Despite the fact that I used to prompt my childhood physician, Dr. Don McDonald (we also had neighbors named Paul & Pauline Paulson with a son named Paul; all redheads. Just sayin’…) Again, despite causing Dr. Don to chase me round and round his office each and every time I needed a shot, the truth is — I’ve always been a medical geek.
I had a Nancy the Nurse doll (she came with a uniform, cape and forceps!) Adored playing the game OPERATION (more forceps!) And I so coveted the full leg cast Mary Elizabeth Devinney clomped into Sister Joel’s third grade class wearing one Friday, I nearly dove out the window hoping to score my own. (Yes, her name was Sister Joel.) But this fascination came to a glorious head the summer I became a candy striper.
I was ready — nearly an adult (eighth grade graduation fast approaching.) And I’d certainly done my homework. Since both the Bookmobile and The Taylor Library had waived their 10 book borrowing limit for me (it saved the librarian time), I was able to devour all 27 installments of the Cherry Ames series, whose titular star was a job-hopping, mystery-solving nurse (oh, yeah!)
…consume the seven Sue Barton novels (where she successfully combined raising a beautiful family with a high-powered nursing career!)
…and gobble up the biographies of Florence Nightingale, Clara Barton and First Lady Mary Todd Lincoln. (Not satisfied to rest on her White House laurels, MTL worked tirelessly as a nurse tending to wounded during the Civil War. Now we’re talkin’…)
I was also a dedicated patient of Ben Casey, Dr. Kildare, and Marcus Welby, MD — unquestioningly following their black and white advice week after week after week. (This was pre-HMO, PPO or POS; a much simpler time.) As I said, I was ready.
Alexander Eastman was a low slung building constructed in 1964. Though a small hospital — at the time it had about 26 regular and 6 maternity beds — AE’s candy striper program was legendary. It’s fair to say that in the town of Derry, NH this program was surpassed in popularity and esteem only by the Miss Patti Mills School of Baton.
I feel I should explain. Pinkerton Academy, the town high school, had a champion majorette and twirling squad. As their coach, Patti Mills was on a mission to ensure PA’s continued success. Therefore, in an effort to develop any and all local talent, the Patti Mills School of Baton hosted lessons for just about every girl in town, from kindergarten age on up. Several students rose to a level of twirling that was so remarkable it could have won the talent portion of the Miss America Pageant. I don’t know that this actually ever happened, just saying it could have. Patti Mills was that good.
At the end of each school year, the Mills students presented a twirling recital that rivaled many a state fair. It was easily three hours in length and filled every folding chair that could fit into the Gilbert H. Hood Middle School auditorium. In addition to the rows and rows of smiling parents, the audience demographic included those with a fascination for watching teenage girls in fringed and spangled leotards as they tossed batons into the air and those with a fascination for watching teenage girls in fringed and spangled leotards as they tossed batons with dangerously flaming tips within inches of a velvet theatre curtain. Come to think of it, that activity could have resulted in a visit to the Alexander Eastman emergency room, but I digress…
So you can imagine how honored and excited I was to receive the invitation to come down to interview to be a candy striper. I know, I know, you thought this was as easy as joining the Girl Scouts. Or trying out for the Chess Team. No, no, no — not just anyone could don that vaunted striped pinafore with short-sleeve white shirt and matching anklets. You had to earn it!
So the next Sunday right after church, decked out in my most serious serious clothes, I found myself downstairs in the Alexander Eastman kitchen/cafeteria, where the floor to ceiling windows overlooked the slopes of Alexander-Carr Park.
[Ed. Note: This is pure conjecture. I do not now, nor have I ever known anything about said Alexanders; whether they founded (or losted) anything and the order in which they may or may not have done so. But in the absence of research, I’m taking a leap…]
At the far side of the room stood two women in white. The sun streaming in behind them caused their starched uniforms to positively glow. I shook hands with Rose Gerard, RN and Patricia Crabbe, LPN then took their proffered seat. I admit, I cannot remember the actual questions, but I do remember they made my hands sweat. This would be serious business, you’ll be dealing with sick and injured people in a hospital, do you think you’re up to the task? The memory puts me in mind of the feeling I get each time I sit in an exit row on an airplane. You know, when the flight attendant locks eyes with you and rotely inquires, “If this plane happens to crash, do you promise not to panic and leave us all here to die?” I may be paraphrasing… Okay now, back in Alexanderplatz-land my responses were as solemn and sincere as the occasion required. Apparently they were also successful because shortly thereafter, I got the call to come to training.
Yes, Virginia, there was candy striper training — a full week of it. It took place over a school break (Easter, I think), but each girl was still happy to be there. This was real. This was exciting. This was a hospital! First we toured the facility, including the one operating room (“Wicked neat!!!) The nurses on the ward smiled benignly as this gaggle of teenage nightingales fidgeted politely in our stiff as candy cane jumpers. We crackled behind the instructor, a line of starched baby ducks, just hoping to absorb, remember and not trip over our shoelaces.
