Tuesday, May 12, 2020

Nurse Kay

By Virginia Roberts
(pseud. Nell Marr Dean), ©1962

For Kay Fleming, nursing was a second career choice: she always wanted to be a doctor. And perhaps because it was second choice she was determined to be good at it. So when the man she loved, rugged young college football coach Duke Malone, was offered a job out of state and asked Kay to come with him, marry him, she refused. It would have meant giving up a chance to help organize the hospital’s new disaster unit. It would have meant going back on her “duty” … But was she being a dedicated nurse when she sent Duke away—or was she only being selfish? It was a question Kay couldn’t answer until a headline tragedy showed her the truth about herself …


“I hike all the roads around here, and haven’t been kidnapped even once.”

“There’s just nothing that gives a woman that feminine, fragile air like a souffl√©-light mohair sweater.”

“I’m glad you didn’t go through with your lofty ideas. Women doctors are awfully stuffy sometimes.”

“A vacation for me means I’ll have to build a whole new wardrobe.”

“Certainly, intelligent, educated women like you need to have careers. But they also need to make wifehood the main objective in their lives. Nothing can be more treasured than to be chosen by a man because he thinks you’re the most important woman in the world.”


Kay Fleming is a nursing student, but she had really wanted to be a doctor. A lot is made of this early in the book, but I’m not sure why; it doesn’t really add anything to the story except show Kay up as a self-sacrificing martyr, since the reason she didn’t go to medical school is because (1) she never bothered to tell her parents that’s what she wanted to do and (2) she never bothered to find a way to finance medical school with or without her parents’ help. It does, however, give her a lot of reason to be angrily jealous of her sister, who did go to a fancy private university and throws a fancy wedding for 500 guests that costs $1,000 (tee hee!) and, by Kay’s constant reckoning, siphoned up all the money that could have been used for her own education had she only asked for it. (In the end, though, when Kay snarkily tells her parents of her thwarted dreams, they sell their drug store possibly to help finance a medical degree, and selfish Kay decides she’d rather stay in nursing school after all. So much for that plot thread.)

We follow Kay through her final year of school, during which she starts dating football coach Duke Malone. He is super hot and hunky, and the year flies by! At the end of it, Dr. James Martin offers Kay a job helping him set up a disaster unit. “Jim says every hospital should have a disaster unit—a field hospital—in case of a big disaster, or an enemy attack,” because “with all the big missile installations around here, it makes us a hot target for enemy bombings.” The problem comes when Duke is offered a job coaching for the big football team in Colorado, and he asks Kay to marry him and come with him. Kay, who is looking forward to her big project with Dr. Martin, does not leap into Duke’s arms and say yes, and he is not exactly understanding. “What does that hospital have to offer you that I don’t?” Um, a challenging and rewarding career and a salary, for starters, but Duke is not impressed. “I guess anything as important as that would put a stop to such an inconsequential thing as marriage, wouldn’t it!” Because it’s now or never with Duke; he must have learned about selfishness from his beloved.

Kay hopes that a day or two will help Duke come to a compromise: “Why couldn’t he be understanding and let her have just a little fling at her career before they seriously planned their marriage?” But Duke never bothers to contact Kay after that initial conversation, so when she tracks him down at the stadium, he starts in again. “You’re putting your career ahead of mine—ahead of me,” he says. “You think staying here, doing what any other nurse could do in your place, is more important.” Um, thanks, honey. She wants to tell him off, but instead decides, “One of them must act maturely,” so she asks him to give her a few months to finish her project, but he refuses to compromise. “Why compromise? You’re getting what you want,” he snarls, and off he goes to Colorado. Good riddance! thinks Kay. Or not, and instead pines for him constantly.

Unfortunately, shortly after Duke’s departure, the hospital administration decides to pull funding from the disaster center and give it instead to that cute pediatrician, so Kay is left without her big project or a man. But she continues to work at the hospital during the day and cry during the night, until finally Duke’s Colorado team comes to play the local university. Kay tries to see him again, but it’s no use—Duke persists in being a dick. As fate would have it, just as the big game is kicking off, there’s a landslide at the dam, and lots of workers are trapped and injured! Though the disaster unit is not functional, Dr. Martin has their plans at the ready, and he and Kay MacGyver supplies, personnel, and procedures to set up a triage hospital at the tragedy site, and Kay comes up with the brilliant idea to get the football teams to come help move all the dirt and rocks that can’t be moved by machinery without risking of injuring the workers buried in the rubble. Duke and the teams show up pronto, and soon the injured are being pulled from the mess and expertly treated at the field hospital.

The next day, Duke drops by her apartment. “It’s sad it took a disaster to bring us back together,” he says, and they go off to church because it’s Sunday, and their reunification “became even more treasured with the thought that people in love should share the rich privilege of worshiping together.” Over waffles after the service, they read in the paper that a rich philanthropist is funding the disaster unit after all, but without any discussion of how incredibly selfish and nasty Duke has been, or even whether they can reunite, Kay says, “they can get another nurse to help run the show,” and tells Duke she will marry him. That doesn’t mean, however, that she’s going to give up nursing altogether, because they have hospitals in Colorado, too, maybe. “Goodness, Duke, you don’t think you’re marrying one of those delicate little clinging-vine-type females! Heaven forbid! I’m not one of those homemakers who wants to do nothing but dust a tiny three-room apartment and die of boredom.” No, she’s just a clinging-vine-type who lets her man kick her around without a peep of protest. Now that she’s agreed to give up almost everything, he condescends to admit, “When I saw you working your heart out at that accident I knew how much your career meant to you. How important it was—how many lives you helped save. I felt selfish in ever suggesting that you give it up.” That’s the closest he gets to an apology, and he certainly doesn’t suggest that Kay stay in Arizona and finish the disaster unit before joining him in Colorado; no, that would be too much. So the book ends as Kay gaily decides to have a wedding just as huge and expensive as her sister’s, the wedding she was so contorted with rage and envy about early in the book. But Duke needn’t worry, she’s only quarterbacking “the first play, darling—our wedding. Then you’re the coach forever after.” And I’m off and running for the Pepto Bismol.

The problem here is that Kay is depicted as a strong, independent woman, but when it comes to the man, she always has to be a bigger person than he is, always give in first, always stifle her anger, always give up almost everything that’s important to her, while he acts like a spoiled brat and gets everything he wants. But after we’ve watched her squawk about not having gone to medical school, and her sister spending all her parents’ money, and then make an abrupt, completely oblivious about face, we know that this is not her first hypocrisy. The book is not badly written and is even humorous at times, but Kay’s fickleness is hard to overcome, souring what could have been a better book.

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