Saturday, November 9, 2019

Second-Chance Nurse

By Jane Converse (pseud. Adele Kay Maritano), ©1961

Crisis! The young doctor’s face was etched with bitter hope and desperate strength. Karen Reese looked form him to the small form stretched on the hospital bed and knew that Dr. Mark Corman needed her at last; needed her skill, her devotion, even her silent, unspoken love. For only love’s valiant faith could win this struggle. Death was groping for the child with cold fingers, but they would not, could not, let him die … A dedicated doctor and nurse are united in a heart-gripping battle for the life of a child, while a fierce love grows between them as they thwart death with all the courage of their calling.


“It seems the eight-hour, twenty-dollars-a-day angels of mercy can pick and choose their cases.”

“You’d better move the wedding date up a little, Jo. This smootching into the wee small hours is murder.”

“Happy, sentimental tears were as ruinous to the appearance as the heartbroken variety.”

One of my least-favorite tropes in the VNRN genre is the beautiful, intelligent, hard-working nurse who’s in love with a jerk. Meet Karen Reese, who works at Los Angeles’ Valleycrest Hospital. Karen is not without flaw, although hers is actually completely trivial, as is the standard in VNRNs. As “an exhausted probationer,” one night, trapped in the hospital during a blizzard that kept the relief staff from coming in but had not kept the victims of a terrible fire from arriving in the ED, Karen in a sleep-deprived haze carried a unit of Type A blood to a Type O victim. The horror!! Of course, the nurse on duty had actually checked the label, realized it was the wrong type and had not given it. “Do you know what your carelessness nearly did to that patient? To the reputation of this hospital?” shrieks the nursing supervisor, telling her that when the storm calms down she’s going to recommend that Karen be barred from the nursing profession. And then, 20 minutes after Karen has left her office, drops dead of a heart attack, and that’s the end of the matter. The guilt of this unforgiveable sin is a heavy weight she carries with her still!

Karen has met Dr. Corman at the hospital, but after she fell hard for the man who paid her scant attention, she left to become a private nurse. Their paths cross again when Dr. Corman calls to ask her to special a child who was lucky enough to live in the days before vaccines were routine and is now sick with tetanus and likely to die. When she shows up for the interview, he is immediately nasty, asking if she’s brought her mystery novel and saying, “I expect you assumed there’d be plenty of time to read. With the kind of cases you usually handle, there might even be time to do your nails. Did you bring nail polish?” Apparently this job requires that she stand next to the patient for her entire 3:00 to 11:00 shift in a darkened room “where the slightest sound might precipitate a fatal spasm,” where there’s a “critical danger involved in a rattle teacup or a dropped teaspoon.” Throw in the opportunity to work with a mean doctor and Karen can’t sign up fast enough! The job itself actually does seem pretty dull—the boy, Ronnie, is under heavy sedation and tied to the bed, and as far as I can tell Karen’s job is to take vital signs, inject meds,  and watch him seize. But the stress is exhausting, and when Dr. Corman stops by, “her awareness of him tensed every nerve in her body”—seems like tetanus is catching. Even as the days drag on and Karen proves her worth, he continues to be a cold brute. “What made the man so vicious … so uncompromisingly cruel?” she wonders. “Dr. Corman was a detestable boor. No woman in possession of her right senses could think herself in love with a detestable boor.” Good thing for Dr. Corman that Karen is clearly out of her mind. Case in point: She decides that “the caustic remarks, the bitterness … perhaps these symptoms of a soul’s sickness, too, could be healed by the touch of gentle hands.” Ugh.

Weeks pass. Ronnie’s father, Thomas, spends a lot of time visiting his boy, and by extension hanging out with Karen. Thomas is divorced from his Ronnie’s mother, Lorena, because while he was working 100 hours a week as a famous TV director, she was spending time with “some sweet-talking young crumb—a would-be actor,” and when Thomas found out, he had Lorena declared an unfit mother and she lost custody (which seems incredibly hard to believe). But Lorena spends a lot of time at the hospital, too, apparently clued in by Dr. Corman when Thomas has left the building, and Karen tries to fend off Thomas’ increasing regard for her while pushing Lorena to fight for custody of her child.

Meanwhile, in a side plot, Karen’s roommate Patty Tanner seems to get pulled into one heartbreaking case after another. Patty is currently caring for a man with terminal cancer who has not been told of his diagnosis—talk about unethical!—and keeps telling her about all the things he’s going to do when he gets home. There’s a stark contrast between Karen, who is tough enough to shoulder all the stress and emotional torment of her job without even a slump in her posture, and Patty, who spends the evenings sobbing in her bedroom and shrieking, “I’m not a parasite like you. I’m a nurse! I’m a nurse! I’m a nurse!” Psych consult, stat! When Karen finds some little pills in Karen’s bag, she takes one to a friend in the lab who tests it and learns that it’s benzadrine. Karen’s concerned that Patty has stolen the meds from the hospital and is using them while on the job, so she tells Dr. Corman about it, who has Patty hauled in for a grilling. It turns out Patty only took a few pills, which had belonged to her deceased patient, after her patient’s death and then threw the rest out. But as Patty is fleeing the hospital after being fired, she is run over by an ambulance and admitted with broken ribs and a head injury. During that time she gets to know Dr. Tony Eberhart, the intern she’s sworn never to get involved with because he’s a doctor and she hates doctors so much …

Needless to say, everything gets wrapped up nicely in the end. Patty, as she’s about to be discharged from the hospital, is offered a job by Dr. Corman as his office nurse. Ronnie gets better, of course, and Thomas asks Karen to come home with him, if not as his wife then as Ronnie’s nurse. Lorena arrives at the Sills’ ranch one afternoon, and the family reunion involves “laughin’ an’ cryin’ an’ carryin’ on,” the housekeeper tells Karen. Dr. Corman drops by for a house call, full of his usual piss and vinegar, and Karen tells him off, but he reveals that he had initially treated Ronnie’s cut in the ED and had missed the tetanus diagnosis, and the delay in treatment likely made the illness that much worse. That’s why he’s been so horrid, but now that Ronnie is well, he can be nice again. Phew!

Jane Converse has brought us some wonderful books, but she has also written some duds. So I open every book of hers for the first time with real hope—which in this case quickly died. Her writing here is decent, but we’ve met all these characters before in other stories of hers, and didn’t care for them then, either. I guess the  best thing I can say for this book is that it’s not as bad as a case of tetanus, and it’s certainly a strong reminder to keep your booster up to date.

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