Friday, April 24, 2009

Stories make the world go a-round, the world go a-round, the world go a-round

I think most of us would agree that stories play a critical role in every society. From the time homo sapiens could string words together, people were telling stories. Even today, stories form much of the woof and weave of modern life. They bring us together; they tear us apart. They help explain; they help obfuscate (Ask any con man, and he'll confirm that even more important than the money you show is the story you tell).

So it is no wonder that we were sitting around here in Historical Collections & Archives yesterday, musing on stories we've been collecting. What is a bit wonderful is that, no sooner had a wish been expressed--"We need more stories from nurses"--than a woman wandered in, and told us a bit of her story.

She was "wandering around", she said, to see the Old Library, because she had just finished reading the Autobiography of John E. Weeks. She picked up a cheap, used copy at Powell's, drawn by the blue of the cover. She was delighted to discover that Dr. Weeks was connected with the medical school here, because she herself had worked at the Multnomah County Hospital for around twenty years. When she arrived in the 1960s, Emma Jones Hall was still a residence for nurses--she remembers that, she said, because the nurses used to sunbathe on the roof of Emma Jones, "and it was very distracting."

When we asked her if she had been a nurse, "Oh, no" she said; she had been a teacher, and took the course down at Monmouth. But then she took time off to have a family, and couldn't keep up with the changes in teacher education. So, when she applied at the county hospital, Mrs. Rankin said she'd do just fine, because of her obvious intelligence. She took the test, and got a 98 out of 100 questions. (She thought B.P. was probably bed pan, and that F.O.B. was maybe short for "father of baby". Turns out, it meant "foot of bed." Who knew F.O.B. had such a rich acronymic history?)

So, she became a nurse's aide. When we talked with her a little more about her duties, the subject of daily reports came up. We weren't sure, so we asked whether aides were expected to attend reports: "Oh, the nurses didn't like to take reports from aides, but sometimes they had to; they'd make faces and poke fun." When we commented on the irony of this, noting that nurses would often experience the same kind of disrespectful behavior from physicians, our visitor said "I hope so!"--but in a very good-natured way...

The encounter served to make us think more about the role of nurses' aides in health care in the early- to mid-20th century, the increasing professionalization of nursing, and the modern emphasis on team-based care. But it also made us think again about stories, which carry feeling as well as fact and often express truth in a way that data never will.

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