One of the first unsanctioned nursing skills I observed being practiced on the second floor of the Residence was the act of ear piercing. Thankfully, I’d had my ears pierced in a doctor’s office the previous year so didn’t feel pressured to line up with a number of other students willing to allow a second year student named Becky to demonstrate her skill. In the mid 1960s, pierced ears had become a cultural standard of beauty and against my parents’ wishes, I had snuck out after school one day, attended a doctor’s office that wasn’t my own, and had my ears pierced. This doctor, my high school friends reported, used a new procedure rumoured to be painless. In one unbroken step, a stainless steel instrument similar to a staple gun punctured my ear lobe with a sterile, nail-like, earring. I would not remove it for the next six weeks. No local anesthesia was required, the procedure was over in about ten minutes and apparently, the risk of infection was low because there was no manual insertion and/or manipulation of the puncture wound while trying to insert an ear ring.
On the second floor of the Residence the ear piercing procedure was significantly different, but like the physician’s, was based on aseptic principles of medicine. My Big Sisters had been taught sterile technique during classroom instructions about giving medication by injection. In the classroom, oranges were used as a substitute for a person’s arm or buttock. The orange peel offered a level of resistance to needle puncture that was somewhat similar to that of a person’s skin. Once the skin was punctured the soft tissue underneath gave way to the entire length of the needle, thus allowing the sterile water to be injected into the soft tissue or muscle.
Becky felt well prepared to push a needle through an ear lobe. She used an ice cube on the back of the ear lobe to freeze it, and waved a sewing needle into the flame of a cigarette lighter to sterilize it. Once numb, she inserted the needle into the ear lobe at the precise ink mark the patient/student had made to indicate the desired spot. Since students were not allowed to wear jewelry while in uniform, the options for insertion into the piercing were: a piece of thread, a fine wired, very small gold hoop earring or a short length of catgut suture taken from the Operating Room. The option chosen by the patient/student had everything to do with how short her hair was. The contraband earring had to be hidden from the Nursing Instructor’s view. Student nurses with short hair simply couldn’t camouflage any of those options, but that didn’t stop them from trying. More than one student nurse with bandaids on each ear lobe was questioned about her feigned bilateral injury, was discovered to have no injury at all and was forced to remove the object in her earlobe.