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Time, No Longer Standing Still


Specializes in Med/Surg, Onc., Palliative/Hospice, CPU. Has 3 years experience.

On a recent visit to the site of Chimborazo hospital in Richmond, Virginia, I realized that I had only a glorified idea of what nursing used to be. While there standing amongst the materials collected after years of excavations, I found myself buying the diaries of Civil War nurses. I needed a glimpse into their World. I needed to compare. I needed to know and understand…

Time, No Longer Standing Still

What do you think you would have heard, smelled and experienced as a Civil War nurse fighting on your own front-lines? It seems selfish to neglect remembering the large establishments, the small hospitals and scattered clinics that many brave men and women managed in hopes to provide their dedication to the war effort. Many swore that it was their calling and their duty to touch the sick and wounded in an attempt to heal the broken bodies before them. Their very own self preservation constantly remained at risk throughout these trials and tribulations. As I walked amongst the remnants of the excavated goods and tools from the lands of Chimborazo Hospital in Richmond, Virginia, I realized that these caregivers were not far from us. So I did the only thing that could place me in their shoes. I bought the diaries of Hannah Ropes and Phoebe Pember. I needed to know if my goals were still in line with theirs. How were our battles the same? How much has changed in 150 years? Needless to say, as I dove head first into their lives, I was stunned.

It is frozen December 1862 and your ward is bursting at the seams. At 0300 you've been startled awake by a frightened nurse because another patient has fallen ill with typhoid fever. The rations are low, the whiskey barrel falls short and many are calling out in pain. What are you going to do? It has been weeks since you've slept the night through. But you're needed, and you've been summoned.

Phoebe Pember and Hannah Ropes are major voices that we have from the Civil War era working in hospitals of Virginia. Pember worked at Chimborazo hospital in Richmond, seeing more than 76,000 patients throughout the war effort1. She remembers in the beginning how people deemed nursing to be entirely unsuitable for the refined charms of well-bred women1. But in Richmond, she has been named the matron of one of the World's largest hospitals to have ever existed1. Hannah Ropes worked as a ward nurse in Washington D.C. treating both sides of the war effort with just as much passion and dedication as Pember had been noted to have done. Hannah's diary speaks leagues of her character and passion for "her boys" as she so lovingly called her patients2. With each page I turned in these journals, I came to know these women inside and out. I could see their struggles, feel their battles, and sense their frustration. The similarities between our lives and theirs were beyond mirror images. Though our environments could not have been more different, our efforts are one and the same.

We as nurses are continually fighting to spend more quality time with our patients. Whether we are bogged down by paperwork or exceptional social issues, our hands often become tied. Pember remembered a time when so many visitors were coming in and out of the ward that she could barely provide care to her ill patient1. Ropes noted how positively transformed her patients became after simple activities of daily living were given2. These therapies were all foresights and elusive all at once. For me, even with the aid of CNAs, I work to prioritize needs because there simply is never enough time for everything. Regardless, we have to keep moving. As Pember perfectly put it, "I had learned to close a dead man's eyes and then [immediately] return to rounds1." It is sad to see that for 150 years if not more, we have been fighting the same shortages in hands and help. It hurts to be unable to hold a patient's hand when they truly need it. Ropes could easily see that her nurses were weary, and yet she remained at her post because she knew that her family didn't need her "more than the soldiers do2." She, like us, had no time to herself2. Yet, in this, she found solace, as we often do. Ropes knew that her "men have been saved only by the best of nurses2." Of this, I think will never change.

As nurses, we work as far as our jurisdiction allows us. We give more to others than we have in ourselves to give our needs. These acts of unconditionally giving can lead to burnout. The World has been seeing nurse burnout at an exponential rate as we have been gaining more responsibilities with less help available. Ropes found herself in this light. She could also sense a feeling of loneliness and depression throughout the wards because she and the staff were being run ragged2. The tolls of patient suffering wore on her consciousness as well, and with such a heaviness she began to limit her time in multiple wards to protect her spirit2. Nurses began to turn against one another in a desperate attempt to feel some sense of control2. "More than you imagine," she said in one letter, "they need me at all hours2." How true is this to our daily struggle? The need is great! And yet, we are but one person. Our teams can only handle what is humanly possible. When will the cycle break and we find a means of balancing care with political duties? I love this next piece of Rope's letter to a family member.

