Saturday, August 11, 2012

Vietnam Nurse

By Suzanne Roberts,©1966

Army Nurse Katie Brannon expected hardships when she shipped out to Vietnam. But she had not anticipated the battle that raged in her heart when she found herself torn between two men: the Bostonian doctor, Major David White, and the rugged young officer, Steve Caine. Even in the midst of war’s grim chaos, Katie realized that for her there was an equal menace in the threat of impending heartbreak.


“She had gotten her hair cut as a part of the war effort, really. If Stephen Caine would get the message and make more demands to get the hospital and the rest of the compound running more efficiently, then her haircut would certainly be worth the loss.”

“There was more to being a combat nurse than just nursing. A girl had to expect a broken heart—that was part of being in love in wartime!”

Man, being shipped off to Nam can be such a downer. First of all, there’s the weather—it’s either really hot and steaming, or pouring rain and hot and steaming. Then the humidity makes it really hard to keep your dress uniform pressed, and the red dirt clings to your pumps. You have to live in a tent with lots of other girls who talk all night and eat the squashed coconut cake you got from home. And the wounded soldiers make you write letters home for them, even if their arms are perfectly functional. But you know what the worst thing of all is, the one thing that will completely break your spirit and make you turn in a request for a transfer? No, silly, it’s not the bloodied kids who are brought in broken and dying for you to attempt to patch together without even a working sterilizer. It’s the guys who make you fall in love with them and break your heart!

Such is the dilemma of Katie Brannon. On the boat ride over, she became friendly with Dr. David White, an upper-crust surgeon from Boston, who is to be the new commanding medical officer of their base in central Vietnam, since two of the last docs got killed by snipers on a mission to a local village. When they arrive, David is appalled at the disordered way the base is run. “When a commanding officer allows his men and the nurses and even the doctors on his post to go around looking sloppy, not saluting half the time, what is going to happen inevitably is that before long they’re not going to be looking sloppy—they’re going to be thinking sloppy too. And when they don’t have the respect for a superior officer to salute him, then they aren’t going to have enough respect for him to obey him under fire. A civilized army with a decent set of standards is going to come out on top every time.” Uh, news flash for Dr. White—even if he can’t see into the future, he ought to consider that the rag-tag Colonials triumphed over the nattily attired British army.

Initially, however, Katie is impressed by the doctor’s arguments. “Somebody ought to tell the C.O. that most of his men don’t seem to know they have regulation shirts,” agrees the sycophantic nurse. But privately, “she wondered how a sterilizing machine could be expected to materialize in a place where nurses had to bathe out of their combat helmets.” David’s got his work cut out for him, starting with Major Steve Caine, commanding officer of this dump—the guy in the undershirt who inspired Katie’s remark. When David tells him he wants to call HQ to request updated medical equipment and better “chow,” Steve cuts him off to ask if he’s drunk or insane. “You’re 12,000 miles from home now and you’re fighting no less than 250,000 guerillas. They’re tough and well-trained—don’t fool yourself about that. This is a bloody, full-scale war, and if a blue blood M.D. like you happens to think it’s nasty to have to do surgery in your bare feet, then that’ s just too damned bad!” And you thought the war between America and the Viet Cong ideologies were fierce.

In truth, it’s hard to see where the author sets herself on this debate. Once David tightens the reins at the hospital, “the hospital procedure went smoothly under David’s orders; and the other two, younger and less experienced doctors under David seemed to feel that now things were going better than ever at the Eighty-Sixth. When the Chinook ’copters came in with the wounded, there were no seconds on litters inside the hospital, to the initial examining room.” At the same time, it’s clear that David’s prohibition of a newly married couple living in the same tent is ridiculous. “Surely you know that regulations forbid that!” he barks when Katie asks him. “She’ll outrank her husband in a few weeks. Besides—what kind of a setup would that be for them—a tent that leaks, most likely, ten feet square and no lights? The young lady has my blessing to get married, but certainly not to live like some kind of savage while she’s working under my command.” (Not to worry, Katie goes to Steve, who approves the request on the spot.)

The other aspect of Steve and David’s conflict is their opinions of the native people, whom Steve clearly respects. “Occidental solutions to an age-old oriental problem just won’t work. We’ve got to get along with the Vietnamese—after all, this is their country, not ours,” he tells Katie when he takes her on a tour of a local village and points out the improvements he has wrought in the infrastructure and the decline in the death rate. “But none of this happened because we pushed them or looked down at them or tried to force them to live our way. They’re smart.”

