History of Nursing

Nursing History: The Backbone of the Hospital

For an insight as to how the world of nursing has changed throughout the history of the now-named Columbus Regional Health, one only has to read through a letter received by a young girl named Ruth Stofer as she was about to begin a career in 1917 at the then-named Bartholomew County Hospital.

Dated, March 14, 1917, the letter contained a set of instructions for the young woman: 

"You will please report for duty March 27. You will need a sufficient supply of underclothing, three uniforms of plain blue chambray, a half-dozen white aprons, white muslin straight place collar 28 inches long with ends finished pointed. Should you want any further information we would be pleased to furnish it. Hoping you will come at the appointed time.

Yours Truly,

Bartholomew County Hospital."

The century old letter to the young woman, who would later marry Forest Foster, is but one of many examples of the regimented life she and other nurses were about to enter at the newly opened hospital.

Other examples:

  • Nurses were housed in a dormitory on the third floor of the hospital. They were not allowed to sing or dance inside the building so as not to disturb the patients on the floor beneath them.
  • They were paid five dollars a month in addition to their room, board, laundry and uniforms.
  • Duties included: giving patients baths which included scrubbing their teeth (false and natural); combing their hair; cleaning the floors in the room; keeping fresh flowers in the patient's room; shoveling coal and tending the furnace; giving pills according to orders of the doctors and recording the dosage on daily charts;  attending nightly classes.
  • Even their private lives were prescribed. They lived under a 9 p.m. curfew at which time they were required to be in their dormitory. They could have dates but the dates had to leave the hospital by the 9 p.m. curfew. Since no automobiles were allowed on hospital grounds, nurses had to take the local streetcar which dropped them at a station several blocks from the hospital, requiring them to walk the rest of the way.

Primitive though some of those aspects of nursing life might seem in light of today's standards – it’s been quite a while since nurses had to stoke the hospital furnaces – some timeworn traditions lingered long into the careers of those who are still on the hospital staff.

Martha Franks, one of 24 nursing supervisors on staff who was hired as a registered nurse in 1958 and was paid $1.99 an hour, recalls that the uniforms worn today would not have passed muster under the leadership of Hospital Director Olive Murphy, herself a nurse.

"Nurses always wore dresses," she said. "Pants and tennis shoes were forbidden. In fact, Olive wore a uniform throughout her working career, even when she was the chief administrator."

Olive Murphy was proud of that uniform and her career as a nurse before becoming chief administrator in 1938. Paul Land, longtime director of facilities at the hospital, once told former administrator Doug Leonard that he was under instructions from Murphy to boil all her uniforms in starch because she liked to hear them snap when she walked. 

While the dress code might have been strict, other aspects of nursing life were much more informal.

"I still remember the day of my first interview," Martha recalled. "Olive asked if I could report for work the next day. No background checks, no drug tests."

She and others on the hospital staff were paid by check, each handwritten by Olive Murphy.

Recycling was also in vogue, even in the highly antiseptic operating rooms. "To this day I can still remember when one of the duties of a surgical nurse was to sharpen the needles," Martha said.

Martha even recalls that one of the resources on hospital property was a chicken coop, from which nurses would gather freshly laid eggs which would be used for the breakfasts of patients.

Those duties and others expected of nurses at today's Columbus Regional Hospital are markedly different and involve considerable responsibility-sharing.

Nurses today are trained in a variety of disciplines – a necessity in light of the transition to a regional health care facility which provides local access to a variety of specialized services.

"One of the major differences in the changeover from a county hospital to a regional facility are that a majority of those who check into the hospital can stay here throughout their treatment," said Twanette Lawson, a nursing administrative coordinator who began her association with the hospital as a 14-year-old candy striper and rejoined the staff in 1991 as a licensed practical nurse. "In the past many might have been transferred to hospitals such as those in Indianapolis which offered more specialized treatment."

That requires intensive training in a variety of fields - a great deal of that training which has been made available locally.

In some respects, this localized training is a carryover from practices which were put in place at the Bartholomew County Hospital in the mid-20th century. In the 1940s, the hospital experienced an explosion in the number of patients in need of treatment. Corresponding to that jump in patient population was a dire shortage of qualified nurses on the hospital's staff.

The explosion can be measured in patient population in the 1940s. In 1939, the hospital recorded 1,419 patient admissions and 222 outpatients treated.

In 1950, there were 5,017 admitted patients and 20,642 outpatients.

The hospital could not keep up with the demand for more trained nurses. In 1955 through a story on the front page of the Columbus Evening Republican newspaper, the hospital issued an urgent call for registered nurses living in the Bartholomew County area to come to work at the local hospital. At that time there were 31 full time nurses on staff working five and six days a week. In addition there were 30 nurses working part time.

That situation in part led to the development that same year of a training program for licensed practical nurses in conjunction with the Indianapolis LPN School. Under terms of the arrangement, Bartholomew County was given 25 percent of the available openings.

In addition to the expansion of the nursing staff at Bartholomew County Hospital, administrators and the board decided to ease the burden on the trained nursing staff by creating a nurse's aid program and hiring non-clinical people to perform many of the more mundane duties which had been taking up so much of the trained nurses' time.

The demand for qualified nurses continued through the rest of the 20th Century as the county hospital added more specialized services and facilities.

The most dramatic change came to be in the early 1990s when the Board of Trustees changed the name of the facility to Columbus Regional Hospital. That not only reflected an enormous philosophical change – the hospital would assume the role of destination rather than a provisional stop for patients being treated for a variety of conditions – but broadened its reach throughout a good share of Southern Indiana and immediately led to the creation of an expanded campus.

A spirit of bonding developed among the entire hospital staff as the result of the most devastating event in the 100 year history of the hospital - the 2008 flood.

That summer day is still fresh in the mind of Martha. "I still remember the water rising from the basement," she recalled.  "There was one awful thought that kept going through my mind – the possibility that it would wash over onto the first floor and we would see bodies floating in the water."

Even today, the herculean task of evacuating the hospital in a matter of a few hours seems hard to grasp.

"I recall that we were taking patients down the stairs in wheelchairs," Martha said. "Everybody was working together. We might have been in different departments but we worked as a team. I think it's fair to say that we all bonded from that moment forward."