I was there . . .
by Betty DeLucchi
From Betty June: My Life During the Great Depression and World War II: 1926 to 1946, self-published, Pasadena, CA: 2020
Mt. Zion Hospital, c. 1920s.
Photo: San Francisco History Center, SF Public Library
It was a happy day when I received a letter of acceptance to the Mount Zion Hospital School of Nursing. The letter was addressed to me and my parents to attend a reception on a given date — to be held in the living room of the nurses' residence on Sutter Street in San Francisco. We set the date and planned to attend. While anticipating the day when I would leave home, I continued doing ordinary things around the house and to work at Eitel McCullough. The days gradually rolled around to the first week of September, 1943.
The atmosphere in the house was subdued and quiet during those few weeks. All the talking and discussions had been said; further discussion just didn't happen and didn't seem to be needed. I was not overly concerned about anything — not even about leaving home. I looked forward to nursing school as a welcome change, but otherwise it was a matter of fact — a necessity and just "the next thing to do". I wondered whether there was something wrong with me, that I didn't have feelings of apprehension or worry. I was just waiting for the departure day.
Early afternoon arrived on the day to leave. After putting my new baby brother David in the back seat of the car to sleep, Mother got into the driver's seat and I sat in the front seat next to her. Mother was a good driver and accustomed to going anywhere she liked, including into San Francisco. It was as if we were going to the grocery store to buy a loaf of bread or a sack of potatoes — no fuss, no extra movements — and no extra words. In fact there was an audible silence! The car motor started and we backed out of the driveway. I noticed with silent surprise that Mother was wearing a house-dress — clean and neat, but nothing special. She wasn't wearing makeup as she sometimes did on special occasions. For this trip, I wore a blouse and a skirt.
In spite of gasoline rationing, the tank was full and the tires were full of air. My father had been keeping the car in good working order in spite of war-time shortages so we felt assured a safe trip.
Mother and I sensed a kind of apprehension about what was happening. We knew this day was the final one before I entered nursing school. I felt sorry that neither of us seemed to want to talk about it. I wondered why she didn't leave David with a neighbor but I thought it would offend her if I suggested leaving him home. I do not recall any encouraging words or comments of any kind from my father as he left for work that morning.
Going to nursing school was not exactly what I always had in mind but since there was no money or ever the idea of me going to college, I had to admit I was lucky to have the opportunity to learn a skill — one that would lead to a profession. It was time for me to move out and seek my own goals.
Now that my application was accepted, and the interviews and examinations all done, I was on my way. J.D. had said little except he was glad I would get an education and "that is something nobody can take away from you." I understood his meaning and was happy that he seemed satisfied. He did say that he would have preferred that I had chosen another hospital/school that was not Jewish. There wasn't any reason for me to avoid going to a Jewish hospital. I had explored other opportunities and this was the best choice for me. I had selected Mount Zion over three other available choices because it offered a generalized education for care of all ages of patients, not just children or a particular social group; it was a general hospital. My first choice would have been to go to the University of California School of Nursing but it required two years of prior education, which I didn't have.
Mother had little advice for me except a warning: "Don't become hard, Betty, don't become hordl” She repeated that phrase several times during the weeks leading up to my departure. I didn't understand those words but the tone of her voice led me to assume that, at some time or other, she had had an unhappy experience with a care giver. Possibly someone might have treated her unsympathetically. I didn't worry about it too much; 1 was confident that I would become a good nurse.
As we rode along, I was thinking back to my interview with Miss Jennings, the Director of Nurses, a month or so previously. It had been very comfortable. She presented a welcoming attitude and appeared genuinely pleased to receive my application. The program at Mount Zion Hospital School of Nursing was a three-year course — changed from the previously required four years of study. Upon completion, I would be eligible to take the California State Board Examination for Registered Nurses.
We arrived in San Francisco on Sutter Street outside the Nurses' residence building. The hospital is around the corner of Post and Divisadero streets. Mother stopped the car in the street and sat momentarily silent. Baby David had awakened and she put him in the front seat next to her. She remained in the car, giving no indication that she would park the car or that she would go into the building with me. I asked her if she was coming with me. She said, "That's OK, I'll go in some other time." I kissed her on the cheek and got out of the car.
