Tuesday, March 31, 2009


by Bill Fullerton

In the winter of 1971, Gwen Kaplan, a junior nursing student at the Hunter/Bellevue School of Nursing, faced the prospect of no social life. It was a radical change from a few months earlier when she found herself coping with the physical, moral, and emotional problems involved with having two men in her life.

Since then her four-year romance with Johnny DeAngelo had come to a dramatic, non-negotiable end, and the new man in her life, Mark, had been out of town for weeks. Not knowing when he’d be coming back made things even worse.

With nothing else to occupy her time, Gwen began concentrating on her studies. Back in high school, she had been a brilliant, straight A, honor student. In college however, she’d decided her goal was to become a nurse, not an honor student and had done little more than coast. While her grades were okay, for the first time in her life she had gotten a C in a couple of courses.

The main challenge this semester was the much dreaded, Pharmacology course. “I’m not believing we’ve got over 300 drugs and all that other crap to memorize,” complained Ann. The outspoken black militant suffered few things quietly. She and Gwen were sitting with two other friends in a big, overheated lecture hall waiting for their Public Health instructor who, it being Monday, was late.

“I thought I might have a jump on a few, but hash, acid, and grass aren’t on the list,” said Sue. Everyone looked at her in surprise. It was the first thing the group’s token hippie had joked since a major break-up with her latest boyfriend.

“Keep the faith, child,” said Ann. “I understand the list does have some uppers and downers.”

The instructor scurried in and began hastily laying out his papers. Robin leaned over a whispered to Gwen. “Do you think he’ll say it today?”

“Probably,” said Gwen, who had just finished glancing over her notes from the last lecture.

“I’ll bet you a Coke he doesn’t,” said the blue-eyed, blonde feminist. Back during the second week of the semester, she’d noticed their instructor, who had a slight speech impediment, recited his favorite principle of public health nursing at practically every lecture.

“You’re on,” said Gwen. “But why do you think he won’t say it today?”

“It’s Monday,” answered Robin with an air of self-assurance. “He doesn’t say it on Mondays or when he’s late.”

“Now ladies,” said the thin, courtly black man, “as I’ve told you before, in public health nursing, clean-zee-ness is next to God-zee-ness.”

“Shit. Can’t count on any man. I’ll get you that Coke after supper,” grumbled Robin.

“Make it a Tab, if you please.”

That evening, Gwen paused to sip on her victory Tab while the other residents on her floor in the nurse’s dorm continued pulling off the hall’s old, faded, floral print, wallpaper. “Who started this, anyway?” asked Robin, busy yanking down a long sheet of industrial green paper.

“I don’t know, but I’m grateful,” said Ann. “I’ve been wanting to do this since the first day I laid eyes on this depressing crap.”

Gwen sat down her bottle and rejoined the pulling party. “Do you think we’ll get in trouble?”

“What are they going to do?” replied Sue, as she attacked a section of the wall with a furious intensity. “They can’t throw everyone on the floor out of school.”

A few minutes later, the last of the old wallpaper was gone. After stuffing the shredded remnants into several laundry carts, four intrepid nursing students slipped it past an unsuspecting Eagle Eye Eastland, guarding nurse of the reception area and then out of the dorm.

The next morning, those same four wallpaper smugglers faced cold winds, freezing rain mixed with snow and, even worse, their psychology clinical lab.

Bellevue Hospital is a long collection of buildings stretching for blocks along 1st Avenue. Their dorm and most of the classrooms were located at the south end of the complex. Many blocks away, way up in the northern most reaches, was the institution’s famous psych unit. That’s where they were now supposed to go for the clinical portion of Psychiatric Nursing.

“Look folks, I don’t know about the rest of you, but I’m taking the tunnel,” announced Gwen. They were huddled together in the dorm’s lobby, looking out the glass doors at the miserable weather. “There’s just no way I’m going to walk all the way to 30th Street in this stuff.”

“Well, there’s no way in hell I’m ever going back down in that creepy tunnel!” shot back Ann. This emphatic response surprised no one. Ever since she’d encountered something furry while walking alone in the tunnel, Ann had hated the place.

Everyone could sympathize with Ann’s hostile attitude. The tunnel in question was an underground corridor running the length of the hospital. Built years earlier, it let students and employees move around quickly while staying out of the weather. While convenient, it was dark, damp, spooky and had dim, mysterious recesses where small, unidentified objects could be heard moving about.

