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The War Nurse

Chapter 1

April 1917

St. Louis, Missouri

Perhaps God made a mistake, and meant for me to be born a man. Certainly he gave me a man’s height, a jaw like an anvil, and shoulders fit to carry the world’s burdens. But I am, through and through, a woman, with all the sensibilities and, I daresay, strengths that includes. And I needed all of them, every ounce of courage, every fiber of muscle, every memorized detail of my profession.

On occasion, I shamelessly used my impressive stature when it suited my goals. In fact, that fateful morning, when the bespectacled Dr. Valentine barged into my office, ranting about the actions of one of my nurses in training, I rose from my desk chair and stood next to him, the top of his balding head even with my chin. Somehow, this seemed to even the playing field between the chief of medicine and chief of nursing.

My office was a handsome space, and I was proud to have earned it. A huge walnut desk the size of a dining table imposed its bulk in the center, and bookshelves lined all four walls. There was something empowering about it, and watching Dr. Valentine’s eyes flick around the room, taking it in, pleased me.

He waggled his pointer finger at me. “Miss Harriman is the most obtuse nurse I’ve ever had the displeasure of working with. You make sure she doesn’t come with us.”

“Come with you? Where are you going?”

His eyes widened behind his thick eyeglasses and his mouth gaped, as if he had just witnessed a ghost. “Oh, no, not my place to say. Better it comes from the powers that be.” He looked up at the ceiling, as if angels were the higher power. “Well, ta-ta, then.” He backed away, creeping out of my office like a guilty schoolboy.

I quickly forgot about his strange comment and unreasonable complaint about the nurse and returned to my huge workload. After three years in St. Louis at Barnes Hospital, organizing then leading the medical-social work unit, I had been promoted to superintendent of nurses and head of nursing training at the affiliated Washington University. As superintendent, I was responsible for every aspect of nursing at the university hospital, from recruitment and training to policies and procedures. I frequently coordinated with the heads of other departments and worked feverishly to stay up to date on new treatments and practices.

At the same time, I was handling all the duties of a dean for the nurse training program. Without the title, of course, as nursing wasn’t considered an academic major but more of an on-the-job training program.

I had nearly two years as superintendent, and it was a most rewarding experience. With the possible exception of Dr. Valentine, Washington University had the finest doctors and was on the front edge, especially for dealing with cardiac and facial surgery.

Despite all that, Dr. Valentine’s strange remark reminded me that it was probably time for me to move on. There was change in the air, something I sensed the way the rustle of the leaves and birds taking flight told me of an oncoming storm. Even before the huge proposition that was about to land in my lap, I knew I would be leaving my beloved St. Louis.

* * *

I was teetering on a rolling ladder, adding new textbooks of medical-surgical nursing to the top shelf, when tall, muscular Dr. Fred Murphy, the chief of surgery, dropped by my office.

“Good gracious, Miss Stimson, get down. We have people to do that.” He brushed back the locks of light-brown hair that continually fell upon his forehead, which along with his oversize eyeglasses gave him a boyish look. But he had been a star football player at Harvard and seemed to fill the room with an aura of power and authority.

I’d had a bit of a crush on him since we both had arrived in St. Louis back in 1911. I had to be careful, because gossip was the fuel that fed too many of the doctors, nurses, and other staff. At nearly thirty-six years old, I was considered a spinster, so any eligible bachelor was eyed as my potential suitor, despite my many denials, claiming the truth, that I simply didn’t have the time for one. So I had to steal a glance at Dr. Murphy when no one was looking, happy to have this opportunity alone in my office with him.

Not only was he tall and strongly built, he was bright and amusing, yet totally unassuming. He was charming in a most sincere way, opening a door for me in a gentlemanly fashion or offering his umbrella in the rain. But he was never condescending to women or dismissive of them as so many men were.

Dr. Murphy held the ladder while I climbed down. From the chest pocket of his crisp white lab coat, he produced a yellow paper.

