Friday, August 3, 2012

Sybil Larson, Hospital Nurse

By Phyllis Ross, ©1963

Sybil Larson’s first week as a hospital nurse looked like it might be her last. After three years as a star pupil, she suddenly found everything going wrong. Sybil was willing to turn the other cheek when Miss Francis, her ward co-worker, was cranky and mean. She put up with spoiled, demanding patients like old Mrs. Duchin. And she even accepted the unfair reprimand of the brilliant heart specialist Dr. Rivers, a man she secretly adored. But when her quick thinking and brave initiative saved Mrs. Duchin’s life, and Sybil was still called on the carpet for ignoring hospital protocol, she was heartbroken. Sybil was ready to quit when Dr. Rivers politely asked to see her one day, outside hospital hours.


“Her tiredness seemed to have vanished. It was not only that the food and the bath had refreshed her, but also that her glands were responding to the emergency.”

“The nursing staff of a hospital traditionally scorned residents. They were held in even lower esteem than interns, because the interns, at least, didn’t pretend to know anything!”

“I’m twenty-two years old! It’s time I was starting a family of my own!”

“She would buy a new dress, something extravagant and ‘femme fatale.’ Maybe she’d never have a chance to use it, but it would be nice just seeing it in the closet, a reminder that she was a woman as well as an R.N. That she could be more of a woman, and less of an R.N., if she chose.”

“In eighty years of living, you have to get used to a little pain!”

Sometimes, at some point in the first chapter of a new VNRN, you might realize you are reading something that is a cut above the usual fare. The author clearly knows how to put a sentence together better than most others; the writing is crisp, sometimes humorous; the story has a little more meat to it than the usual nurse-meets-doctor frivolity. Phyllis Ross, who brought us Headline Nurse, is such a writer, and Sybil Larson—while not without flaws, mind you—has something going on.

This book occurs over a ten-day span, beginning with Sybil’s first day as a full-fledged RN. She’s been stationed to the same floor where the old crabby spinster nurse Miss Francis works, unfortunately; Miss Francis never has a kind word for anyone, so the two start off re-enacting the ice age on the 5th floor. One of their patients, Mrs. Duchin, is one of those horrible, egocentric complainers who rings the call light every five minutes and then looks around to find something for you to do when you come in the door. Believe me, I have met the type. Naturally, Sybil is increasingly grumpy with Mrs. Duchin, and eventually leaves her call light, as much as she can, to be answered by Miss Francis, while she takes on the rest of the floor—which still leaves her better off.

Mrs. Duchin is a patient of Dr. Rivers, and Sybil has the hots for him in a bad way. Never mind that, even in Sybil’s words, “he’s arrogant, and he’s cold and he’s selfish. Even his patients are nothing to him but medical problems to solve. He doesn’t care a hoot for any of them as people.” And yet—“her pulse leapt whenever she caught sight of him.” But to give Sybil credit, she realizes the paradox, and beats herself up over it: “I’ve seen enough of the kind of man he is not to have any illusions. I’m certainly not in love with him. Why does he exert this terrible fascination on me?” Sometimes you just can’t help crushing on the wrong man.

The book, and Sybil’s career, gets off to a bang when Mrs. Duchin has an attack. Sybil has a feeling that the hypochondriac is really sick this time, and she insists on having Dr. Rivers paged to the hospital right away, even though Miss Francis doesn’t think there’s anything wrong. Dr. Rivers storms in full of sound and fury, and Sybil runs off, not daring to hang around to find out if she’ll be vindicated. You probably won’t be surprised to discover that she is, but not before she spends endless days worrying over what her friends will say, her fellow nurses, Miss Francis, the head nurse, Dr. Rivers, the janitors, the butcher next door—well, that last was an exaggeration. It takes days for all the confrontations to play out, and the self-analysis makes it drag on for what seems like twice that long. And though Sybil finds out at once that she was right about Mrs. Duchin, she still worries endlessly about what each new meeting will bring. I’m no stranger to insecurity and worry, but Sybil’s obsessiveness is way too much.

Eventually her triumph is such that Dr. Rivers offers her a job as his office nurse. She is absolutely ecstatic—and turns him down, because the job wouldn’t be challenging enough for her. “The trouble with intelligent people,” Dr. Rivers says, “is that they want work that uses their intelligence!” He rewards her by taking her out to dinner, and while she feels that she could, if she wanted to, reel him in, she decides he’s not what she wants after all. “It would be awful to be his wife—always cowed, dragged about after him, never knowing where you were!”

So who will she marry? She has this old beau from home, Jim, who’s an attorney. He’s been in love with her for a while, though she’s been keeping him at arm’s length. But after her horrible week, she begins to awaken to Jim’s charms. Interestingly, when she decides to accept his proposal, he turns her down, saying he doesn’t want to be “just any port in a storm.” He chastises her for treating him like “a pet dog” and expecting him to rescue her when her career is making her miserable. I like this guy. After she’s had a while to mull this over, she comes to see Jim differently, but the book doesn’t end with them in each other’s arms; instead, he calls her to ask her out, ending their fight, and she is determined to win him back, maybe not today, but someday soon …

While Sybil’s reactions can be annoying, they are realistic. After Dr. Rivers asks Sybil to meet with him at his office, “The sound of the door closing behind him released an unexpected surge of joy in her. She had won her prize! Her arms swooped through the air, and she threw back her head with a laugh of pure delight. ‘Dr. Rivers!’ sang a voice inside her head. ‘Dr. Rivers!’ ” I totally recognized this moment of elation, and even if her obsessing can be annoying, there is truth in her anxieties about meeting with her superiors. I was pleased that the book’s ending was not a facile rapprochement with Jim but that Sybil’s feelings toward him evolved out of her own growth as a character. And the fact that she doesn’t actually have him in the bag at the end of the story is the gravy on the mashed potatoes. While this is not the best book on the shelf, it is superior to most. Unfortunately, Phyllis Ross did not write any more nurse novels, so this is the last we will see of her. I suspect she could have done even better than this, and I’m sorry I won’t see her live up to the promise of Sybil Larson.

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