By Helen B. Castle, ©1963
Cover illustration by Lou Marchetti
“The beds had been cleared and filled again, the stomach pumps had been set up and were at work.”
“And you must rest; you must be pretty again for him.”
“I can’t go to the altar with a black eye!”
“Unfortunately, they don’t pass out halos along with licenses to practice medicine.”
If the Best Quotes don’t seem all that funny, well, it’s because Emergency Ward Nurse is not really a funny book. It is absolutely devoid of camp, and the unintentionally laughable moments are likewise almost nonexistent. It’s actually more of a real book than a classic nurse novel, and the plot is more of a mystery than a romance; the campiest thing about this book is the cover illustration (and a tip of the hat to Lou Marchetti for this gem). Merle Asquith is a nurse in the emergency department of City General, which has 2400 beds. (This seemed like a huge number to me; Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston (aka Man’s Greatest Hospital) has only 905, and the community hospital where I used to work had only 200.) Merle has been placed in the position of charge nurse despite her youth and relative inexperience due to a flu epidemic that has wiped out the staff. This is clearly before the advent of mandated flu shots.
She’s doing all right, though, better than some of the more seasoned charge nurses, in part because she has this nurse’s aide, Ellen Carey, who gently nudges her in the right direction. Ellen also helps an up-and-coming resident, Dr. Mike Jablonski, who is in the process of interviewing for a fellowship in neurosurgery. While he’s cramming for the exam, he is completing his final weeks of his residency in the ED. One night when he and Merle are on duty, a comatose woman is brought in. Mike thinks she’s hypoglycemic and orders an IV of 5 percent glucose, though Ellen is whispering in his ear, “Catatonia.” Later Ellen points out that one of the woman’s pupils is blown, and Mike finally figures out the patient has an intracranial bleed and hustles her off to the OR. His gratitude for Ellen’s assistance is so overwhelming that he starts investigating her background on his time off, because no nurse’s aide could possibly be that smart, even if she does have decades of experience. This former nurse’s aide offers Mike a heartfelt bird.
Other excitement at the hospital includes a homeless former patient, Bruce Lockyer, living in the basement, as well as a rash of thefts from the narcotics cabinets. Flatfoot Sergeant Redding thinks the two must be related, and becomes suspicious because Ellen keeps running into Bruce in the stairwells and in the shrubbery outside the hospital. She also keeps running into Mike as well, who has a penchant for grabbing her by the arms and squeezing. When she throws him off and snaps, “Don’t you ever do that again!” he wants to know, “Why? No rings on your fingers; it didn’t seem I was trespassing on another guy’s territory.” Because it’s perfectly kosher to go around manhandling women if they don’t “belong” to some guy. Mike says he’s done some reading on psychiatry, so he has some idea what’s wrong with Merle—some guy must have thrown over. It turns out his diagnosis is correct: Intern Philip Crown tossed her last year to marry a rich older woman, and she will never be whole again.
Most of the plot involves working out the chief mysteries, Ellen’s true identity, what the homeless patient is after, and who is stealing the drugs. Oh, yeah, and weaning Merle off her addiction to Philip and turning her on to the right guy. In the margins of all that action, there are quite a few stories of various patients or accidents in the ED which really ring true: the teenaged stabbing victim, the car crash, the food poisoning at the parish church hall. Not everyone makes it, either. It feels like Ms. Castle really knew what she was writing about. If you’re looking for camp or silly writing, this book can’t help you, but it’s a really good book, even if it isn’t the classic VNRN.