“Is that a telegram? For me?” I held out my hand, but he wasn’t offering.

“Do you have time for a chat?”

Hearing those seven words, I had a premonition that my world and the position that I had worked so hard for were about to be upended. I sucked in my stomach and braced myself. Dr. Valentine’s slipped words came back to me. Clearly, upheaval was in the works.

“What is it?” Again, I held out my hand for the telegram.

“You might want to sit down.”

In a small act of defiance, I sat on my desktop. “Is my position here in danger? I know I’ve upset the applecart a few times, but the changes I’ve made are justified.”

“In a way, yes.” He cleared his throat and used his fingers to rake back his hair. “As you may recall, our School of Medicine was identified by the Red Cross as a base hospital, to be activated in the event of an emergency.”

“Yes. An honor, to be sure.” My mind reeled. I had been placed on some Red Cross committee, but the meetings were rather an old boys’ club affair, with much drinking of whiskey and smoking of cigars. At some point, someone would read a short update from the Red Cross, then they would adjourn to play golf or meet their wives for dinner. Minus me, of course. “Has there been a fire? A tornado?”

“No. But seems the emergency they were really preparing us for has arrived.” Dr. Murphy took a deep breath and blew it out slowly. “War. This is from the surgeon general in Washington, DC.” He read from the wire. “‘Can your unit go to Europe and how soon?’”

My hand clapped to my mouth as I gasped. “Will you go?” Of course, I knew him well enough to know the answer to that question.

He nodded. “The unit is the entire medical staff of the university, plus supporting personnel.”

“What about the ‘how soon’ part? We don’t even have troops over there yet. Surely we have some months to prepare while they are still getting trained.”

“I’ve been told the Red Cross’s answer to the surgeon general was that we would be ready in six weeks’ time.” He took his pipe out of his pocket and rubbed his thumb across the carving on the bowl.

“Six weeks! What will that mean for the hospital? How will it run without the medical school staff?” I felt my list of options diminishing by the second. “It’s going to shut down, isn’t it? Is this my termination announcement?” With my recent wanderlust, I had been toying with the idea of returning to my native New York. But still, I didn’t want my hand forced.

“Not at all. The hospital will hire medical staff from elsewhere and will continue on.”

“But you will be leaving.” His words hardly comforted me. I had grown quite fond of him. “I will miss you.”

His voice softened. “You don’t have to miss me.” He sat next to me on the giant desk. “You see, the idea of a base hospital unit is that they take a well-functioning group who have trained together, know one another’s quirks and strengths, are bonded in a way that fosters good communication and dedication to one another, as well as for their mission.

“Central to all this are the nurses. We can’t run a hospital without them.” He turned and looked straight into my eyes, no doubt wanting to judge my reaction.

My mind was still spinning with the obstacles we would face with a complete change in medical staff. I was already forming a transition plan in my head. “Don’t worry. We will carry on.”

He scratched his temple. “I’m not sure you understand. We want to take you and your nurses with us to Europe, or wherever we may be sent.”

My mind continued to whirl, even as part of me had already accepted the challenge. Dr. Murphy chattered on, with numbers, deadlines, and names. One of the names was Dr. Valentine. I began to sort out nurses and other support staff to consider taking with us. Dr. Valentine needn’t have worried about Nurse Harriman. Although I disagreed with his assessment, she lacked the years of experience we would need in every nurse we took.

Dr. Murphy patted my shoulder as he rose. “So lots to think about. Let me know what you decide.” He headed out, then stopped, silhouetted in my office doorway. “We’ll need to find sixty-five nurses willing and able, with no return date in sight.” He gave a knock on the doorframe, then stepped away before I could voice the hundreds of questions in my brain.

The War Nurse
by by Tracey Enerson Wood

  • Genres: Fiction, Historical Fiction
  • paperback: 352 pages
  • Publisher: Sourcebooks Landmark
  • ISBN-10: 1728242878
  • ISBN-13: 9781728242873