“Do you hear that?” Viola asked as she and Gram (then known as Helen) rolled bandages together in the basement laundry. Even though it was a snowy day, the laundry room was filled with steam from the irons and both girls were flushed. Gram was only twenty but most people thought she was older because of her thick specs and serious demeanor. Even her Pa had given up on her getting married. “You better get a profession,” he’d told her only days after his wife had died. “The boss says they got a new nursing program at Mercy and you don’t have to be a nun to apply. If you do good, you get a national certificate and can work anywhere.” Her father was especially proud of certificates and hung every one he ever got on the wall, right next the most important one of all: his citizenship papers. Then he smiled broadly. “Best of all, they’ll feed and board you in exchange for working at the hospital.” In other words, he’d no longer have to take care of her.
And so in the span of a month she found herself motherless and living with other student nurses. But her father had been right; nursing came naturally and she was excited to be a part of an innovative program aimed at bringing more respect to a profession previously in the hands of nuns and unpaid volunteers.
“What d’ya suppose is goin’ on?” Viola persisted. She was a hill gal who no one expected would get into the nursing program, let alone Viola herself.
“What do I suppose? That the emergency room will be getting some business soon, that’s what I suppose,” Gram replied. She was not meaning to be gruff but didn’t the girl know what the wild ringing of church bells meant?
Not two seconds later all of the student nurses were ordered from the basement to the emergency room. “For some of you student, and even junior nurses, this will be the day that tests your resolve to remain in nursing,” said Dr. Schneiderman as he looked around at disbelieving, young faces. “I do not mean to imply that your desire to be a nurse is not sincere but there’s been an explosion at the Wickwester factory,” he stopped as the enormity sunk in. As the largest employer in the area, many of the nurses had family or friends working there but there was no time to waste on false assurances. “According to Sister Beatrice, you’ve all been through triage training. She learnt on the battlefield so I’m sure she’s taught you how important it is to move quickly and dispassionately. That’s how lives will be saved, ladies.” He concluded by wishing them luck as the first of the ambulances had arrived at the emergency room door. It would be followed by 15 other vehicles of all sorts ferrying the injured, trucks, cars and even a couple of horse-drawn carriages.
The corridors of the hospital, lined with burn victims IVs attached and packed in ice like freshly caught fish until a doctor proclaimed who could safely be transported to Central, haunted Gram, then known as Helen, for the rest of her life. They were the “lucky ones.” The others, not expected to live through the night, became the junior nurses’ responsibility which meant changing morphine drips often and sanitizing the area around the patients in case the attending doctor had been wrong. Throughout the night the hospital was a sea of ever-changing tides, boiling and trashing and then gently lapping against the shore. The unpredictability worn on the young nurses who were often found slumped into chairs sobbing. Would it ever end?
As the sun rose Gram got the shock of her life when the thin shadow that had been on the wall outside the burn unit all night, moved. “You shouldn’t be here,” she scolded the young man. “You should be down in the waiting room. Give me the name of the person you’re here for and I’ll let you know his prognosis.” He didn’t wear a uniform but it was in his eyes. War. It was in so many lads returning from the Great War. He’d later claim that he fell in love with her in that instant. But he’d confused gratitude with love, a fact that she’d tried to convince him of for sixty years. Some things are unknowable and love is one of them.