By Willo Davis Roberts, ©1966
San Francisco was to be a bridge to a new life for Noel Emery, R.N., when the pretty nurse put a tragic past behind her. As the jet carrying Noel circled San Francisco, her eyes met the blue gaze of a handsome stranger ... a mysterious man she would come to know only as Collie, even though he would call her by the pet name of “Christmas” and open her heart. When the elusively romantic Collie disappeared, Noel tried to ease her heartache by turning to a glamorous fashion career—a career that kept her involved in a dangerous game between ruthless people. But a curious twist of fate was to lead her again back to Collie—and to nursing.
“Are you one of those confounded women who are always right?”
There’s nothing like being in a near-miss airplane disaster to bond two total strangers. Noel Emery is a 26-year-old nurse in a jet circling San Francisco when the co-pilot actually enters the cabin to tell the passengers that there’s a problem with the landing gear, and they have enough fuel to keep circling for another hour. What happens after that, if they can’t fix the problem, he won’t say. A woman faints, and she and the big man with wide shoulders across the aisle from her dash out of their seats to revive her. Somehow—did they just fiddle all the switches in the cockpit until something worked?—the landing gear fixes itself and they land safely, once everyone has put out their cigarettes.
Collie—that is the only name he gives her—then helps her find a hotel and takes her all over San Francisco, to Fisherman’s Wharf, the Top of the Mark, the hungry i (once a storied nightclub, but when I lived in San Francisco, it was a seedy topless joint). He takes her to his house on Marina Boulevard, but when he vanishes from her life, she can never find it again—all those stucco houses with iron grillwork all look the same.
She, like many a VNRN heroine, is on the run from her past life, in which she fell in love with a patient with end-stage renal disease who, despite a kidney transplant, succumbs to the disease. (For more about kidney disease and transplants, see Nurse in Acapulco, a definitive source on the subject.) She’s giving up her nursing career and takes a job working for Katherine Rossi, an up-and-coming fashion designer, who is by turns overly generous and ruthlessly slapping the help around. Katherine needs money to stage a fashion show in New York (her money is all tied up in a show in Los Angeles), so she drags Noel with her back to the family hacienda in the valley to demand more money from her brother, to whom her dead husband willed his millions instead of her. Well, just take one guess who her brother turns out to be!
It also won’t take you long to figure out what Collie does for a living—he’s running the Rossi Hospital and pioneering new treatments for burn patients, and we get a tour of that facility and a rather unflinching introduction to its patients, adults and children alike, who are recovering (or not) from severe accidents. There’s an accident with an autoclave at the hospital one weekend, when all the staff nurses are out of town, so Noel is pressed into service, and into closer interaction with Collie.
Back at the ranch (really), Katherine is attempting to coerce Collie to cough up the cash by threatening to take her 12-year-old daughter, Martha, away from Collie, who has raised her from the age of three. Collie is standing firm—and then some very suspicious accidents begin to happen. Katherine’s car drives into a tree with the housekeeper behind the wheel, and then a carafe of cocoa on Katherine’s nightstand turns out to have been poisoned with arsenic after another assistant of hers becomes ill after tasting it. “In another hour or so I’d have drunk the rest of it myself. Do you think there was something in the cocoa?” Katherine innocently asks her brother. The question of who is behind these stunts is debated, but mercifully not for long, as it’s pretty clear who’s behind it all.
This book is a good read, with enjoyable locations and picturesque descriptions of everything from Katherine’s elegant fashions to the ranch house to San Francisco itself. Furthermore, it is rare that we see such a realistic picture of what nursing can be. Burns are a particularly horrifying injury, in the amount of pain they cause and their appearance, even after they have healed. That Once a Nurse shows them to us—from weeping open wounds to the black scabs (eschars) that form to the sloughing tissue to the mesh pattern of healing skin grafts—is both surprising and admirable. So this book earns my respect on several fronts. Though there’s not much more to it than decent writing and a realistic look at a difficult subject, it’s easily worth a few hours of your day.