David, meanwhile, disdains the locals. He refuses Katie’s request to go to Saigon to celebrate Tet, the Vietnamese new year, saying, “Surely you wouldn’t want to come into town to watch a bunch of savages shoot off firecrackers. I’d think these people would be sick to death of noise. They’ve been fighting with somebody for God knows how long. But apparently human life isn’t very important to them.” When Katie protests over his use of the word savages, he says, “What would you call them? Most of them don’t read or write; a lot of them never saw indoor plumbing or a bathroom, and they seem to think war is something glorious or heroic.”

When David refuses to allow the doctors to go to the village, some of his reasoning is based on his racism. “We’re not here to take care of the natives who don’t even speak English!” he says. Then again, part of his argument makes sense: There are only three doctors, and the base had recently lost half its MDs on just such a mission—leaving the 400-bed field hospital woefully understaffed. “Think of all the Americans who might die at the hospital before another doctor could be brought in to take care of them!” he says to Katie. And, since this is in fact the reason they were brought to Vietnam in the first place, endangering the lives of wounded Americans by risking their own lives is a mistake. (Fortunately, they have lots of nurses, and they are allowed to go to the villages at will, being more expendable and all.)

David proposes to Katie, wooing her with stories of his trim little sailboat, which he keeps at the family summer cottage in Yarmouth; tea parties in the rose garden; Boston’s Back Bay. He can’t wait, he tells Katie, to “take her home and show off my prize.” He even sends home for Grandmother’s diamond. “Mother says you must be awfully special for me to take a chance like that. The plane could have been shot down—or the ring box lost,” he says, a little too honestly. But she turns him down, even if he is “like a tall, tanned, blonde god in his swimming trunks. Like the kind of man any sensible girl would give anything to belong to. Like the kind of a good, steady man who would give a girl strong, blonde and blue-eyed children who would spend happy summers at Cape Cod with his family.” She can’t marry him, she says, because she would have to agree completely “with his ideals, with his beliefs about the way things should be.” She’s taking a terrible risk, though: “Would she, she wondered, end up like Mary Saunders—in the Regular Army, lonely and manless?”

She realizes then that it’s Steve that she loves, after a trip to an orphanage to check on an orphan baby that one of the helicopter pilots wants to adopt, but she is convinced that Steve is in love with an American working tirelessly at a nearby village. Of course, he’s already tried to tell her once before that he doesn’t love Lisa, but was interrupted when a sniper took aim at their jeep. This trip ends badly too, when the helicopter pilot is killed—neatly, offstage, so we don’t have to lose any sleep over it—and guess what? Katie doesn’t lose any sleep over it, either. Instead, she’s dropping trays of sterilized instruments over her unrequited love for Steve. “It was heartbreak, heartbreak and loneliness that suddenly made the outpost and the hospital and the rain and the mud and the wounded seem so unbearable. Before, when she hadn’t been sure she loved Steve, Vietnam and combat nursing had held a meaning for her.” She’s about to ask for a transfer home—did they ever just give those out to people who got tired of fighting the war?—when she goes to visit her now-married nurse friend, and discovers that the husband has been shipped off to a more forward base. How can Sally stand it? Katie asks her. “This is home to me—this is where I’m needed. These wounded boys need me even more than my husband does. That’s why I’m staying,” says Sally the Devoted, and Katie crumples up that transfer request and drops no more instruments. “You told me what combat nursing is all about, Sally. It’s much more than just having your personal world go the way you want it to. It’s—caring more about your patients and your hospital than you care about the man you happen to be in love with.” So, her new-found dedication in her breast pocket, she goes to Steve’s house to wish him well with Lisa. Guess how that scene ends?

I have long held an interest in the Vietnam War, and so I found some aspects of this novel interesting. But it’s not really about Vietnam or the war or about practicing medicine under these circumstances, and I shouldn’t have expected it to be—but I can’t help feeling a little disappointed. I was pleasantly surprised that the book presented a few debates—a tight ship vs. a loosely run base, help the natives vs. risk American lives—for us to consider, even if not very deeply. While in the end Katie comes down on Steve’s side, she doesn’t seem to do any actual thinking about the issues, and I wish she had been more intelligent. She’s not a complete mouse, despite her pathetic crisis of faith over Steve, which seems all the more nauseating in the context of a senseless war that killed 58,000 Americans. So even if Katie is somewhat lacking as a VNRN heroine, Vietnam Nurse is not the worst way you could pass a couple hours.

Saturday, August 4, 2012

Ice Show Nurse

By Jane Converse
(pseud. Adele Kay Maritano), ©1970
Cover illustration by David Blossom

In the spotlight Tina, a queen on ice, spun … and the audience gasped with delight. Behind the scenes Nurse Wells stood watching with the doctors … the man she’d joined the ice show to be near. But could the quiet, competent nurse hope to win her man when Tina whirled, glittering, out of the spotlight and into his arms?


