Saturday, March 19, 2016

Wings for Nurse Bennett

By Adeline McElfresh, ©1960

“Office-dressing” … That, Sarah thought wryly, was exactly what she had been as nurse to the handsome and successful Dr. Ralph Caldwell Porter. Looking wand-slim and elegant in her white nylon uniform, her heaviest duty had been to stand by serenely while Ralph administered to the imaginary needs of some fawning, simpering female. And now she was suddenly in the wilds of Alaska, newly appointed stewardess of the Alaska Passenger and Freight Airlines, about to board the frighteningly small and flimsy-looking plane for her first trip. But at least, she assured herself, here she could be useful. And perhaps, in this new land, she would get a new perspective on her life. Because she had to make up her mind about Ralph. She had to decide whether she could marry a man she loved—but didn’t respect.


“ ‘Can you imagine a man ever wanting to go to bed with Miss Davenport, darling?’ Ralph had asked her once when, miraculously, the waiting room was empty. ‘She’s a good nurse—the best in Dayton, barring not even you, but ugh.’ He had kissed her. ‘Don’t ever let yourself get fat and frumpy, sweetheart.’ ”

Sarah Bennett is working as a flight attendant on a small Alaskan airline (apparently in the old days flight attendants were nurses as well; in any case, she is one). She’s taking time away from her job working for Dr. Ralph Caldwell Porter, who is just as he sounds: A pompous, society doctor who panders to neurotic wealthy women, and who plans to marry Sarah and turn her into one.  She’s desperately in love with Ralph and can’t wait to marry him, she says, but is constantly thinking things like how great it was to be a flight attendant, “a member of the team, just as she had been at the hospital, as she had not been, not really, in Ralph’s office.” But she’s managed to tear herself from his well-groomed side for a few months to step onto the plane, subbing on the job formerly held by her old friend and wife of the pilot Paul Fergis; Jenny Fergis is pregnant, and so grounded. It’s Sarahs third day on the job when this particular flight takes off from Killmoose to Tanacross, and not half an hour into the flight, one of the passengers steps into the cockpit with a revolver and knocks out Al Malcolm, the co-pilot.

Back at air control, the radio is blasting reports of three men who crashed a stolen Cessna near Killmoose and haven’t been seen since. The men are wanted for questioning in the attempted sabotage of one of the United States’ Distant Early Warning bases in far northern Alaska—these would be the bases where, during the Cold War, people sat around and watched the skies for incoming Soviet nuclear missiles, so they could call home and say goodbye before the missiles arrived on American soil. The air traffic folks instantly recognize from the descriptions that these guys are on Sarah’s flight!! Now everyone is combing the Alaskan wilds, but it’s a lot of ground to cover, so things are looking grim…

Meanwhile, the gun-toting head basher puts the plane down in a clearing hundreds of miles off course and hustles everyone except his two co-conspirators off the plane, then takes off again. So now the story’s narrative jumps from the worried air controllers listening to the news, to the passengers trying to survive in dilapidated miners’ cabins in the woods, to Paul Fergis and a passenger who have set off through the Alaskan winter to try to find help. As the passengers trap rabbits and build bedding out of spruce boughs, Al Malcolm is increasingly warming the cockles of Sarah’s heart, though she tries again and again to remind herself that “she was in love with Ralph, she was going to marry him—to her Al Malcolm could be no more than Paul Fergis’s co-pilot.” But there’s just the small problem that Ralph is a philandering ass, and is never set up to be anything but, even to Sarah: “Sarah wished she could think of Ralph Porter without something unpleasant nudging into her mind,” she thinks before we’re a quarter of the way through the book—“Why did she keep thinking of Ralph? Remembering things that made her slightly sick at her stomach.” I wonder how everything is going to turn out?

Of course, the passengers that the bad guys have been kind enough to abandon rather than simply murder outright are prone to all sorts of health issues.  Needless to say, everything turns out swimmingly for the stranded passengers, who have the capable Sarah to steer them through their medical crises, though she is inclined to a hysterical interior monologue: “Oh, God, Sarah thought. Suppose something is going wrong?” she wonders when she’s delivering a baby, which despite her fears—“Oh, God! Was the baby stillborn? After all this—” is perfectly healthy, only now she’s got to concoct something else to worry about, like the baby catching “pneumonia, here—” But it doesn’t, so on to the next emergency: One man, unfortunately named George Jefferson, develops right lower quadrant pain and “Sarah’s breath caught in her throat. Not appendicitis! Please, God, don’t let it be appendicitis.” But it is, and now we have pages of watching George’s temperature rise: “Four-tenths in an hour? Oh, God!” But she convinces Al Malcolm to assist her with the surgery, which she pulls off effortlessly in 43 minutes. Now she’s worried that she’ll go to jail: “What would they call it, practicing surgery without a license? Or—or criminal negligence?” For crying out loud, someone get this woman a Xanax!