Robin patted her friend on the back. “Come on, Ann. I don’t like that place either, but it beats going out in this crappy weather. Maybe we can try memorizing a few more drugs on the way over. Just think of it as one horror replacing another.”

Ann stared out at the late winter storm, apparently trying to will it into a warm, sunny day. Failing that, she accepted her fate. “Okay, I’ll go. Just don’t anyone tell me when they spot a rat.”

Their pharmacology mid-term was scheduled for Friday. The night before the exam, everyone convened in her room for a final try at coming to grips with over 300 pharmacology terms. Robin acted as chief inquisitor. “Okay Sue, here’s a toughie. Give me the low down on E.P.S..”

“Oh, that’s easy,” smiled Sue. “E.P.S. stands for extra pyramidal syndrome. Its symptoms are: Parkinson like tremors, pill-rolling finger movements, a mask-like face, shuffling gait, and rigidity.”

Silence followed as Robin, Gwen, and Ann stared at her in amazement. “This is unreal,” said Robin. “Let’s try another. Let’s see, if you got E.P.S. then Thorazine should be a snap.”

There was a blank look on Sue’s face. “Come on girl,” prodded Ann, “every freak on the lower East Side knows about Thorazine.”

“Guess that proves I’m no freak,” replied Sue, with an embarrassed smile.

“How can you handle something as weird as E.P.S. and not know an everyday drug like Thorazine?” demanded Robin.

“Easy,” said Sue. “I dated a guy once who had all the E.P.S. symptoms.”

The unexpected sound of someone yelling came through the open window, halting their laughter. In one day, the weather had turned from late winter to early spring. Unfortunately, the dorm’s heating system hadn’t caught up with the new climatic reality. As a result, everyone had their windows open trying to cool off the overheated rooms.

Ann stuck her head out the window as an unseen student shouted, “Pharmacology sucks!”

Ann’s response was immediate and instinctive. “Screw Pharmacology!”

By now, Gwen, Robin, Sue and everyone else in the dorm were craning their heads out of windows. Others were soon echoing the first cries of frustration. Within seconds, the entire dorm was screaming in protest at the mindless memorization and constant academic pressure. After days of endless cramming, the dorm was experiencing a collective explosion of pent-up frustration.

Gwen looked across at the VA hospital and saw patients standing inside their sealed windows, waving and giving them the peace sign and black power salute. “Hey, Ann,” she shouted, “the vets are on our side.”

After a few minutes, the shouting began to taper off. Several floors below, a lone figure walked out into the dimly lighted, run-down courtyard which separated the dorm from 23rd Street. Although she was a long way off and the lighting was bad, everyone recognized Eagle Eyes Eastland.

The noise dropped several more decibels as Eagle Eyes removed her stiff, white, nurse’s cap. Then she looked up at the boisterous student nurses and proclaimed, “I’ve removed my cap, my symbol of dignity as a nurse, before talking to you because your behavior is undignified, unladylike, and unprofessional.

“Please try to restrain yourself, if not out of self-respect, then out of consideration for those few of you who may actually be trying to study.”

After one last, disapproving stare, she carefully replaced her cap and walked back into the dorm. Some die-hards began singing, “Ding-Dong the witch is dead,” but the energy which had fueled the spontaneous outburst had vanished. After a few more half-hearted shouts, heads began to disappear from the windows as everyone returned to mid-term cramming.

None of the students knew it, but they’d just seen the last stand of the old order. Next year, Eagle Eyes Eastland would have a new assignment with her place at the front desk taken by student workers. Their job would be to monitor the arrival of male visitors going to the previously sacrosanct upper floors of the student nurses dorm.

For the first time in school history, students would be able to have anyone they chose, including boyfriends, in their small, private, rooms.

By the end of Gwen’s senior year, hostility between students and those running the school mirrored that in colleges all over the country. No member of the administration would be invited to attend, much less participate in, the various graduation ceremonies marking the transition from student to nurse.

But this evening the students’ immediate concern was Pharmacology, not social or academic change. They’d be up all night cramming. As Gwen reached for her worn note cards, she allowed herself a brief moment to wonder what Mark was doing.

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Blogger dave hambidge said...

Hi Bill, you've set the stall out well with lots of avenues to dvelop with main and secondary characters.

Your description of long dark underground corridors brings back memeories of some unpleasant times in the past!!!

12:39 AM  

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