Sunday, August 14, 2011

Surgical Nurse

By Florence K. Palmer, ©1963
Cover illustration by Robert Maguire

It was love at first sight when Surgical Nurse Sloane McBain met Dr. Vince Alvord, senior resident and head surgeon at Mercy, engaged to socialite Valerie Cosgrove, a very jealous and possessive woman. Sloane knew she had to hide her feelings for Vince if she was to continue assisting him in the operating room. But how was a girl supposed to control her emotions when she worked so closely with the man who filled all her thoughts? Sloane knew she had to find the answer to her dilemma before it interfered with her duty as a nurse—and her integrity as a woman.



“He won’t marry me until either I go on a diet or he gets a practice going. He says no intern can afford my appetite!”

“Dedication is admirable in any field, but a woman wants to be looked at as a woman, not a potential laboratory specimen or the inspiration of a piece of advertising copy. A woman, any woman, wants to feel she’s needed and cherished, if it’s only for the span of a casual date.”

“They can sew starts together with that darned Space Needle for all I care!”

“Let’s go apartment hunting. It’ll take our minds off the dumb public maybe.”

“One of our profs in med school used to tell us that R.N. is short for real necessary to doctors.”

“He does have the hands of a surgeon, she thought, unaware that she’d said it aloud. ‘I hope they are.’ Nick spread the sensitive, yet steel-firm fingers, and stood staring down at them. ‘The hands of an obstetrician, too, and an internist, and a minister, and a friend—I’m just asking them to be the hands of a family doctor.’ ”

“ ‘When I was on surgery, it was the strangest feeling—’ she said, remembering the white glare of lights beating down, the click of instruments, and the ever-new wonder of seeing sick, broken bodies respond to a surgeon’s inspired touch. ‘It’s hard to describe, you aren’t yourself. For an hour, two hours, you’re almost a part of Creation itself.’ ”

“I know you want to help humanity and all that jazz, but doesn’t it make more sense to marry me and go at it from a different angle?”

“She’d been assigned to Surgery and was a regular member of Mercy’s operating team—anesthesiologist at the table’s head, assistant resident and surgical intern at one side, the attending surgeon across. And by his side, a pair of hands; hands to anticipate the instrument required next, passing retractor or forcep or scalpel the instant it was demanded; hands that blotted sweat and counted sponges; hands threading a curved needle with black silk for suture ladders—Nurse Sloane McBain’s hands.”

“It seems to me being a nurse must be like holding your finger on the pulse beat of humanity, and maybe getting a glimpse of God.”

“A guy doesn’t want his wife jockeying bedpans, or whatever you do there at Mercy.”

“Fine thing. A whole evening of Valerie, and me without an aspirin to my name.”


Sloane McBain is a scrub nurse living in Seattle with fellow nurse Dena Williams, who is engaged to Dr. Joe Dardis. Sloane is, of course, checking out the doctors on staff, but there are only two options. Dr. Nick Lawton is so fiercely dedicated to pathology that Sloane crosses him off her list: “I’m not about to compete with a corpuscle,” she tells Dena. This leaves the dashing Dr. Vince Alvord, a silver-haired 30-something surgeon who looks down on Nick and Joe for their interest in becoming GPs. He shows interest in Sloane—but alas, he is engaged to the stunning, wealthy socialite Val Cosgrove. So he asks her to work with him in the OR instead, where she watches “the awesome flash of scalpel and the healing deftness of Vincent Alvord’s fingers. And because her own alert skill flowed into his, the sense of being a part of him strengthened daily.” After a particularly tough case, she asks him in for coffee, and before long they’re kissing in the living room. “A cozy twosome—for heaven’s sake, he’d think she was as predatory as the rest of them!”

One of their patients, Johnny O’Brien, a diabetic 16-year-old who works at the hospital and plans to become a doctor, loses his leg and the will to go on. Sloane, who has cared for Johnny for weeks, tries shock treatment: She tells him, “I didn’t realize your mind was crippled too—of course you can’t ever be a doctor now!” This is exactly what young Johnny needs, and soon he can’t wait to get at those crutches! But then one day in the OR, as she’s deep in thought about how Dr. Alvord’s fiancée “should be down on her knees to a man like him,” she misses the call for a clamp and the mighty doctor has to ask for it twice before he gets the instrument he needs to stem a spurting artery. The patient dies just as the surgeons are closing, and Sloane is convinced that it’s her fault: “Did she lose too much blood because I was day-dreaming?” So she quits the OR and goes to work in admitting.

Torn to bits that she has killed this patient, Sloane literally cries on Dr. Alvord’s shoulder at a dance when his fiancée—and the entire room—is watching. Val is wild with fury and makes a veiled threat to Sloane, “the pupils of her gray-green eyes dilated to a consuming black.” Sloane recognizes this as a sign of deep mental illness: “Jealousy is sometimes only a symptom, the outward manifestation, of deep emotional trauma. If the cause isn’t found and treated, such injuries to the psyche may lead to serious complications.”

She’s still spending time with both doctors: Nick and Joe are working on an artificial leg for Johnny with an old dentist friend of Sloane’s, which means they all hang out at Sloane’s apartment talking the matter over. As for Dr. Alvord, his fiancée postpones the wedding, so he comes to Sloane to hash it all out. He takes her out to dinner at the public market, where he used to work when he was young and poor. He explains to Sloane that he has vowed he will never be hungry again. This is why he picked surgery, because you can make the most money. He met Val’s father when he was still a young doctor, and the rich man opened doors for him, including, apparently, the one to his daughter’s bedroom. But, Dr. Alvord sighs, Val just doesn’t understand the demands of a doctor’s life. Only a nurse would, he says, making Sloane’s heart leap, but then he adds, “The truth is, nurses seldom have a private Fort Knox to draw on, and gals like Val do.” Sloane finally begins to see the tarnish on the doctor’s halo. “You’re so right,” she answers. “Nurses seldom have anything that counts—except a pin with R.N. on it!”

When the doctor drops her off at the hospital, Nick borrows Dr. Alvord’s car and Sloane to go see Johnny try his new leg, which is a success. On their way out, Sloane tells Johnny to keep working at rehab, even if it’s not easy. “Being crippled is what’s easy—you ought to know!” he snarls at her, an apparent reference to her quitting the OR. On their way home, Sloane is distraught and Nick parks the car on a dark street to comfort her. Another car slowly passes them, then speeds up … In the final scene, the crazed Val shows up at Sloane’s apartment with what is apparently a vial of poison, and every man Sloane has ever met shows up at the apartment to rescue her, and Sloane has to choose between Dr. Alvord and Nick, and even Val gets a nice man to take her off to the psych ward. Then someone needs surgery unexpectedly, and the only scrub nurse around is Sloane …

This is a pretty good book, a bit along the lines of the older VNRNs, with two women in their own apartment with busy social lives but also a strong relationship of their own. Sloane’s manufactured career crisis is a bit weak, her reaction way over the top for what was a minor transgression. But the characters are well-drawn and fun to watch, and there’s a good dose of camp throughout. I was intrigued to find, after reading more than 100 VNRNs, a passage devoted to the nurse’s hands (as opposed to the doctor’s, about which we hear much in virtually every book) and their importance in medicine. Ultimately, though, while there wasn’t anything that really elevated this book into the extraordinary, this is a good book overall, and worth reading.

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