Eventually the two men wandering the wilderness are spotted by a rescue plane, the party in the woods is whisked back to civilization, George Jefferson recovers easily and reveals that he is actually an FBI agent assigned to nab the bad guys who hijacked the plane—not a very good one, it seems—and the bad guys, not being very good pilots, are discovered to have crashed the second plane as well and killed themselves in the process. Sarah finds she’s not going to jail or lose her job, and that she does not love Ralph after all. Not to worry, though, someone else is waiting to offer her marriage on the last page, and then—oh, God!—we can finally close the book.


  1. I spent 15+ years working as a Certified Surgical Technologist, working directly with the surgeons during surgical procedures. Elbow to elbow, you might say. Actually, some people call us "Scrub Nurses" even though we aren't nurses at all. We work directly under the supervision of the surgeons during procedures, not the nurses. And we go to school, mostly for two years now, as that has become the basic standard for education to achieve certification since 2000, and earn an Associate's in Science Degree, or an Associate's in Applied Science Degree. I went back to school in 1998, and graduated in Spring 1999, to get my Associate's in Applied Science Degree, because I wanted to have it for myself. We all - 25 of us - had jobs waiting on us before we graduated, too. The program has an excellent reputation for producing well trained staff members.

    After several years getting plenty of full time experience under my belt, I worked for a Travel Nurse agency who also placed Surgical Techs, for several years, on assignments for short terms of up to three months. It could go on for longer, if it took longer to fill the position. I worked with all kinds of people, with a VERY short period of orientation on each one. Usually it was a week or so, and then you were expected to jump right in, "feet first" as it were, and function on your own. Usually, there was always someone else who could help out if you had questions about something special you had never seen before, but mostly you were expected to function on your own.

    I did the same kind of procedures with 100 different doctors, but each one had his or her own particular way of doing it. I have never seen an appendectomy completed in under an hour though, no matter who it was, or how they did it. From the time the patient was brought in the OR, hooked up to monitoring, put to sleep by the anesthesiologist, prepped, draped, the usual suction and cautery attached and plugged in, the instrument tray and table brought up to the OR bed, and the surgeon begins, is around 20 minutes, but the procedure itself always took at least an hour. Even if they were having it done by the laparoscope, it still took that long, because it was more involved. The scars were much smaller, and there were usually two or three of them, depending on the surgeons and how they did it, but it still took as long to do because the same work was being done, just managed in a different way. To have an "appy" done in 43 minutes, "skin to skin" is astounding! (That means from the first cut to the last stitch, skin to skin.)

    Since she's a nurse, I'm sure she's had experience in the OR, as that wasn't an optional experience in nursing school, but being able to singlehandedly manage an appendectomy is not the simple, easy thing that it's always been purported to be. It takes a good level of skill in order to do one without producing complications afterwards, like peritonitis from contamination while removing the actual appendix. I've assisted at dozens and dozens of them, with the same view as the surgeon, but I would no more attempt to do one under these circumstances than I would try to land an airplane by myself. I've had college level Anatomy and Physiology, but I've never been to medical school of course. I could surely function as a trained assistant to a regular surgeon, or even perhaps help guide an MD without a practice in surgery, but only on a very superficial level.

    But this gal is such a panicky little thing over the most insignificant events (4/10ths of a degree of temperature? OH GOD!!), I simply cannot imagine her being able to function calmly doing an appendectomy under such circumstances. It simply does not suspend disbelief under these conditions.

  2. As for the first stewardesses being R.N.s, that is correct. In the early 1930's, the fledgling airline industry was struggling with the idea from the general public that air travel was too dangerous to allow them to willingly invest their travel dollars in it.

    They struggled with making it appear safe, until Steve Stimpson with Boeing Air Transport, the predecessor of United Airlines, got the idea of putting nurses on board as attendants to the passengers, thereby giving the public the idea that with a nurse on board, it would be that much safer, as well as having someone on board every flight capable of dealing with airsickness, and other minor ailments. Ellen Church, RN, who was also a pilot, was the first one to take on such an assignment. Stimpson would not hire her as a pilot, but decided to employ her as an attendant, and the trainer of seven others to do the same. Not only did she have responsibility for the safety and health care of the passengers, but their meals as well! She was expected to provide thermoses of coffee, sandwiches, and other light repast for both passengers and crew!

    The stewardesses, or "sky girls" as BAT called them, had to be registered nurses, "single, younger than 25 years old; weigh less than 115 pounds [52 kg]; and stand less than 5 feet, 4 inches tall [1.63 m]". In addition to attending to the passengers, they were expected to, when necessary, help with hauling luggage, fueling and assisting pilots to push the aircraft into hangars. However, the salary was good: $125 a month.