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Memories of an early 20th century nursing career

Cofer, Suzanne Desilet, MPA

doi: 10.1097/01.NURSE.0000554612.02901.34
Feature: Nurses Week Tribute
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For Blanche Gates Cofer, nursing was a way of life. Explore this longtime nurse's story through excerpts from her own unpublished memoir and tributes from her daughter-in-law.

Suzanne Desilet Cofer is a retired public school educator and resides in Lacey, Wash.

The author has disclosed no financial relationships related to this article.

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Editor's Note: The following article is based on excerpts from an unpublished memoir written in 1991 by Blanche Gates Cofer, whose decades-long nursing career spanned the Great Depression, World War II, and the early years of the Cold War until her retirement in 1953. Blanche Cofer lived to age 100 and died in October 2007 in Olympia, Washington. The following excerpts were provided by Mrs. Cofer's daughter-in-law, Suzanne Cofer.

BLANCHE GATES COFER would never forget the moment she chose to become a nurse at age 10. While undergoing a tonsillectomy, she “fell in love” with her red-haired nurse, Mary, and never looked back.

After graduating from high school and working briefly for a publishing company, Blanche enrolled at St. Anthony Regional Hospital in her hometown of Carroll, Iowa, in 1925. Modern nursing was still in its infancy then and dominated by women. In the US, hospitals were largely nonprofit organizations and many were operated by religious orders. To be eligible for the 3-year program, students had to have been in the top one-third of their graduating high school class and were required to board at the school.1

“When I entered training on September 6, 1925, I was 18 years old, 5-foot-7, and weighed just 118 pounds,” Blanche wrote. “I gained 20 pounds the first 6 months. It was probably the regular hours, and the food, while not fancy, was nourishing. We worked 12 hours a day, 7 days a week. Our class periods came out of that time ... but on Sunday we had a few hours off to go to church.”

“We all had to be on duty at 7 a.m. and we were not allowed out after 9 p.m. Once a month, we could have ‘late leave.’ We still had to be back by 10 p.m. However, any mark against us automatically removed our ‘late leave,’ so we seldom got them.”

As one could imagine, these restrictions took a significant toll on the students' social life, but they took full advantage of their scant free time.

“All the cars were lined up in front of the nurses' residence building at 7 p.m.,” Blanche remembered. “As soon as we could get out of our uniforms and into our street clothes, we rushed out.”

At that time, training was free because nursing students provided free labor to operate hospitals. Nursing students were allocated $5 a month for spending money. However, they were charged for breakage or damage to any equipment.

During the 3-month probation period, nursing students were not allowed in a patient's room. Instead, they spent most of their time scrubbing floors and performing other housekeeping duties.

After her training was completed, Blanche took her state board examination in July 1928. Her score of 96.5 was the second-highest grade the school had ever seen at that time, she said. “I thought I really had the world in my grasp.”

Blanche began her professional career in private duty. St. Anthony's rarely hired RNs—nuns had all the supervisory positions and nursing students did the rest. Blanche worked in private home duty 24 hours per day, 7 days a week. She had 3 days off for the entire year and earned $5 a day.

One experience that had a profound impact on Blanche in those years was helping a patient with two small children who lived on a farm near Coon Rapids, Iowa. Her patient was a woman in her 20s who had what was known as “black measles,” known today as Rocky Mountain spotted fever.2

“Her chest and abdomen looked like someone had pounded them. They were all bruised and discolored,” Blanche wrote. “Her doctors were two young brothers from Templeton. I believe they were fresh out of medical school and had never seen a similar case. She was practically blind and we had to keep her in a totally dark room. She could take a small amount of fluids by mouth, but her kidneys were failing. On Easter Sunday, the doctors came to see her. They told me there was nothing they could do for her. If there was anything I could think of, I was at liberty to try it. I felt awful. She was such a nice person and those two small children would be left motherless.

“But one day, her husband was having a beer, and it gave me an idea. I knew beer stimulates the kidneys, so I asked her to drink two glasses of it. She hated it but cooperated. Within 24 hours her kidneys started functioning, and she started to improve. The doctors were amazed and said I had saved her life. When I left, she was starting to walk. Her eyesight had improved, though the doctors doubted she would ever fully regain it. And it was all done with two bottles of beer—and, I'm sure, with a little help from above.”

After 5 years, Blanche tired of private duty and decided to make a change. She was accepted at the University of Minnesota to take a postgraduate course in pediatrics. At that time, most states required 6 months of pediatrics for advanced nursing certification.

Blanche was then offered a position at University Hospital in Ann Arbor, Michigan, which was hiring nurses.

“I arrived there on October 4, 1934 and went to work on Six West, a boys' ward of about 60 beds. They were mostly orthopedic patients and some were there months at a time. I lived in Couzen's Hall, a nice new nurses' residence just a block from the hospital. My salary was $58 a month, with room and board. It was the first real job security I had ever had, and it seemed like a fortune to me.”

Blanche was a kind and sensitive nurse. She found it hard to resist forming emotional bonds with her patients, especially very young and lonely children.

“We had a little patient named Bobby come in with laryngeal polyps,” she wrote. “He was a doll. He was about 2½ years old when he came to the ward. He came from a large family up in northern Michigan who were very poor. I became very fond of him and used to spend my days off with him. I never went to the store without buying him some toy or trinket. He had a tracheotomy, so he could speak very little. His mother came to see him once, and he didn't even know her. He considered me his mother. When he died, I was devastated. I'd had it. I asked to be transferred to another ward. I was getting too emotionally involved with my patients.

“I was sent to the 7th floor, the tuberculosis ward, where we had some of the same patients for years. I was so scared. For the first month I would never take a deep breath while I was in a patient's room. But then I became used to it.”

Blanche spent 7 years in that ward and worked there when she married her husband, Frank, in 1939. Frank joined the US Army in 1942 and served in Europe until the end of World War II.

“At the beginning of World War II, the hospital was concerned about being bombed, so we had to lower the blinds every night at sundown,” Blanche wrote. “Sometimes the patients' food would get cold while we took care of the blinds. Because several of our nurses joined the armed forces or went to defense plants, we were short of help. Sometimes I was doing what three or four nurses had done previously.

“When Frank came home from the war, I had worked 19 consecutive Christmases and made up my mind I was not going to work the 20th. It was one of the happiest Christmases we enjoyed together in 44 years of marriage.”

Blanche and Frank moved to Kennewick, Washington, after the war. There, she worked the night shift in emergency care at a local hospital until her retirement in 1953. Even after she retired, she introduced herself to new friends as a retired RN. Until well into her 70s, Blanche was an active volunteer for blood drives with the American Red Cross and fundraising drives with the American Cancer Society.

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A wonderful life

Blanche came from a poor background and was very proud of her achievements as a nursing student and later as an RN. Over the years, she maintained close relationships with her fellow nursing students. Nursing was Blanche's identity. This Nurses Week, we recognize and remember dedicated nurses like Blanche who find their professional work deeply satisfying and personally rewarding each day.

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REFERENCES

1. Gilbert K. A Tradition of Caring: St. Anthony Regional Hospital & Nursing Home 1905-2005. Phoenix, AZ: Heritage Publishers, Inc; 2004.
2. The National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. Rocky Mountain spotted fever. 2014. http://www.niaid.nih.gov/diseases-conditions/rocky-mountain-spotted-fever.
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