By Sarah L. Blum
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I was always very small physically and grew to be large in many other ways. I grew up in Atlantic City N.J. in the 1940’s and 50’s and went to nursing school at the Albert Einstein Medical Center School of Nursing when I was 17. I was afraid of everything. In fact, I had a surgical nursing book with pictures that so terrified me I would slam it shut and never pick it up again. I was book smart and could help my classmates with studying and learning things from class but when I was on the wards I became frightened and called my classmates for help. By the time I graduated I learned to trust myself and was able to be a nurse without fear and loved doing nursing.
My first job was at the Atlantic City Hospital on the pediatrics ward. I loved caring for children and it was a great job but I developed strong negative responses to parents who brought their children in when it was clear they were not providing the best care for them. Sometimes the children were half dead when they brought them to us. I struggled emotionally when children died—and far too many did.
I remember one little boy who died of sickle cell anemia when I was taking care of him. He was adorable, as so many were, and he used the phrase “cotton pickin” often and so I began to call him my “cotton pickin little boy.” When he died and I cried, I told him, “I will miss you my little cotton picken friend.”
In 1963 I decided to head west and see what it was like in LA, California. I found my job through the American Journal of Nursing before I left. I was on my way to LA County General Hospital, the big grey monster—and that it was. I worked on the men’s medical ward and had about 72 patients to care for with only one practical nurse and two nurse assistants. Not only did I do their primary care, I did all the medications and dished out their food for a variety of diets. It was the worst job I ever had. I left after three months, when one of my patient’s had a cardiac arrest at 11:45 PM, and my staff told me it was time for their shift to end and refused to get the crash cart or help me save him. In California they had unions and the union told them they did not have to stay after their shift. The shift changed at 11:45. I do not accept that someone in the caring profession of nursing would walk out on someone dying because it was the end of a shift!
When I left there I took a job working for the Kaiser Permanente Hospital on Sunset Boulevard and it was fabulous! I had 18 patients, compared to the 72 at the county hospital and I had the best LPN I have ever known. Her name was Bea Marinello and not only was she a great nurse, she became like a second mother to me when we were working and outside of work. She was very supportive and nurturing and loved to cook and feed me. We worked very well together on the evening shift from 3-11 PM. At bedtime we shared the patients—she took half and I took half. I loved that time with my patients because I gave them back rubs and listened to them to help them relax and sleep well.
I worked there for a couple of years and then went into the Intensive Care Unit and cared for critically ill patients and became part of the first open heart post surgery team. In the ICU, I found that I liked caring for patients who had heart attacks and sometimes I knew when they were going to have a critical incident, e.g. having their heart stop. I would call the doctors to tell them and they would legitimately ask me what the vital signs were. I told them and added what I believed. They typically said, “Call me if there is any change.” I would respond, “The next call you get will be a code on your patient—if you come down now we can save him.” A few minutes later I would be calling a code on that patient and the doctor would come running into the ICU and look at me with shocked piercing eyes. Usually it was too late for their patient. After a few of those experiences the doctors would come down when I made the first call and we started to save their patients.
In 1966 I started to hear about Vietnam and that war on the radio. I had no idea where Vietnam was but I remembered saying something when I was in nursing school at age 19, “If there is ever another war and I am single, I will go.” At that point I was 26 and I was single— so I went to the recruiters for the military. First I went to the Air Force and wanted to be a flight nurse but I was too short. You had to be five foot two to reach the top of three tiers that held wounded soldiers on the airplanes and I was only five feet. Then I went to the Navy and wanted to be on a hospital ship but they said I had to work for two years as a Navy Nurse in the U.S. before I could go onto the ship. I was sure the war would be over in two years; little did I know it would go on for ten, and moved on to the Army. (When I was nine years old I created a career booklet for school and in that booklet I was an Army nurse, Navy, nurse, and Air Force nurse.) The Army recruiter told me I could go to college on the GI bill after I served in Vietnam and told me, “We really need operating room nurses and we will train you.” I said, “OK” and went to basic training at Fort Sam Houston, TX in May of 1966.
After that I was sent to the Presidio of San Francisco to the operating room nursing course at Letterman General Hospital for five months. The Vietnam Veterans in their dark blue pajamas and wheelchairs, lined the corridor I had to walk down, and they had what we called the thousand-yard stare. I would stop and get to know them and hear their stories so learned a lot about the war before I ever went there.
My year in Vietnam changed everything and there is much to tell. I wrote my experiences in Vietnam and home coming in my second book, Women Under Fire: PTSD and Healing. That year was the gift that goes on giving in my life.
While in Vietnam, I met a nurse, one day for one hour, who told me about Washington State. The glowing details including Mount Rainier, Puget Sound and she kept repeatedly saying, “It’s God’s country.” Finally I said, “ I think I will go there if I live through this.” I did live through it and asked to be sent to Madigan General Hospital (MGH) in Tacoma, WA. I still remember the moment I saw Mount Rainier and fell in love. This state is truly God’s country, where I made my home. I loved my experiences as head nurse of the orthopedic ward at MGH and there are many stories there as well. What is most important in this moment is that the wounded soldiers that came to the ward were my brothers, and their physical wounds were not healing properly because they were troubled mentally and emotionally as a result of their experiences and values conflicts in Vietnam. I knew that and wanted to help them, but felt unprepared. No one was prepared for that. I decided then to go to Seattle University to get my degree in nursing so I could focus on mental/emotional healing—psychotherapy— which is really the healing of the soul.
I did get my degree and worked part of the time at the VA hospital with Vietnam Veterans. I also got married, had two children and much later developed a career as a nurse psychotherapist healing PTSD.
I always new I was going to write but never knew when or what I would write about. I began to write about my spiritual journey after my children were grown but then in 2006 I met a woman who told me I needed to write about women in the military. It was not long after that I decided to begin interviewing women veterans to tell their stories. It did not take long before I was hearing horrendous stories of sexual assaults and retaliation when women reported their assaults. While attending writing conferences and workshops, and an editor reviewed what I had written by 2009 and told me I needed to narrow the focus to the culture of abuse I was hearing about. It was then that I realized I had two books. The first one, Women Under Fire: Abuse in the Military, is now being published, and the second I will complete when I can.
Sarah L. Blum ARNP
Dedicated to inspiring hope and positive change.