By Rose Klix
In 1964, when fourteen, I joined this volunteer organization. I didn’t find any photograph of me in my uniform. Here’s a web link for the mannequin pictures of the pinafore and Gray Lady uniform.
We dressed with a white blouse under the blue-and-white pinstriped pinafore. Often people mistook us for “candy stripers,” because of their similar pinstriped red and white pinafores. However, their duties included icky stuff like cleaning out bed pans and making beds. Even though my service was much more pleasant, I learned definitely not to pursue nursing as my career. Our adult Gray Lady manager said the nurses termed their cap as their pride. I proudly wore my cap and pinafore.
Our manager assigned us to various locations for our volunteer time. For my first assignment, I reported to St. John’s McNamara Hospital, later converted to a nursing school and then to a nursing home.
I loved walking to St. John’s because the building sat only a couple of blocks from my house and I didn’t need a ride. As a Junior Red Cross volunteer, I reported to the front counter. Sometimes I’d be assigned to greet visitors at a small desk with a Gray Lady. I would answer questions as to a patient’s room number and whether or not they were allowed visitors.
One day a Gray Lady didn’t see me wave at a visitor who bypassed our desk. She did grin and tell me, “I went to school with him. We called him “Piggie.”
I said, “I know. He’s my grandpa, Orion Swinehart.” She stopped smiling, seemed embarrassed, and sent me on my break. My great-aunt Maude worked as a cook. I often visited with her.
One of the nuns showed me how to operate their switchboard. She insisted, “Remember which way to push the switch. You want to ring the room, not deafen the caller.” I got mixed up and turned it the opposite direction. The supervisory nun put a stop to any further instructions to me and perhaps other girls. I was not destined to be a telephone operator.
I loved to take mail or flowers to the patients’ rooms to cheer them up. Even though shy, I enjoyed these talks with patients. Unless the nurses posted a notice on the door to not give liquids, I filled up their water pitchers or helped them sip from straws.
St. John’s denied teenagers access to the maternity ward where mothers labored behind a door with limited access. Policies banned us from seeing or hearing any birth pain suffering. I visited the nursery’s viewing window to see the beautiful babies.
My brother’s best friend suffered a motorcycle accident. He was recovering from surgery for a pin and plate in his leg. I cried when I saw him. I brought him bachelor buttons from my garden, an appropriate flower. He always bragged about his latest girlfriends. That day I realized he would never reciprocate my crush. Instead we “adopted” each other as brother and sister.
Next assignment took me to Bennett-Clarkson Memorial Hospital which is now a mental health facility. The hospital sat about two miles west from where I lived. Mom or Dad drove me there. I again brought mail around to visit with patients. Dad’s co-worker had an accident. I often visited with this paraplegic’s wife. As a family we’d been invited to their home on occasions and both families kept in touch over the years. I personally felt their tragedy, because it seemed too close to my own family.
I sat with a paralyzed young man. He laid on a revolving bed with huge bars, trapeze and traction hooks. I left the room while they turned him over. With only a towel draped over his private parts, I wondered how it stayed on while they flipped his “bed” over. Another day the medical team moved his hospital bed outside. They gave me no clue how I could help this young man. He seemed to be very angry with the world and wouldn’t talk with me. He told me, “Light my cigarette.” The wind blew out the match. I’d never lit anyone’s cigarette before, not even my Dad’s. The boy firmly said, “Cup your hand over the flame.” That worked. I’ve often wondered if the Vietnam War caused his injuries.
Another day I spoon-fed a man with badly burned hands wrapped in white mittens. He said, ‘Mash the peas so they don’t roll all over.” He looked miserable and helpless.
I disliked taking the patients’ urine specimens to the laboratory. However, the assignment allowed me an excuse to go up and down on the elevator. I often pretended I was the elevator operator. I’d punch in the floor numbers for those entering the elevator.
I made the unfortunate mistake of wearing seamed nylons. I’d probably bought them on sale at Woolworth’s; more stylish seamless ones cost more. I overheard a couple of interns laughing and pointing at my crooked seams. The same young men also got on the elevator with me. One turned off the light and put his arm around me. The other one turned on the light in time to see me pull away. I didn’t like their mocking attitude.
I also served a short time at a nursing home converted from the old Donaldson’s Department Store building. One day the secretary told me to go around to the residents and write down their birthdays. It served as busy work, but gave me an excuse to talk to them. I asked one lady who looked at least 70. She gave me a confused look and then said, “I turned 40 last birthday.” Because I spoke softly, most of the residents could not hear me. When I’d raise my voice, I sounded angry. This frustrated all of us in that setting.
My manager assigned me to the Mother Butler Center, a charitable medical facility. The nun nurse didn’t know what to do with my volunteer skills other than to assign me to dust her closet filled with pill bottles.
Too bad I didn’t journal this, because now I don’t remember the names of any of the Gray Ladies or the nuns with whom I “worked.” My volunteer service taught me much about people and medical work from a novice standpoint. I hope I brightened a few patients in my rounds.