The Purple Crayon (part 2)

Ruth lived up to her promise to become a nurse. In her late teens, she traded cleaning services in a dentist’s office in exchange for getting her teeth fixed, a pre-requisite for acceptance into nursing school. She joined the Army because she couldn’t afford nursing school. When nurses in Arkansas refused to work in the polio wards (there was no vaccine at the time) she volunteered. The hotels made the nurses change into civilian clothes before entering and they had to come in the back door for fear their presence would frighten away customers. It didn’t bother her. Whatever it took to help those poor kids.

Ruth Nursing Class

Many of her patients were confined to the old bulky iron respirators, essentially prisoners trapped in a metal bubble. They couldn’t truly live within, and they couldn’t survive without. The smallest of these patients were just infants. Most were frightened, lonely children. Some families who lived in fear of contracting the dread disease had abandoned their children altogether. Ruth’s heart broke for these kids.  They depended on the nurses for comfort and companionship, and often their very lives. On more than one occasion the power went out, leaving Ruth and the other nurses to pump air into their patients’ lungs by hand, sometimes for hours. She recalled being so sore she could hardly move after one such night, but she never stopped working the pump on the iron lung

Ruth on bivouacAfter the polio crisis abated, Ruth traveled to Arizona and New Mexico. There she worked among the Navajo people. She never spoke much about this time other than to say she’d worked as a midwife among them. She thought them a gentle noble people and felt strongly that they had not been treated properly by the government. There was a sadness about her when she spoke of these times so I had never asked too many questions.

Her next job was at an EVAC hospital in Washington state. They handled boys returning from the MASH hospitals in South Korea. She worked the floors and in the operating room. Many of the boys didn’t survive; those that did were maimed for life by their injuries. Ruth wasn’t a quitter and she didn’t allow the boys to quit either. She never stopped trying to show them that life was worth living and there was a bigger plan in store for them


Ruth with her little carShe was stationed there for quite some time, long enough for her to drive cross country four different times. She had a little Austin-Nash. It was a sporty little car and she loved it in spite of its flaws, its main fault being a tendency to leak brake fluid. One of her favorite stories was about her trip to San Francisco. She had to stop at the top of every hill and top off the brake fluid before descending or risk not being able to stop at the bottom.hen she had the opportunity to put in for a new assignment she headed to Europe with no hesitation. Her time there was without a doubt one of the treasured periods of her life. Ruth loved talking about the places she saw and the things she did while stationed there. She visited Paris and London, learned to ski in the Alps, saw the Black Forest and Bavaria from the back of a motorcycle piloted by a fellow named Wolfgang. She visited Egypt, Spain, Italy, Austria and Hungary. There were other places too.

When my brother and I were kids, she would take out her metal box of slides from her travels and show us photo after photo of these amazing places on the white screen of our Frigidaire. It instilled a wanderlust in me, one that took our family, including with her grandchildren, overseas. I often wondered if she regretted opening up the world for me as she did. She missed so much of our lives in the years we were away.

While in Verdun she applied for the chance to go to Munich, Germany and become trained in anesthesia. The Army asked her on the application if she intended to stay in the service for the long haul. She was honest and told them she was out as soon as her hitch was up. They accepted her anyway. She was one of only four nurses chosen and passed the year of anesthesia training with flying colors.

When she moved home to the USA, her eldest sister took her in until she got settled. Ruth immediately got a job as an anesthetist in a local hospital. The doctors there were still mired in old techniques. Ruth’s procedures were cutting edge and not everyone was comfortable with the new ways. When a surgeon came into the operating theater and saw the endotracheal tube in the throat of a boy scheduled for a tonsillectomy he demanded that she use gas instead. He refused to operate with that tube in his work area. She explained that based on his pre-surgery tests he was likely a bleeder and the tube would preserve his airway should an excessive amount of bleeding occur during the operation.

The surgeon was furious and walked out of the operating room. She had no choice but to bring the patient back to consciousness and explain what had happened. Ruth later found out she had been correct about the patient. The surgical team almost lost the boy when he began to bleed out on the table.  The surgeon never apologized but several months later, when his own son needed an appendectomy, Ruth found herself on the roster for his surgery, and she did her job with the E-T tube in place with no further complaints from the surgeon.



writer, traveler, artist
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