“ ‘You’re simply too good-looking to have settled for a …’ Alan hesitated, perhaps deciding against words like ‘menial’ and ‘dull.’ ‘For something as unglamorous as nursing. Not that a pretty face and a good figure are the criteria here.’ ”

“Hey, I can think of better places to make love to you. Let’s get out of here.”

Nurse Jeanette Dawson is working at Taylor Memorial Hospital in Chicago when she bumps into Roark Wells. He’s visiting from his stint with the Fantasy on Ice show, where he’s been bandaging sprained ankles and egos for the past year. Just the sight of him makes her go weak in the knees, and in the brain, apparently; when he offers her a job as nurse with the ice show, she accepts, even though everything about the job disgusts her. At the interview she meets the show’s star, Tina Lavalle, who is imperious and rude, natch, and the show’s producer, Alan Duarte, “had no respect for Jeanette’s profession or Roark’s knowledge, apart from the fact that they might be occasionally useful in keeping his show going.” When she finds out she has the job, she feels “more annoyed than elated.”

Even her “unbelievable good fortune of being Roark Wells’ private nurse, of spending every day in his presence, of traveling all over the country with him, of becoming someone indispensable to him,” quickly pales when it becomes clear that Roark has zero interest in Jeanette. She never sees him, he pays her no attention beyond that a professional doctor would pay a professional nurse, and in fact, he is dating Tina! So she spends a lot of time mooning in the most revolting manner, as in, “Jeanette invariably found her breathing erratic for a few minutes after Roark stepped into a room.”

She starts dating producer Alan expressly to “inspire a ray of jealousy in Roark,” but it doesn’t work at all; he’s too busy taking Tina out to notice. Before long, she and Alan are a serious item—or at least he is serious and she doesn’t clue him in to the fact that she doesn’t care for him—even if she is still trying to prolong conversations with Roark, thinking, “If she held Roark’s attention long enough, if they talked about non-medical matters long enough, maybe …”

Alan’s strategy has been to pamper Tina in every way, but Jeanette convinces him that he should be playing hardball instead. He’s got this up-and-coming skater, Gretchen Hiller, after all, who has been turning up the heat under Tina’s blades. So Alan announces that Gretchen is going to have a new solo in the show. Tina responds by clawing Gretchen across the face and threatening to quit the show. Alan demonstrates his new-found spine and responds by telling her that if she does, he will sue her for breach of contract. Roark responds by putting a Band-Aid on Gretchen and telling her, “That’s going to heal up in no time, Gretchen. I’ve got to go look after some permanent scars,” and chasing after Tina. He slings his arm around Tina’s shoulders and tells her, “We’ll talk about it, darling. You’ve still got me, and it’s all going to be fine.” See, he’s thinking of going into psychiatry, and Tina, who he believes to be “a tortured victim who needs all the love and understanding she can get,” is a great patient for him to work on. Somehow, though, I don’t think Freud would approve of his methodology.

Then, during the debut of Gretchen’s solo act, Gretchen stumbles on the ice and crashes head-first into the railing. She’s carted off to the hospital in a coma, and the ice is found to have Gretchen’s own gold hairpins scattered across its surface. Everyone knows Gretchen is much too concerned with safety to have allowed this to happen, so who did it? Roark immediately leaps to Tina’s defense with a lot of blather about Tina’s “fantastic progress,” how he’s “been trying to make her understand that she doesn’t have to fight her way through life, that she’s capable of loving and being loved,” but Jeanette knows better. When Tina is found guilty, she asks him, is he going to “tell us she couldn’t help putting Gretchen into the intensive care unit because she had an unhappy childhood? Her mother was frightened by a hairpin salesman?”

Roark stomps off, and Jeanette believes even their tenuous friendship is over. She’s devastated, and decides to quit the show, where she realizes she has been wasting her talents. But before she leaves, she goes back to the arena and talks the performers into forgoing their threatened strike over the incident and putting on the performance of their lives. She tops this off by extracting a confession from the guilty individual and then deactivating the nuclear weapon hidden in the broom closet that’s set to go off during the show. Well, not that last, but something even more outrageous happens: Jeanette tells Roark that she’s leaving because she loves him, and he admits that he has been desperately in love with Jeanette the whole time! The book ends with the two of them racing off to find a preacher and me racing off to find some Pepto-Bismol.

I usually pick up a book by Jane Converse with some enthusiasm. She’s a good writer, humorous, and her story lines are usually pretty good. Ice Show Nurse, however, must have been cranked out because the rent was due. This perfunctory book has little enthusiasm, camp, or fun. Even the psychotic skating star, a character that could be the stuff Oscars are made of, is more pathetic than fearsome. I found it curious that the back-cover blurb mistakes the nurse’s name; she’s Jeanette Dawson, and the doctor is the one named Wells. When even the blurb writers can’t pay enough attention to a story to get it right, you know you’re in trouble.

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.