As we passed by the classrooms, we caught our first glimpses of hospital equipment. A tubular metal hospital bed with a hand crank at the foot end, a curtain room divider on wheels, a metal basin and a white, metal bedpan all caught our attention. In the adjacent classroom a life sized plastic skeleton was suspended from a metal pole. A squishy rubber, adult-size doll our Big Sisters called Resusci-Annie, lay on the floor. Apparently, she was the dummy we would practice on when we were taught cardio pulmonary resuscitation (CPR). A rubber replica of the heart and lungs tucked inside a stiff plastic rib cage and encapsulated in a smooth silicone chest and torso, sat on a desk at the front of the room. These items, which at first glimpse were unfamiliar and unnerving, would soon become the familiar tools of our nursing trade.
Next stop on the tour was the tunnel. Opening off the basement, it connected the hospital to the nurses’ residence offering us a convenient and safe passage to the nursing care units for the many trips we would make in a day, a week and over the coming months. We would find it particularly useful during afterhours tours of duty and during periods of inclement weather. The tunnel walls were painted in high gloss grey oil paint; the ceiling was about twelve feet above the floor and its structure made no attempt to conceal exposed water pipes, electrical wiring or numerous inky dark shadows. The tunnel was totally absent of sound except for the echoing of our footsteps as we fidgeted following our Big Sisters into the nether world. Curving off in a near ninety degree angle away from the residence, our view of either our destination or departure point was completely obstructed. As we neared the end of the tunnel and the entrance to the hospital basement, we passed the door marked MORGUE.
Several in our group of innocent, naive, young women became squeamish as we passed it by. Our collective excitement about beginning our nurses’ training was considerably dampened by the skin-chilling feelings of being alone and vulnerable in this completely silent, shadow-filled, tubular chamber. The thought of having to pass by the morgue each time we travelled through the tunnel was stomach-turning to many in the group. Having reached the tunnel’s end and hearing the sounds of chatter, footsteps and the rolling wheels of stretchers, wheelchairs and supply carts, our hearts began to feel lighter and we finally entered the also-grey, but brightly lit, hospital basement.
Escorting us into the cafeteria, our Big Sisters showed us where to line up for tea or a cold drink, and at which tables it would be appropriate for us to sit while on duty and taking a break. I didn’t yet understand the hospital hierarchy but got the clear sense that indeed it existed, and we students were not highly placed on the rungs of that ladder. The cafeteria was filled with people: what a hubbub of sights and sounds, and everywhere there were nurses! Dressed in white uniforms, stockings and shoes, their neatly pressed dresses (uniform pant suits didn’t yet exist) were topped off by starched white caps perched securely on their heads. Many of those caps were adorned with a black band near the top of the cuff, denoting the status of Registered Nurse. Other caps were naked white which our Big Sisters assured us were also Registered Nurses’ caps. Apparently, each School of Nursing had its own unique cap design, one which allowed easy identification of graduates of that particular School of Nursing. Black band or none, these women were Angels of Mercy, historical descendants of Florence Nightingale and Jeanne Mance. They looked like everything we wanted to be in our futures.