Monday, October 7, 2019

Nurse Judy

By Elizabeth Wesley (pseud. Adeline McElfresh), ©1958

As Nurse Judy Byron worked under the white lights of the operating room, she remembered the words of a wise teacher: “A good surgical nurse is as important to a surgeon as a steady hand, a keen eye.” Now, watching the skilled hands of Doctor Peter Clay as they coaxed life back into  a still heart or pieced together a shattered skull, the words had a fine, true ring. She was an essential tool in the surgeon’s miraculous work. But Judy Byron the woman could not escape the tensions growing around her, the distrust and hostility between the two chief surgeons, Doctors Murdoch and Clay. As a nurse she should never take sides, but watching Dr. Clay’s steady hands so often clenched in anger as he worked to save Murdoch’s patients, she found she cared very much. As her love grew, Judy Byron knew she must become more than just a surgical tool to Peter Clay.


“Doc’s great on acquainting his patients with what’s going to happen to them. Makes a patient feel better, he says, to be familiar with hospital routine. Well, now, he sure should have told me there’d be a hazel-eyed angel to hold my hand and—”

Judy Byron is a nurse at Whittingill Memorial, where she cares for surgical patients. The chief surgeon, named Dr. Montgomery Mason Murdoch, of course, has been carrying on with Karen Whittingill, great-granddaughter of the hospital’s founder and owner of the Whittingill chemical plant. And whenever you see the words “chemical plant” in a nurse novel, you know what’s coming. In fact, this book has a good number of the usual tropes, but it’s as if they are isolated gum drops thrown into a melted frappe of a novel, as a good number of them go nowhere despite taking up considerable space in these pages. There’s the crabby patient of Dr. Murdoch’s, rich Mrs. Ravensby, who keeps ringing the fricking call light for no reason at all and demands a lot of Nembutal. She’s becoming increasingly put out with her doctor, and a number of times Judy involves the nursing supervisor out of some never-named “concern” for Mrs. R, but at the end of the book she’s suddenly discharged and her story, whatever it might have been, is left bafflingly open-ended.

There’s “Staph” with a ph Murdoch, who never washes his hands before surgery so all his patients flirt unnecessarily not just with him but with death by sepsis after their trips to the OR. “Lister would turn over in his grave, at the way he scrubs up,” says another nurse. But the chief of staff seems completely unable to stop it, again for no reason that we’re given, except possibly because of Karen Whittingill’s intervention on her longtime boyfriend-but-not-fiance’s part.

The explosions at the chemical plant (you knew they would happen) is combined with a general sense of unease: “Things are pretty bad out there, Judy. It’s the morale, I think,” explains Judy’s longtime beau, newspaperman Hi Lambert, and I feel like I run into a brick wall every time I see his name on the page. “Something very definitely was out of kilter in both Whittingill Manufactory and the hospital,” we’re told. A sense of unease so great that everyone in town is talking about it, but the only explanation the book gives us, after suggesting that something sinister is behind the several chemical burn incidents, is that one of the employees is a drug addict—hardly enough for all the number of times “tiny prickle that is apprehension cake-walked along her spine,” the “throttled” doubts, the “nibbling small worry,” and don’t even get me started on all the issues Judy has going on under her sternum.

There’s the night someone sneaks up behind Judy when she is on duty alone on the night shift and knocks her out with ether—though nothing else seems amiss apart from Judy herself, who wakens insisting that she needs to finish getting ice water for Mrs. Ravensby, because she is one dedicated nurse! But after an hour’s worth of kerfuffle, during which hunky Dr. Peter Clay comforts her in his rumbling warm voice and steadies her with his firm, fine surgeon’s hands, it’s back to normal with not even a security guard or a motive for the attack—as every little pill in the drug cabinet is accounted for.

Orderly Andy Dexter continues to remain employed despite the fact that he seems to be the source of every patient-privacy-revealing story that Hi prints in the paper, and Judy’s increasing displeasure with Hi who “had no business sneaking around Dr. Tim’s back to get his story!” demonstrates a complete lack of understanding of basic journalism despite the fact that she’s been dating this man for many years.

Only a few of these  mysteries come to a head when a man at the plant is clubbed on the head and suffers third-degree chemical burns, an attack witnessed by a young woman who promptly vanishes. The victim dies despite Dr. Clay’s magical hands, and now everyone in town is on high alert except Judy’s ward, where one night she stumbles across a big guy riffling through the drug cabinet. Instead of calling security, Judy decides to confront the man, who in classic evil-villain monologue confesses to the attacks on the dead man and Judy herself, and having taken the keys to the drug cabinet out of her pocket and rather than immediately avail himself of an excellent opportunity to clean it out, instead somehow had a copy of the key made (at the nearby 24-hour hardware store?), slipped the key back into her pocket and waited for a super-busy night a week later to come back for the goods. Then he decides to strangle Judy, who is rescued by the rare ambulatory patient wielding a potted gloxinia, and I kid you not.

Now the really shocking part comes out!! The man turns out to have been the single patient of Dr. Murdoch’s not felled by sepsis who was rewarded for his survival by getting so much narcotics from the illustrious Dr. MMM that he became addicted. Dr. M, instead of taking the obvious way out with his prescription pad, instead steals drugs in some unspecified way from the hospital and sells them at exorbitant prices to the hapless former patient. This is actually the first time I have come across this problem in a VNRN, a problem that has legitimately become a really frightening issue for the country and a seldom acknowledged, seriously shameful blot on the medical profession that started the whole crisis, with much less repercussions than those faced by Dr. MMM. So buried deep in this hapless two-day-old fruit salad of a novel is an actual meaty issue—quickly whisked off the table by the overzealous waiter of an author who wants to turn and burn us, jumping essentially from mid confession to months down the road, spending exactly one page showing us who Judy has eventually married, someone she has heretofore never even kissed (which actually could include her boyfriend Hi).

In wanting to be all things, this book ends up being essentially nothing, completely missing a real chance at providing us with something substantial. Judy has deeper relationships with her flower garden than she does with either of the men she is ostensibly interested in. All the repetitive hackneyed phrases are old, well, not exactly friends, because we can’t actually admire this trite, overused language, but they’re certainly familiar to longtime readers of Adeline McElfresh, here writing as Elizabeth Wesley, who loves a clich√© in language as much as she loves one in plot. There’s nothing overtly bad in this book except a blatantly obvious lack of effort, which begs the question of why we the reader should bother with it when the author has not.

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