8. Tales of a Student Nurse: Extracurricular Lessons

Not long after this experience, Alice arrived in my room on first floor one evening with a package of Rothman’s cigarettes and the urging: “you have to learn to smoke, Barb, nurses all do it.” In 1967 many health care professionals smoked. In spite of seeing blackened lungs in text book photos, and while observing surgical procedures in the Operating Room, the link between smoking and lung cancer was not yet publicly discussed. Almost all the second year students smoked, significant numbers of hospital staff did so, and many physicians routinely arrived on hospital units to make patient rounds with their smouldering cigarettes, pipes and occasionally cigars, in hand. Cigars were discouraged due to their offensive odour but I remember many a nurse swooning over the fragrance of a particularly handsome doctor’s pipe. Ash trays sat at the nursing station counters for physicians’ convenience but many smoked while going down the hall and into the patient’s room. This was not deemed inappropriate behaviour at the time. Non-physician hospital staff were not permitted to smoke on the units while on duty, but smoking was permitted in all hospital eating and break room areas, and was tolerated on patient floors if done discreetly behind closed doors in office areas.

“Okay, now Barb. This is the filter end, the end you put in your mouth” said Alice. “You light the other end, put the filter between your lips, hold it snugly and suck the air in through it when you inhale. Now watch me: you always hold your cigarette between your middle and index fingers and you support it underneath with your thumb.”

As she demonstrated this skill to me, I was stunned by the elegance and sophistication of the act. She took a deep breath in and exhaled the smoke out in plumes through her nostrils. I was mesmerized, and with her next inhalation she held her breath briefly and then exhaled while creating smoke rings in the air. By then there was a buildup of ash on the end of the cigarette which she gracefully tapped off on the edge of an ashtray she’d brought along.

“Now you try, Barb.”

It looked so easy and I was eager to learn anything Alice could teach me to make me a member of this sophisticated sorority of nurses that I hurried to accept the instructions. Placing the cigarette between my lips and holding it the way she’d shown me wasn’t difficult but taking that first deep inhalation spun me off into a sphere of horror. Choking, gasping, coughing and a searing heat in my throat accompanied a wave of nausea that invaded my belly accompanied by a dizziness throughout my head which felt like I’d been kicked.

Patting my back, Alice took the cigarette from me and said, “that wasn’t too bad, was it? Don’t worry, you’ll get used to it and after a while it won’t bother you anymore. Now try it again.”

Without protest I did, and so began a twenty year relationship between me and my Rothmans.

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Barbara Tiessen is a retired RN who lives with her husband in southwestern Ontario but winters in the Rio Grande Valley of Texas. She researched her genealogy, wrote and self published The Schoenfeld Russlaender: A Mennonite Family's History in 2015. More recently her interest have focused on writing short stories.
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