There were no streetcars passing at that moment nor other traffic, so carrying one small suitcase, I walked across the street to the front entrance of the tall handsome building. As I rang the doorbell, I turned and waved farewell. I was not happy. I felt very alone and I was sad. Whenever I thought about it later, I wished those moments could have been different. I think Mother probably felt the same way.
The world was strangely still. I wanted my mother to go in with me and I wondered why she didn't. I thought she was embarrassed to have a little baby at her side (Mother was 44 years old) and maybe I was embarrassed too. (I was 19 years old.) I was ashamed of myself because I felt selfish for not being willing to share her with anyone else on that special day.
I entered the lobby and was greeted by two smiling people. Off to the right was a large crowded room. I realized they were my fellow students with their mothers.
Everyone was busy talking, sipping tea and eating little cakes. I felt uncomfortable and alone. I looked around studying the faces of young ladies who would soon be my friends. I didn't notice anyone in particular. I didn't see any children. Everyone was dressed well; most of the ladies wore hats which was the standard fashion in San Francisco. There was a stack of suitcases in the lobby and I thought, "Well, everyone is prepared to stay a while!" I sat down off to one side where I could silently observe my surroundings. Pretty soon I was served tea and a cookie. Then someone escorted me to meet the lady serving tea; she was the house mother. I wondered what her role would be. She smiled as she greeted me. I was not too happy so all the smiles and cheerful chatter seemed incongruous.
Eventually, I was introduced to an upper-classman who was to be my "big sister". I was pleased to meet her as she appeared genuinely interested in my welfare. I thought, "She must be a good nurse". She showed me to my room and helped me find my way through the hallways and how to use the elevator, and to tell me some of the rules. She said, "lights out at 10:00 pm". I learned where to find the showers and to locate my student uniforms.
After all the mothers departed, the students lingered in the lobby exchanging friendly chatter. I approached one blonde girl and asked, "Are you from San Francisco?" She replied, "Yes, I have lived here all my life." She asked my name. Her name was Etta. Upon learning that I was not familiar with the city she said, "On our time off, perhaps I can show you some of the interesting parts." I welcomed this, but most of all I was happy to meet a new friend. We all spent the remainder of the afternoon getting acquainted before we went to dinner.
We went out a side door of the Nursing Residence and followed an outdoor passage to the dining room in the main hospital building. It was natural to strike up conversations while eating dinner. A dark haired girl sitting next to me said, "My name is Eleanor. I am happy to know you." She asked, "Do you like the uniforms we have to wear?" It turned out that none of us liked the plain blue straight dresses we would be wearing. But then, we accepted this as only one of the first requirements we would have to endure. One of the upper class students who was with us at dinner said, "You will be wearing plain white caps, but they will be earned and worn only after you have completed six months of satisfactory learning." To receive a cap, we realized then, was a sign of being a real nurse, and was anticipated by us all.
We were expected to supply our own white shoes and white stockings. Because of the war, stockings of any kind were hard to find in the stores. I found some that were made of sheer cotton; none of us was able to find nylons. Flat shoes were frowned upon so I purchased "cubed" heels which were about one inch high. I didn't pay too much attention to how they looked; they were comfortable and made me feel a little taller.
The following day, we had a more thorough tour of our new residence. Our rooms were in a seven story building. Each student had her own room, furnished with a single bed, a dresser and a desk and chair. Each room had a window, a closet and a sink suitable for morning dressing.
In the residence building, aside from the front entry and front lounge on the first floor, there was a large auditorium with a stage at one end with a piano. The auditorium floor did not have affixed seats so I could see it could be used for dances and other social events. There were two classrooms on the main floor as well as a fully equipped kitchen. I eventually saw all of these places used for a variety of functions.
Only one elevator was needed to carry us up to the floor of our room. Each year students moved up one or two floors, depending on the space. Eventually the more senior classmates occupied the sixth and seventh floors. The seventh floor was special because half of it was classroom space to learn bedside care procedures. There was also a roof garden and a comfortable space outside for sunbathing when there was time — and when there was sun!
