My mother was a nurse, the old-fashioned kind without a college degree, first in the class of 1935 at the Lenox Hill Hospital School of Nursing in New York City. Her graduation was announced in The New York Times, and her name was listed in the commencement program - Estelle S. Murov, in gold letters on ivory vellum.
The glory years for nurses, my mother always told me, were during World War II, when most of the doctors were away and real responsibility replaced being a handmaiden.
With this as my background, I am hardly a disinterested reviewer of a new anthology of essays by 21 nurses. It is beautifully wrought, but more significantly a reminder that these "semi-invisible" people, as Lee Gutkind calls them in this new book, are now the "indispensable and anchoring element of our health care system."
After he had selected 21 essays from more than 200 submissions, Gutkind had personal experiences that drove home the very thing the nurses wrote about over and over. He spent several months at others' hospital bedsides - his mother, 93; his son, 21; his uncle, 86; and a friend, 72 - and rarely saw a physician.
Though it is the doctors who are considered "deities," he writes, it was the "irreplaceable" nurses who were a source of comfort and security during his family's multiple trials. And yet by his own admission he took them for granted - "I cannot not tell you what any of the nurses looked like, what their names were, where they came from" - which is exactly the state of affairs my mother described 65 years ago.
She would have loved this book, and no passage more than the one in which Tilda Shalof, a nurse for 30 years and also a best-selling author, describes "the ongoing tension between the university-educated nurses like me and the old guard, the hospital-trained, diploma-prepared nurses."
The latter, she argues, are preferable. "Maybe those veterans didn't know much about research or nursing theories, but they sure know how to care for patients," she writes. "They knew how to get the job done. I wanted to be like them - a nurse who could start IVs on anyone."