You have no idea of a hospital, nor has anyone who simply calls in to see me. We get lousy! And dirty. We run the gauntlet of disease from the disgusting itch to smallpox... [but] you see, I have given myself to this work, not as the strutting officers on the avenue have, for a salary, and laziness, but for love of country...Where the strength comes from to do what I do is a mystery.

Beautiful passion ringing in my ears! After that resounding truth she added another door to her character

So you will understand that we have our hearts and hands full...The tax upon us women who work for the love is tremendous.

Often I cannot express to friends and family, loved ones, romantic interests and the like the immense burden that I carry on a daily basis while at work. But the long story short is that I cannot see myself doing anything else. What an honor it is to take my precious skills given to me by nature, by education and by practice.

We have not walked alone on this Earth in our realm of health, mindfulness and caring. Our battles were fought just as strongly and plainly years before our existence. What needs to come from this knowledge that I've found is the push for change. The World's nurses will continue to suffer as long as we are quiet and as long as we choose to shy from banding together as a collective. I will preach again and again that my calling is to care for those who cannot care for themselves, but it is furthermore my duty to ensure my safety and well being. How can we give without giving to ourselves?

Phoebe and Hannah fought for far more than I could squeeze into this page. Their stories are far beyond what I could have ever imagined. For me, I would rather the wars fought before me in this realm not be so in vain. It is our obligation to take our knowledge of the past and apply it to the here and now. Why are these issues still occurring? How can we change this?

In closing, remember you. Remember your voice. Remember your strength. We come from a long line of the most talented, strong and educated people I've ever met, seen and read about."You, in your modesty, did now know how much good you were doing2."

So move forward my friends. Continue to let your voice and needs ring true and loud.

Now is the time for change.


1 Pember, Phoebe Yates. A Southern Woman's Story. Columbia: U of South Carolina, 2002. Print.

2 Ropes, Hannah Anderson., and John R. Brumgardt. Civil War Nurse: The Diary and Letters of Hannah Ropes. Knoxville: U of Tennessee, 1980. Print.

Molded and formed by a drive to live up to her own expectations, Jacquie ultimately thrives on creativity. Dreams, testing her limits, and traveling all fuel the fire, thus leading to adventures of the past and yet to be: http://misadventuresofanurse.blogspot.com/

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4 Comment(s)

prmenrs, RN

Specializes in NICU, Infection Control. Has 42 years experience.

Ginny Dye wrote a series of books describing the Civil War, Southern side, from "Storm Clouds" to 1866. The principal character works as a volunteer @ Chimborazo. It is eye-opening! A lot of discussion of the political issues of the day, including women's rights in addition to slaves and states' rights. Look on Amazon. Very good series.

xoemmylouox, ASN, RN

Has 13 years experience.

I'm sure it is hard to put those down once you crack one open. Did you find these at an antique store or buy them online? I agree that while the time periods are very different, we are still fighting for patient's basic needs on a daily basis. We are exhausted and beaten down some days, and it remains difficult for others to understand.

prmenrs, RN

Specializes in NICU, Infection Control. Has 42 years experience.

OP mentioned Chimborazo, which featured prominently in the series, thus my comment. My only complaint was that the characters spent a lot of time discussing the politics, which is great for understand the war, not so great for moving the story along.

Interesting that Andrew Johnson was such a jackass about implementing rights for the freed slaves (he was a Southerner, and apparently had owned slaves), and 100 years later, Lyndon Johnson did so much for Civil Rights.

I found the books on Amazon. Just search the author, Ginny Dye. Definitely worth reading. The main character, Carrie, learns a massive amount of herbal medicine from an old slave woman on her father's plantation, and uses that knowledge @ Chimborazo. Next time I'm in Virginia, I plan on going to the site of the hospital--I think they have a museum.


Specializes in Med/Surg, Onc., Palliative/Hospice, CPU. Has 3 years experience.

You can find them online. I bought my copies in the Chimborazo Hospital Site store. I wanted my monies to go toward the grounds and the national park funds.