Sunday, September 19, 2021

Emergency Nurse

By Jane Converse (pseud. Adele Kay Maritano), ©1962 

“You don’t  belong in a hospital! If you were honest you’d operate a beauty parlor.” Nurse Diane Waycott flung these bitter words at plastic surgeon Dr. Ken Michelson the night her mother died. Maddened with grief, she believed that her fiancé was more concerned with preserving vanity than saving life. But when a young girl, victim of an auto crash, was brought to Emergency with a bloody, unrecognizable face, Diane knew that only Ken could help. Only his sensitive hands could build a new life for this tragic girl—and for the desperate boy who had ruined her beauty.


“You can’t have a pretty face if there’s hate written over it.” 

“That icy-tongued perfectionist is either going to make top-flight plastic surgeons out of us, or we’ll get the chair for bludgeoning him.”

“Good management is adaptable. Why consult an expert if you’re going to overrule his opinion?”

Emergency Nurse hangs on the curious premise that Emergency Room Nurse Diane Waycott, engaged to plastic surgeon Dr. Kendall Michelson, has no idea what he actually does. But for the sake of this otherwise excellent book, I ask you to overlook this minor flaw. The issue is Diane’s prejudice against plastic surgery: “Never, in all the months she had loved him, had she been able to generate a profound, nurse’s respect for him as a doctor.” And when he drives her home from the hospital on the night her mother, who has battled cancer since her retirement (and therefore been unable to enjoy any relaxation), finally dies, she’s overcome by the injustice of it all. “Maybe just one more doctor might have made the difference!” she shouts at him. “Just one more man in a laboratory, or in surgery, might have found the answer a year ago, or five years ago, or ten. You might have found it! And she wouldn’t have suffered. She’d be alive!” Instead, she adds, “you’ll probably become rich bobbing the noses for show girls or eliminating the scars from some wanted hoodlum’s face. You’ll get ahead even faster if you gain a repaution for bust reconstruction!” Well, she’s not wrong about the boob jobs, but Ken is so outraged at this slur on his profession that he slams out the door, and when she never calls him to apologize, he never calls her either, so she’s single again. 

Months after their breakup, an anonymous young car crash victim is brought in, and she and Dr. Paul Otis sew up her face, which has been badly cut. If the hospital knew who she was and whether her parents had money, they’d have called in Ken to repair the damage, but since time is a-wastin’, ED Dr. Paul Otis perfunctorily does the job. And when the bandages come off, the resulting scars are so hideous that her father, who turns out to be wealthy and powerful automotive parts magnate Harley Gilmore, screams in horror and is shoved out of the room while the young girl, Cammie, crumples into sobs. (In a later scene, Diane unprofessionally argues with Dr. Otis when he’s about to amputate three fingers of another unidentified accident victim, saying that the fingers might be saved, which gives enough time for the patient’s wife and doctor to arrive and save the hand.)

Diane’s kid brother Bud, who has been allowed to pretty much do whatever he wants after his mother died, turns out to have been driving the car involved in the accident, which Diane figures out not too slowly. Petrified that Bud’s life will be ruined by his leaving the scene of the accident—he had carried Cammie into a nearby house and called an ambulance, but then fled—she asks no questions, just hints to Bud that she’s aware of his role, and leaves him to keep skipping school. But her concern about Cammie slowly draws her into the girl’s care and life; Cammie’s widower father, a large, powerful, angry man, has refused to allow her to have any friends or even leave the house, and Diane is the only person who stands up to him, telling him that he needs to let go of his daughter if he wants to keep her.

Meanwhile, Diane starts dating stodgy Dr. Otis, who, now that Diane’s mother is dead and her brother is old enough to support himself, finds the prospect of marrying a woman with no dependents to support much more enticing. “Anticipating the question with which he would probably end the evening, Diane projected herself forward. Should a husband be chosen on the basis of flash-in-the-pan excitement, or eliminated because he didn’t convert every moment to a bell-ringing, physically tingling carnival of thrills? A marriage should be built on more solid groundwork. Paul offered a firm foundation for the future.” On the other hand, “No hour with Ken had ever been dull.” That old trope again!

