It’s a different world

Canadian nursing students in the 1950s.

Not long ago, I visited a patient in a Halifax hospital and when I passed the nursing station, caught myself comparing what they were wearing and how they were functioning with what it was like when I was in nursing school at the Halifax Infirmary some six decades ago.
What especially caught my attention is that most of the nurses I passed wore bright clothing and no one had a nurse’s cap. And of course pants would have never have been allowed in my era.
In the 1950s, nursing degrees didn’t exist. I got my training at the Infirmary, which cost my parents $75 for the first year, $50 each for the next two.
In those days our patients received a full bed bath every day. That’s unheard of now.
Back rubs were then a mandatory aspect of the nursing care. We, however, were advised never to leave the alcohol we used at a bedside because it was the “drinkable kind.” Sometimes it ended up at medical students’ residences, where it would spike the punch.
All of the food our patients received on the wards at the Infirmary arrived in large heated metal containers. We usually carried the food trays to our patients bed sides. Also, very important for our patients’ well being was to every evening bring them a night snack of tea or coffee, and a few crackers or cookies.
Part of our responsibility to the patients we cared for was to also dust and mop their rooms, clean their sinks and when they were discharged we had to carbonize their beds. (Carbonization is a method of disinfection involving carbonic acid.)
What I will never forget were the days when many of our patients received intramuscular penicillin injections. This was something I dreaded doing because the needles we used weren’t disposable and they really hurt. After using them, we had to sharpen them with a cumbersome device.
I am convinced anyone who reads this story will be astonished to learn that when you were on night duty on the Infirmary’s second floor and the front door bell would ring, you had to go downstairs to answer it. When you did this, there usually was a very pregnant woman anxious to be taken to the case room on the fifth floor.
I also did enjoy spending six weeks in the hospital nursery but I certainly did not at all appreciate spending long hours, often on night duty, rinsing out containers full of dirty diapers (which of course, weren’t disposable in those days).
We always stood up when a doctor visited the nursing station. We all thought it would be wonderful to date a doctor but that was forbidden. If you did it and got caught, you were expelled from training.
After graduating, salaries for nurses, at the time averaged $140 per month, but some hospitals paid as little as $90 per month.(I became an operating-room nurse at the Children’s Hospital in Halifax and earned $50 a week.)
It’s now been 60 years since I graduated from the Halifax Infirmary but I still have lots of fond memories of that unique era.

This story was originally published in Halifax Magazine.

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