Cherry Ames, Marcus Welby and life

May 21, 2010

Like many little girls who grew up in the 50s, I wanted to be a nurse.

My father was a pediatrician whose days were filled with office hours, house calls and hospital visits. When the phone rang at our house it was more often his answering service than friends and family.

As a preteen and teen, I worked in his office as a quasi-medical assistant/secretary, weighing and measuring babies, answering the phone and taking payments.

It never occurred to me that I could be a doctor.

It wasn’t that my father ever told me that women couldn’t be doctors. I knew they existed. In fact, I distinctly remember a female colleague of his coming over to the house for dinner. She was from India.

I also distinctly remember my asking her,”Why aren’t you wearing a suit and tie?” It got a big laugh. I don’t remember, though, if she was one of those laughing.

Gender roles were strictly defined when I grew up and must have been communicated to us in the air we breathed because the concept of “nurse” rather than “doctor” came up for me long before TV was ubiquitous.

Oh, how I wanted one of those crisp white uniforms and caps with stripes. I never thought too hard about what nurses actually did. The shit-piss-puke-blood-guts-gore part of it. It just looked so cool and interesting.

The art of medicine is a mystery to us laypeople: the uniforms, the prominently displayed stethoscope, the beeps and flashing lights all serve to distance us from the doctor and from medicine. It’s a secret society and as mere laypeople, we don’t have the magic decoder ring.

That makes medicine easy to romanticize on television shows like Grey’s Anatomy and before than on Ben Casey and Doctor Kildare. Doctors and nurses always seem to have every hair in place, perfect makeup, uniforms that look great on them and apparently they never get dirty: we never see them wash their hands unless they’re scrubbing for surgery. They save lives and barely break a sweat. Who wouldn’t want to be one?

And we buy it because we just don’t know better.

In real life, nurses often do the shit work (literally), their uniforms don’t stay crisp and fresh for long and their hands crack and bleed from constant washing.

Marcus Welby, M.D. was a kindly TV family doctor who practiced the most personal kind of medicine with great ease and no stress. In real life, doctors like my father were chronically sleep-deprived: they got calls all through the night, made house calls at any hour in any weather, and were crabby as hell with their families. Dr. Welby didn’t have those problems.

Lots has changed since then in the high-tech world of modern medicine, but what hasn’t changed is that nurses are the real patient contacts and know more about what’s going on than any of the doctors. They still save doctors’ asses all of the time.

In the old days, they did that “cute.”

Cherry Ames, R.N. was the Nancy Drew of the nursing profession and I had all of her books, the first of which was published in 1943. Memorable titles like Private Duty Nurse, Flight Nurse and Visiting Nurse introduced me and thousands of other juvenile readers to the profession and to various common ailments that were part of the stories.

In fact, when I got appendicitis at the age of 22, I immediately knew what it was because one of the Cherry Ames plots had involved her bout with the same thing. (That had to be at least 12 years after I’d read my last Cherry Ames book; apparently in our youth we DO retain more of what we read.)

In the books, Cherry often saved doctors’ asses, but always in that respectful 1950s I-am-here-to-serve way. Nurses were clearly not as important as doctors. By the way, have you noticed that there are no nurse characters on Grey’s Anatomy?

Growing up, medicine pervaded our entire household. At the foot of the stairs to our “finished” basement was a closet full of goodies that drug company “detail men” would provide my father. We had samples of just about any drug a kid could take and back in the day, the closet was heavy on antibiotics.

My mother was the go-to gal when any of her friends got sick; acting as an ersatz doctor, she did a booming business handing out samples of antibiotics, which were still considered miracle drugs in the 1950s and 60s. And she gave them out for just about anything. It saved her friends a visit to their real doctor, the cost of filling a prescription and also saved them a diagnosis that would assure that the meds they’d just gotten for free were actually appropriate for their disease.

I firmly believe that she, single-handedly, was responsible for the population becoming immune to antibiotics.

Despite that, we actually did know a lot more about medicine than most kids. We were probably the only kids on our block who knew what a bilirubin test was; we often took down those values from the answering service when a newborn patient of Dad’s was born jaundiced.

I hated math and science, though, so when I was a junior in high school and had to pick a college for early admission, I was in a quandary. I knew I wrote well. But I really wanted that white cap.

So in what became typical fashion, I drew up a matrix with the pros and cons of each. My biggest fear –that I’d overdose a patient because of my lousy math skills–weighed heavily on my decision to go to journalism school instead of nursing school.

Perhaps if I’d known more about what nurses really do I’d have realized that it was doctors who calculated the doses and nurses who filled the order. My poor math skills probably wouldn’t have killed anyone.

But I went into the business world, instead.

Good thing. I wouldn’t have enjoyed some of nursing, for example, digging stool out of impacted bowels, as a girlfriend of mine had to do. She was a rather fastidious girl who had long, manicured nails. I wasn’t sure how that all went with being a nurse, but that’s what she became, and yes, that’s what she did. They don’t show THAT on Grey’s Anatomy.

My fascination with medicine never went away, though.

I dated a doctor briefly in my 30s. He’d left thoracic surgery and had gotten hooked on the adrenaline rush of ER medicine. I liked hearing his stories, even though (like most surgeons) he was kind of an egotistical jerk. When the reality program Trauma: Life in the ER began, I was riveted. (That was before I became neurotic and started thinking I had every disease I heard about.) This was what really happened in an ER and I couldn’t stop watching. If hospitals were a secret society, the ER was an even more exclusive one, intense, exciting, all-consuming. I wanted to belong to that club and for an hour, I could. (And, it spared me the trouble of dating that egomaniacal surgeon.)

When the ER doctors left at the end of a long, dramatic shift, I always wondered about the transition to their every day life. If life in the off-time didn’t seem dull in comparison, and how on earth they could ever communicate what they’d been through that day to anyone who wasn’t an insider. After you’ve saved lives all day, seen death and played invincible, can you really just shower, change and attend a dinner party?

I didn’t see how.

My father retired from medicine when he was 78 and only reluctantly, when Alzheimer’s started robbing him of his memory. It was an ironic ending for a man who lived his work (to the detriment of his family life) and whose off-time hobby was reading immunology journals.

I think when you’re in medicine, you never really leave. Or rather, it never leaves you. You’re a doctor, or a nurse, til the day you die, whether you practice til you’re 78 or leave to do something else in your 40s.

I can’t say the same thing about my career in business. And when I weigh what I did for all those years against what I could have done in medicine, there’s no comparison.

It’s a strange feeling to look back now and know that it’s too late to do something else.

But I know that if I had it to do over, I’d go the other way. Only I’d be a doctor, not nurse.

The other day I read that women now comprise 60 percent of the students in professional schools, including med school.

I like the sound of that.

One comment on “Cherry Ames, Marcus Welby and life
  1. Carry says:

    This is a very inspiring story. It’s amusing to read but overall there’s a lesson behind. Thank you for sharing.

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