Eventually Bud, eaten alive by guilt, finds his way to Ken and unburdens himself. Ken immediately tells Diane that Bud must go to the police in the morning, and Diane, disappointingly, has learned nothing from her first fight with Ken, and blames him for the ways of the world: “The day I see Bud hauled off to a cellblock, I’ll know you sent him there!” she screeches. Even after he’d just kissed away her tears of fear. So we have to wait a bit longer.

If the plot works out exactly as you know it will, it’s a most enjoyable ride. Diane and Harley Gilmore’s characters grow organically, as Diane learns more about Ken’s patients and as Cammie’s father Harley receives a few more hard truths from Diane. And the writing here is a step above the usual. There are inside jokes that pop up later, and author Jane Converse, who can be erratic, here is in top form. Of the four Emergency Nurse VNRNs in existence that I can find (see Anne Lorraine, Peggy Gaddis, and Rosamund Hunt’s mediocre offerings) this one has the best story—and arguably the best cover—of the quartet. If you have a few hours—maybe in an ED waiting room?—you could do a lot worse.

Emergency Nurse

By Peggy Gaddis, ©1963 

The nurses in the Emergency Ward were always busy. And one of the busiest was Nurse Elaine Prescott. Two doctors called for her … after working hours as well as during them. When Dr. Toby Latimer even glanced at her, her pulse did flip-flops. How odd, then, that she should be so impatient for her next date with Dr. Jay Dillard. His kind of attractiveness spelled danger … a danger she didn’t want to think about … yet …


“I’ve never seen her in anything except operating garb. And you know what that is! Liz Taylor would look like a hag in one of those sickening green gowns and masks.” 

“I knew how much it would mean to him to look at something young and pretty. Miss Simmons and the other nurses on this ward are definitely not either!”

“Since I’ve been here, and especially since my service in Emergency, I’ve come to believe that the automobile is far more deadly than the atom bomb!”

“‘It’s a dance sensation called “the twist,”’ he explained kindly. ‘Care to try it?’
“‘I do not!’ Elaine assured him firmly. ‘I have much too much respect for my sacroiliac! Nobody over eighteen should ever attempt that sort of dance, that is, if it is a dance, which I doubt. It looks like something dreamed up in a nightmare.’” 

“If I felt any better I’d have to take something for it.”

“Parents sometimes take a whole lot of understanding, don’t they?”

“Any little thing I can ever do for you, or even any big thing like murder or arson, just let me know and consider it done.”

Elaine Prescott is a nurse in an Emergency Department where every patient is brought in on the edge of death, usually from a car crash; unfortunately, the patients seems to have a mortality rate of more than 50 percent. Maybe because the staff thinks it’s a good thing when patients are thrown from car crashes, they dig out bullets and suture bullet wounds, and persuade dying patients to have surgeries that won’t cure them. Has medicine changed that much, or do VNRN authors not bother to do their homework? 

When she’s not assisting at malpractice, Elaine is usually arguing with Dr Jay Dillard or Dr. Toby Latimer. Toby is the son of a very wealthy society doctor, Fergus Latimer who, paradoxically to how these kinds of MDs are usually portrayed, is an extremely talented surgeon. Dr. Fergus holds lavish parties that his dowdy wife Ellen avoids like the plague; she prefers to volunteer in the pediatric ward or putter in the garden. Everyone assumes Toby is going to step into his father’s practice, though Toby has never made it a secret that he plans to use his trust fund to open a clinic in the slums. Dr. Fergus is very dismissive of Elaine when she attends a party at the country club with Toby and has tea with Ellen at the family manse; Ellen, for her part, tells Elaine in the kindest possible way not to get involved with Toby because Fergus is going to change Toby’s mind about both the clinic and Elaine, and then she’ll be hurt. Elaine is outraged that Ellen thinks she is “pursuing” Toby, but then Ellen “clarifies” that rather she knows Elaine is not in love with Toby, but that he is in love with her and “I didn’t want to see you hurt” by marring a man she doesn’t love. 

