An accident completely changed Susan Sande’s destiny. Instead of joining her father and sister at their clinic in the Far East, she chose to stay in her home town and nurse her Aunt Jessica. The choice was a difficult one, but it was made easier by the presence of Dr. Burke Tanner, her girlhood hero. However, Susan was no longer a little girl, but a lovely and dedicated surgical nurse who loved her work despite the heartbreaks it sometimes brought her. Burke Tanner had turned into a subdued, grim chief of surgery and was nicknamed "Old Ironheart." Then Aunt Jessica died on the operating table and, because of the will she left, ugly rumors began spreading about Susan. It took all of Susan’s courage to see her way through the dark days, but in the end she found the happiness she was waiting for …
"I’m glad she’s home to nurse me after the operation, instead of chasing off to the Far East to take care of those heathen children in her father’s mission."
"They’re young, and if they don’t marry too soon, I just might manage to make good registered nurses out of them."
Author Ruth Ives is a bit of a puzzle to me. She seems to have written just three nurse novels, and the trio—including Navy Nurse and Congo Nurse—could scarcely be more different from each other in tone. Congo Nurse was flat and insipid; Navy Nurse was over-the-top campy, shallow, and scattered. Surgical Nurse is easily the best of the lot, an honest, serious book that reminded me of Ivy Anders, Night Nurse, in that the two were pretty dark for a VNRN. I can identify writers like Rosie M. Banks, Peggy Gaddis, and (ugh) Peggy Blocklinger from the first paragraph alone, but it’s frankly hard for me to understand how these three were written by the same person.
After finishing up five years of training at Boston Medical Center, Nurse Susan Sande came home to Westwalk, CT, to care for her ailing Aunt Jessica instead of joining her father and sister at their clinic in Bangkok. She’s shocked to learn that Aunt J has metastatic colon cancer, and even more shocked that Dr. Burke Tanner, her high school crush and now local surgeon, told Jessica of the diagnosis. "But the shock—" she stutters to Burke before he shuts her down, saying that her aunt deserves to know the truth.
But Sandy, as she’s known, never has the chance to take care of Aunt J, who dies in the OR. Sandy doesn’t spend too much time grieving, though, and instead focuses on the disbursement of her aunt’s $250,000 fortune: Jessica wanted to use the money to build a new wing for the hospital, but only if it is done according to the exact specifications she and her architect have drawn up. Jessica had concerns that the board of directors, a gouty collection of backslappers, is more interested in lining their own pockets with kickbacks than in improving the hospital. Indeed, when Sandy makes the offer to the board of directors, the gang turns her down—and now a "whisper campaign" in town is suggesting that Sandy refused to give the hospital the money so as to profit herself. Sandy feels the board is trying to pressure her into giving them the money, no strings attached, but she refuses to give in, despite repeated insults and even physical assaults from townspeople and coworkers alike. Even more upsetting to Sandy is the fact that the subdued, disinvolved Dr. Burke, who has a seat on the board, does not go to bat for her. She even argues with him about it, but he just cannot bring himself to care.
This betrayal by her longtime crush is Sandy’s other chief obsession. Back in high school, Burke was the star halfback and Sandy just in fifth grade when she fell hysterically in love with him, pasting articles and photos of him in her scrapbook, insipid as that sounds now, 50 years before the advent of sexting. Now, after a school bus accident two years ago, Burke has transformed into "Old Ironheart," a snappish, icily formal martinet "who had seemed to relish terrorizing her during the day"—though he melts into a sweeter version of himself outside the hospital, giving her a ride home in the rain as he has noticed that her car was not in the lot that morning. This contradiction in his character, and his rudeness to her in the hospital, pass essentially unremarked by Sandy—though if it were me, I would seriously reconsider that crush. It’s true that she does see him with a more jaundiced eye and has many debates with herself about how "she no longer felt that childish, blind adoration for Burke Tanner, football hero of Westwalk High. She saw him as an adult, and perhaps as an adversary." It’s not clear, though, how much we should believe this. She’s obviously not star-struck any longer, but she can’t help crying herself to sleep on occasion over his rudeness. In some books this could come across as sloppy, but Ruth Ives paints a picture of conflicting and contradictory emotion that never feels phony.
When she’s not brooding over the changes in Burke’s character, Sandy is dating handsome swashbuckler Dr. Bob Parker. He takes her to glamorous parties, introduces her to kind and interesting people, and then slinks off with other women, leaving her to find her own way home. She doesn’t seem to mind too much, though, since she’s not really attached to Bob and is making lots of friends. When Bob takes her to another high-flying party and proposes out of the blue, she waffles and tells him she’s going to have to think it over. Bob responds by downing three consecutive martinis. He’s hard at work on the fourth when a fellow party animal attempts to cure an enormously pregnant woman of nausea by taking her for a drive and smashes into a tree. Cut to the OR, where Dr. Burke and Sandy stand by as the obviously plowed Dr. Bob attempts to operate on the driver, soon severing an artery and backing out to let Dr. Burke try for the save, and fail. That night, Burke drops by her house and tells her the story of the school bus accident, how he tried to save all the children but lost too many due to inadequate supplies and staffing, and how he decided that from that point on to harden his heart. In an attempt to bring him back to humanity, she asks him if he loves her. He does, he answers, but says he will never marry her and storms off. What will possibly make Burke realize that all the best doctors have hearts? Why, another devastating accident: The new plastics factory on the edge of town collapses, and it’s surgery and death and mud and mayhem all over again.
You know how everything is going to play out, and it’s not a bad ending. Overall the story has quite a few dark turns, between all the patients dying in the OR and Sandy’s ostracization in town. Sandy is a spunky and outspoken character who had considered becoming a surgeon herself before opting for nursing. She even has no qualms—and relatively few regrets—about having told Burke that she loves him, unlike most VNRN heroines who would rather lose their love forever than "chase" him, which is how telling someone how you felt was viewed in those days. Her only flaw is her utter inability to stand up against the false rumors about her aunt’s will, as she never once attempts to explain the truth to her detractors; a small but constant annoyance, as there are a lot of them. I contemplated giving this book an A- rather than a B+, but didn’t quite find quite enough here that is really stellar beyond the uniqueness of its somewhat grim tone and the excellence and shades of gray in Sandy’s character. Still, it’s easily worth reading.