In a room on the third floor, not shown to me at first, I found large tables and a sewing machine. While enrolled in school, I spent some lovely hours there peacefully making dresses for myself.
The first six months were occupied with lectures on basic nursing duties as well as learning how to do bedside procedures. Students were required to work six days a week and, after the initial learning period, would be assigned to medical and surgical floors — that is, care of patients with surgical or medical diseases or operations. Eventually we rotated through all the departments including Surgery, Obstetrics, Pediatric and Nursery, plus work in the Clinic (a separate building) as well as auxiliary departments as Central Supply and the Diet Kitchen.
We became apprehensive about our first day "on the floor" which is when we would be responsible for patient care. There were rumors about some of the head nurses, who were very strict. One in particular, named Kerzic, was a tall, severe looking woman in a very white and very stiffly starched uniform that made swishing noises as she walked. I wasn't with the three or four students first assigned to her floor as they assembled in the hallway outside of the chart room. I think they were actually shaking with fear! Abruptly, the feared nurse came out to them and demanded, "Well, are you going to do your nursing in the hallway?"
We went about our first day taking care of patients. At first, I felt unsure that I would do everything correctly. To ease my nervousness and worry, I pretended the person I was caring for was my mother — that is, someone I knew and who would approve of whatever I did.
The chart room on all the stations was a room separate from others and separate from the hallways. This is where patient charts were kept, as well as cupboards with space for supplies and for dispensing medications. Beginning students would not be responsible for dispensing medicines until after we passed six months of classroom work including study of pharmacology. After that, each nurse was responsible for performing all procedures for patients assigned to her care and administering medications ordered by the attending physician.
In the chart room we sat on stools to record in print (not cursive) information in the patients' charts — their vital signs of temperature, pulse, etc., and care and treatments administered. It came as a surprise that we were expected to stop our work and stand up whenever a doctor entered the room. We quickly learned that doctors were the elite, privileged members of the hospital staff, and respect must be demonstrated by our standing in their presence.
In class, we started our study of anatomy and systems of the body. Also, we were assigned our working hours. These hours would usually be 7am to 3pm, 3pm to 11pm, or a split shift of two four-hour periods: 7-11 morning, 3-7 afternoon, or 7-11 evening. Additionally, we were eventually expected to do our share of night duty, 11pm to 7am. Most of us accepted these conditions. But a few young ladies in my group didn't like to hear those details described to us. One of them spoke up and said, "Those hours are inhuman!" She continued: "I don't think it is fair to ask us to work all night and only have one day off every six or seven days!" She was adamant in her defiance. She became even more alarmed when she found we would receive a stipend of only $10 each month for the first year, $15 during the second year and $25 in the final third year. The following day she submitted a resignation letter and left. She said, "I will prefer working in a defense factory."
Several others followed her and left school. Most of us accepted the proposed conditions and considered it a privilege to learn a profession — one sponsored by the government. Before the U.S. Nurse Cadet Corps program in which we participated, nursing schools required a substantial tuition, and also were more like nunneries, where young ladies committed their lives to the service of the institution. Previously, duties and rules were accepted without question; nursing students usually spent the entire first year just scrubbing — walls, beds, hallways and whatever there was to scrub!
And we had some carry-overs of those customs. For example, no students were admitted who were married or who had children. If one of us became married or pregnant while in school, she would be required to leave immediately.
One of the first obstacles we encountered when we were finally part of the staff was the resentment of some of the students in previous year classes. They seemed jealous of the privilege granted to us in not being required to serve the first year as they did — one full year of doing only scrubbing. The older students felt they had been cheated. I understood the perplexing situation but I doubt that I would have been willing to spend a full year that way. No doubt the requirement was eliminated because the main goal was to have nurses ready to serve in the army or navy; that need was urgent so classroom work was streamlined.
The government issued each of us a wool uniform and a heavy wool cape. We proudly wore these when we went out in public or traveled home on the trains. The heavy capes were particularly welcome in San Francisco where it is cold on many foggy days.