Elaine responds to this by accusing Ellen of child abuse: “You have bullied him and hectored him and laughed at his plans and his hopes,” she says—though when we meet Ellen earlier, we are told that “it was obvious that Mrs. Latimer hadn’t the faintest doubt of her son’s ability,” and Ellen herself says, “I think Toby is quite old enough and intelligent enough to make his own decision” about going into practice with his father. After this contradiction, Elaine adds another: “I’m not the least bit in love with Toby, nor do I think for an instant that he is in love with me.” We doubt Elaine is as impassive as all that, as on their first date “Elaine’s happy heart gave a little excited skip at the implication that this was not to be their only date.” As for Toby’s feelings, on numerous occasions Elaine is assured by the people around her that Toby is in love with her, and Toby himself has told his father that he’d like to marry Elaine “more than anything in the world.” This could be the classic VNRN denial of the obvious—a classic tactic for Peggy Gaddis—but it’s hard to know what to do with this; either the heroine is disingenuous at best or completely schizophrenic, and neither is very conducive to a happy love life, or a good story line.

As for Elaine’s other beau, Jay Latimer is planning to step into his father’s practice—but that’s OK, because his father is a general practitioner in the North Georgia mountains. Whenever this particular geography is aligned with a character in a Gaddis novel, you know that’s who we’ll be with on the final pages. But in virtually every exchange, Jay and Elaine are squabbling, usually because Jay has made some disparaging remark about Toby, and Elaine is defending him.

In between Elaine’s battles with Jay and Toby’s parents, both of whom are doing their best to keep Elaine and Toby apart—again, rather perplexing, since Toby’s mother is initially painted as a doting, underappreciated saint—a 15-year-old girl who has been groomed to be lonely by her social-climbing parents and who was almost the victim of half a suicide pact (her boyfriend shot her in the lung and then chickened out on killing himself and ran, which ends their relationship) and her story resolves happily after she delivers a lengthy and astoundingly psychologically insightful lecture to her parents about their failings. We also have the more bizarre story of a 32-year-old widow who has conjured her dead husband’s ghost, whom numerous people hear speaking to her and who drives her car, and her, into a tree. Her story also ends “happily,” we are told, when she dies: “I’m so glad she didn’t have to go on living without her husband,” says the wise 15-year-old. “She loved him so very much, and she was so alone without him.” Curiously, these two stories contradict each other—although, come to think of it, given that this is a Gaddis story, it’s not curious at all—one young woman is lucky to have lived and lost her boyfriend, while the other is lucky to have died after losing her husband.

This is the problem with Peggy Gaddis. She starts writing one story that is abruptly flipped on its head, and we are told with a straight face that everything we’ve been led to believe up to this point is false, and the opposite has been emphatically true all along. A young woman who is outraged when she is thought to be chasing one man suddenly openly pursues another with gusto; a man and a lifestyle she’s been chilly toward from book’s open, we now find she’s been “pursuing like mad ever since we first met!” When did that happen exactly?

One of the more interesting aspects of this book is that it holds an amazing prejudice toward both upper and lower classes. After her evening at the country club Elaine says, “There didn’t seem to be a serious idea among the crowd! I can’t imagine anything duller or more boring than a steady diet of such dates; or the sort of life those people live. They all looked bored and dissatisfied with themselves and the world at large.” At the same time, Toby endures an inordinate amount of disdain from his peers—Jay Latimer in particular—despite the fact that he’s an extraordinarily dedicated and hard-working doctor, because his father is a rich man. But being poor is not much better, at least being urban poor: Characters talk of the “savage brutality in the slum areas” that “springs from ignorance as much as from native brutality: people can be taught to rise above such animal-like things”—and that’s from Ellen Latimer, who has the kindly view. Dr. Fergus Latimer just calls the slum-dwellers “lazy, ignorant and shiftless, who are unwilling to lift a finger to help themselves and rush to grab anything the city or the state or the government hands out.” Curious contrast to the mountain-dwelling poor, who are painted as a holy, hard-working, noble species.

