to combat the morning chill. Before you can start attending to your patients, you’ve got to lug in a hefty bag of rocks and load them into the central heating system so that you, the patients, and the rest of the staff don’t freeze to death.

Today, the 150-bed hospital will be staffed with 30 nurses, all nursing students. You ladies are in charge of running the wards, private rooms, operating rooms, the general dispensary, and the eye and ear clinic. When you’re a senior, you can look forward to being sent out on private duty. But, unfortunately, the hospital will get paid for your work, not you.

The rooms are filled with the typical cases of delirious typhoid, dysentery, and abscesses. Your first patient of the day is a drug case, specifically narcotic. You have to keep him awake, and, as soon as possible, get him on his feet and walked around. One method is to use knotted towels, dipped in ice water, which you continuously whack them with to rouse them. This patient you walk up and down the corridor. Staggering, he goes to sleep on his feet. More ice water, more walking.

Four hours into your shift, you’re still making your rounds (42 more to go!) when you hear a loud commotion from ward D. You rush down the hall to see what the fuss is about and realize a delirious patient had escaped. Dressed in only a night shirt and with long roller towels that had been used to confine him to his bed now trailing from his wrists and ankles like streamers, he bolts by you. Leaping down the main staircase, he escapes out the front entrance before the orderly can catch him.

Before you can return to your daily obligations, the doctor on duty requests your help. Being that he is the local surgeon, pediatrician, physician, dentist, and gynecologist, you’re not really sure what the procedure will entail.

The saw is your first clue.

After administering anesthesia, the doctor begins the surgery. The procedure is a success, and the patient is wheeled away to await their wooden prosthetic, that will probably be only a few inches too short.

You’re still way behind on your shift, thanks to the surprise amputation.

Adjusting your large white hat and apron, you precede with the five o’clock temperatures.  After this, you greatly appreciate the rule of two hours of quiet. Placing screens around an empty bed, you take an hour nap.

After the day is finally over, you return to your quaint house to rest before another long shift.


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    Occupation: Media, Marketing and Merchandising
    Setting: King of Prussia, PA
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