Behind the Scenes: Nursing as Metaphor

Have you ever heard of a born nurse? I hadn’t either…

It’s been a while since I’ve posted the results of my research into my trilogy of novels that will be set at the San Francisco Presidio, Agnews Insane Asylum, and The Cats estate.

[Read about how the trilogy came to be, start here with Part 1.]

One reason for the delay was that my research ran into the iron wall of the past. There was a school of nursing at the Presidio army hospital, but no matter how I re-phrase my question to Google, I can’t find a single detail about it.

Finally, I took a step back. Because of the way the three settings fit together in my mind, and the obvious medical environment of the first two, I had planned to make the main character a nurse. It’s a profession close to my heart because my sister’s a nurse. It’s a profession that draws people who are not only passionate about health care but have more than the average amount of empathy and concern for other human beings. Now that my sister is transitioning to a career as an artist, that same sensitivity to the natural world comes through in her paintings.

Cathryn Grant nurse early 20th centuryI stopped searching for information on the nursing school and began to look for information on what nursing during the early 1900s. And really, aren’t the experiences of characters why we read fiction, not the structure of an educational institution? It was suddenly so obvious I’d been on the wrong track.

And then I stumbled across a speech given Mary Cadwalader Jones to the Associated Alumnae of Trained Nurses. If you’re interested, you can read the excerpts here.

Two things struck me.

First, was the idea that there’s such a thing as a “born nurse”. When Mary Cadwalader was a girl, nursing was considered a gift. “Born nurses” were women whom doctors often hired to help with obstetrics or serious diseases in a household where everyone was exhausted (pneumonia or typhoid) from dealing with debilitating illness. In other words, there was nothing medical or scientific about the job.

The second thing that struck me, was that among a list of societal and human issues for which Ms. Jones believed nursing was a metaphor, was conscience.

“Among physicians, nursing may be a metaphor for conscience. Nurses see all that happens in the name of healthcare — the neglect as well as the cures, the reasons for failure as well as those for success. The anxiety, not to mention the guilt, engendered by what nurses may know can be considerable. Nurses recognize that many of the physician’s attempts to conquer death do not work. They [nurses] are an uncomfortable reminder of fallibility.”

Well! There’s something that will get my imagination working. Already I can feel the shadow of my first character emerging from the darkness. And the desire to conquer death? Wow! I can’t wait to dig my teeth into that one.

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