For the most part it’s a well-written story, though even urban nursing students tend toward cutesy epithets such as “Saints preserve us and forevermore!” and “Praises be!” and “For the love of Florence Nightingale.” There’s enough bizarreness in the side plots to be entertaining—what is up with the ghost???—and the contradictions of the plots are not especially irritating, partly because instead of turning into a vapid, spineless wimp who does what her man tells her, which happens too frequently in Gaddis novels, rather the opposite is true. Elaine, who shows little interest in any man for much of the book after her first and only date with Toby, in the end puts her feelings on the line—up to a point. “I’ve gone so far as I intend to go! After all, this is supposed to be partly your job, you know. You really shouldn’t expect me to drop on my knees and put my hand on my turbulent heart and beg for your hand in marriage!”—and by saying this, she is making it clear that she would like it if he did the same. The good news is that, once safely betrothed, Elaine insists on waiting a miserably long six months for the wedding, because “we have been alone only in the cafeteria, and neither of us has ever had enough time off at the same time to get really to know each other.” So that’s a smart move we can all get behind, even if we feel confident that to get engaged after only one date seems a bit foolhardy. Peggy Gaddis is a bit frustrating as a VNRN author because as good a writer of sentences as she is, her themes and plots are not infrequently off-putting, and she has a penchant for lazy writing mechanics. But in Emergency Nurse she does better than usual and gives us a book we can largely enjoy.

Emergency Nurse

By Rosamund Hunt, ©1964

Amy Whiting came to Elsalock Island seeking escape. The young nurse had lost the doctor she loved to another woman, and wanted nothing more to do with nursing or with men until her painful emotional wound had healed. But fate had other plans. Her first day on the lovely New England island, Amy was pressed into service when a tragic accident filled the understaffed local hospital with needy patients. Soon Amy had won far more than the professional admiration of two handsome young doctors, and the vengeful jealousy of a stunningly beautiful yet strangely moody fellow nurse. Amy had only her heart to guide her through a maze of personal rivalries and conflicting feelings … the heart she had sworn never to trust again …


“Couldn’t do that. Couldn’t pick out one woman in the whole world and make her happy. Think of how many others I’d make miserable if I took myself out of circulation!” 

Amy Whiting RN has turned up on Elsalock Island, which is located off Cape Cod, vowing never to love again!!! Or nurse again, either, because even just being in a hospital makes her remember Dr. Alec Osborne, a boy she’d loved since high school and followed into medicine with the dream of working alongside him after they were married—except that he’d decided to marry someone else, the rat bastard! Amy needs a serious dose of coping skills. To demonstrate how destroyed she is, “she wore no make-up because she had lost faith in such things. Alec had rejected her for an older, plainer woman, and she was not interested in trying to make herself attractive any longer.” She’s also pretty shallow; did I mention that? 

Anyway, after quitting nursing and life altogether, she’s going to hole up on this remote island in the cottage left to her by an aunt. On the ferry over, she’s taken up by a suave charmer, Peter Pepper, who regales her with humorous stories to such an extent that she hardly notices the two cops who are scrutinizing every male passenger exiting the ferry. “A guy could lose himself up here for a long, long time,” Peter observes. “He could hide out from the world, and his enemies would never be able to find him.” Nope, Amy doesn’t pick up that clue he’s putting down, either. Peter also finds the island attractive because it’s itching to raise money to build a new hospital, and he’s just the man to make all that happen, as long as he gets to put his name on the bank account!