“Always present yourself for your shift clean and ironed with your shoes freshly polished.”
Our classroom was a corner of the cafeteria. We started with a general first aid review. Then a hour on the proper technique for hand washing. Next we met two important tools of our trade, Lady Bed Pan and Mr. Urinal. We shook and shook and shook their hands until nary a giggle remained. We had an actual hospital bed at our disposal. No, not for napping; we needed to make ourselves one with that mattress. First, we made the bed while empty (piece of cake!) Then we learned to strip and remake it while it was occupied by a patient. No, we didn’t use actual patients; their malpractice coverage would not allow. Each trainee took a turn in the bed, which gave you a lot of information about what it would feel like as a patient being wrapped and handed and rolled. And then a turn at the bed, which gave you a lot of information about the mechanics of trying to move dead weight. While playing patient, I recall some of us were much sicker than others. (I’m talking to you, Sue…) Next we reviewed the controls. Head up, feet down. Feet up, head down. Feet down, no up. Oops, that’s the head…If you were going to make the egregious error of sandwiching a live body inside this mechanical mattress, the time was now. Your training partner was young and healthy. But you might just kill a patient…
And the icing on this sheetcake? That’s right, making hospital corners (no namby-pamby fitted sheets for we!) The hospital sheets were sturdy and starched, pressed flat in an industrial steamer. They felt rough against your fingertips as you struggled to make perfectly angled folds and tucks. The hospital mattress was stiff and unwieldy — this demanded some sweat. Then came the scrutiny; not just one corner, but all four. And if even one didn’t pass, do it again. For the final exam (there was a whole deal on the last day) they actually bounced a dime off the blankets (just like in G.I. Jane starring Demi Moore.) It was worth it, cause that’s a skill that never leaves you…
We were schooled in giving backrubs. Taught where to safely place a flower arrangement. Shown the proper way to fluff and stack pillows. Speaking of pillows, to this day I have never forgotten the instruction we received. One should never “hold the pillow under your chin and breathe on it” as you attempt to slip it into the case. (Apparently “unsanitary” and ‘”germ-laden.”) You should balance the pillow against your chest with your arms extended down and attempt to let the pillow slip itself into the case. I usually try to adhere to this behavior. When I fail, my solace is I’m usually dealing with my own pillows, so the cross-contamination possibilities are pretty circular. To be honest, those hard, stiff hospital pillows are a lot easier to drop into a pillowcase that anything a real person trying for a comfortable night’s sleep at home would ever buy. Just my opinion.
Soon we were on the floor, always working in pairs. And I know I’m not alone when I say that I spent as much time as I could in the little kitchenette. In additional to dispensing reading materials, and flowers, and sunny dispositions, we also provided snacks. There was a little cart which we loaded up with soda, and ice cream and saltines. But we liked to push the milkshakes. There was a fountain mixer in this little kitchen, and anytime we could convince a patient that a milkshake was what they needed, we got to skim a little bit off the top. It was a matter of poor portion control on our part, you simply couldn’t fit it all in one glass…
My most vivid memory was of one particular Sunday afternoon. I was working with Sue (she of the Oscar-winning patient routine, see above.) There was a particular nurse who generated fear in my heart whenever I saw her. I don’t recall her name, but she was dark haired, smart as a whip and wouldn’t take no never mind, if you get my drift. She was a big deal, because in addition to working on the floor, she was one of the surgical nurses on staff. So this particular Sunday, she approached Sue and I (starched and pressed and polished, I assure you) while she was dressed in bloody scrubs. This was different, very different. She told us to follow her and down we went — to the operating room!!!!!!!!
Our eyes were plenty big as she pushed the metal swinging doors open. There was blood everywhere. For me, not in a “Gross, I’m going to barf” way. More a “Wow, this is totally cool.” I could see Sue felt the same. Cleary this nurse knew how to read people. Because the next thing she said was, “Wanna’ help clean up? We just had an emergency spleenectomy and we’re short staffed.” You didn’t have to ask us twice.
Before you say, “Yuck!” I’ll just let you know that Sue wanted to be a nurse and I wanted to be an orthopeodic surgeon. What happened after high school was that Sue went on to become a nurse and I was accepted into a pre-med program.
However, one day that summer before starting, I called the college and asked, “Excuse me, I’m coming there in the fall for pre-med. But I was wondering, ummm, do you have a theatre program?” The answer was, “No.” So, here I am —never an actual doctor, but ready to play one on TV.
But I was a teenage candy striper. An iconic role, indeed. Just ask Barbie.