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Nurses And The Military: A Historical Perspective From Walter Reed

In honor of National Nurses Week, the National Museum of Health and Medicine hosted a discussion about the history of nursing at Walter Reed. Debbie Cox, former Army Nurse Corps Historian, initiated the conversation by describing what nursing was like at the turn of the 20th century. Steam-driven ambulances transported patients out of “mosquito-infested” Washington, DC to fresh-aired Fort McNair. A leading controversy of the time involved the intention of the hospital administrators to place the nurse baracks near the horse stables rather than the main hospital. In a dramatic twist, Jane Delano (cousin of Franklin D. Roosevelt) saved the nurses from relegation to the stables. However, it wasn’t until 1920 that nurses were given rank by the army.

Entry into nursing was through the Red Cross exclusively until the first nursing school was opened at Walter Reed in 1918. From there, nurses grew in numbers and prestige, until they became a cornerstone of medical research in the 1950s, leading the way in understanding how to reduce the spread of infections in the OR, decubitus ulcers in the hospital wards, and radiation damage related to nuclear war.

Jennifer Easley, a nurse who works in the pediatric intensive care unit at Walter Reed, described her experiences as a nurse leader for a team of soldiers in Iraq. She derived great satisfaction as an officer in her unit, and said that the team spirit and camaraderie was unlike anything she experienced in civilian nursing. She had this to say:

“I only made it 18 months as a civilian nurse. When I was called back to serve in the army, I had my paperwork in so fast you could hardly blink. I found out that in the private sector, no one ‘has your back.’ There’s no protection for those who raise safety concerns and nurses don’t have the authority to request back up in cases where units are dangerously understaffed.

I remember one day when several nurses called in sick and there weren’t enough of us to cover the children and babies in the ICU safely. I reported this to my nurse supervisor and she told me that maybe I wasn’t cut out for a challenging work environment. I was shocked, and really feared for the patients.

Another problem with private sector nursing is that there are glass ceilings. If you apply for a job as a staff nurse, you can’t work your way up to nurse manager. You’d have to leave that hospital and apply for a nurse manager position elsewhere. In the army, I had many more opportunities to contribute, grow, and lead.”

The final speaker was a nurse who returned from Iraq with head and neck cancer. He (LTC Patrick Ahearne) was an inpatient at Walter Reed for many months, losing 35 pounds and experiencing severe nausea, vomiting, and depression. At his lowest point, when he had lost hope of recovery and wanted to die, he was met with kindness by an experienced nurse who knew how to ask the right questions and reframe his perspective:

“This wonderful nurse stayed with me for 2 hours, watching me vomit and talking me through it. I remember her asking me what I’d learned about myself through my illness. I thought it was a strange, and medically irrelevant question – but it was just what I needed at the time. I realized how strong the human body can be, and the inner strength I had to endure my cancer. In those two hours nurse McLaughlin took me from wanting to die to wanting to live. She taught me that it was ok to be angry. It was ok to be sick.”

Many thanks to the unsung heroes out there who touch lives like nurse McLaughlin. We couldn’t do it without you.

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