But en route from the ferry stop, the bus she and Peter are riding on tips over, and all the injured folks are hustled off to the local hospital. Amy is not harmed, but she is instantly pressed into duty by mean old Dr. Dan Spencer, who hears Amy’s story and is not exactly impressed. “You decided to quit the profession that you only went into for selfish reasons of your own,” he sums up. “Didn’t it mean anything to you at all, except as a means to your own ends?” At least she has the nerve to answer, “I don’t think it did. It was a job.” Ah. 

But with all these injured folks lying around, she does agree to help out, initially thinking it would be just for one day, but she keeps coming back, because she likes the patients, and besides, Dr. Aaron Moon is “the most impressive-looking man Amy had ever seen.” He’s Indian, of the Chackonee nation, which inhabits one end of the island. He and the charge nurse, Jeanne Halderson, are apparently desperately in love with each other, but for some reason—could it be his Indian heritage?—Jeanne is just nasty and brutish with poor Dr. Moon, so he dates Amy now and then.

Meanwhile, as Amy finds out that more and more folks who can’t really afford it are digging deep into their piggy banks to help the persuasive Mr. Pepper finance the new hospital, she starts to get uneasy. “Don’t get involved in something which isn’t your affair,” she eventually decides, and keeps her suspicions to herself. We’re lucky it’s just one con man, and not a band of international terrorists, that are hiding out on Elsalock Island. You will not be surprised to learn that Mr. Pepper and the money vanish on the same day, and the cops are not so pleased with Amy when they discover she had concerns all along. “Even though this crook was going around collecting money from everyone on the Island. You simply sat back and did nothing when, as you say, you felt that something was ‘wrong’?” Um, yeah, that about sums it up. Interestingly, we’ve met other VNRN heroines who minded their own business and allowed a baddie to get away with a crime (see Jane Arden Space Nurse), but she is not shamed for her stupid behavior the way Amy is. 

So the entire population of the island stops speaking to her, except for the Chackonee people and Dan, but surprisingly, Amy sticks to the job she never wanted in the first place. She even decides that she likes Dan; “there was a certain ease between them, as thought they had known each other for years. There had not been the strain, as there sometimes had been with Alec, of being bright and witty in order to hold his attention.” Because if one man hasn’t worked out, we just have to be informed that the fellow wasn’t all that awesome to start with, that it wasn’t really love that she felt, that it didn’t count for anything.

In the end there’s another disaster, a hurricane this time, and by the end of it, Amy is finally seeing the shining light of Florence’s lamp: “She had found the satisfaction of hard work, of service, of helping and being needed as she never had before in her life. Before, nursing had been to her only the means to an end, something impatiently learned for a selfish purpose. … Words like ‘serve’ had had no part in her life until she had come to the Island, in spite of her glib recitation of the Florence Nightingale oath.” It’s nice that the author bothered to try to give her character some personal growth, but it’s mostly told to us, not shown, unfortunately.

The book ends completely as expected. One big disappointment comes when Amy has just realized that she loves Dan as he is driving her home. He asks her what she’s thinking about, “and, of course, she could not tell him. She could not even turn her head and meet his eyes.” It isn’t until he puts his arm around her and tells her that he has feelings for her that she is able to reach for him. I’ve been realizing lately how passive all these heroines are romantically, how in the end, it is almost always the man who makes the first move. No matter what we’ve been sold throughout the pages about the heroine standing on her own feet and taking ownership of her life, she still can’t extend a hand or face toward a man she loves until his answer is assured. Weak and hypocritical is what it is. The only “plus” in this book is that the Indian community was treated respectably, with honorable, hardworking characters who don’t talk much, of course, but who stand by Amy when Peter runs off with the loot. It’s not much, but with Rosamund Hunt’s Emergency Nurse, we’re not given much, so it’s best to just take that small token and close the book.