Tuesday, June 20, 2023

Theatre Nurse

By Hilda Pressley Nickson, ©1960 

Catharine Manton was beautiful and efficient, and “her” operating theatre was perfectly run. Why, then, did the new R.S.O. declare that he couldn’t possibly work with her, even if it meant that he—not she—would have to leave the hospital?


“True greatness did indeed go hand-in-hand with humility.”

“Some surgeons are like that. They love to dramatize.”

Catharine Manton is a young but highly skilled nurse, so much so that she’s been promoted to Theatre Sister, which in the UK means she is the head nurse in charge of the OR. She’s kind, efficient, organized—and also, of course, very beautiful. This is a big problem—when the new chief surgeon, Dr. Peter Wingate, shows up, there is big trouble! He pales the minute he claps eyes on her, and “there was no mistaking the scorn in his eyes now, and the look of bitter contempt.” He declares that he cannot work with such a young nurse, apparently having nothing against her except her youth and looks—and possibly also that he first came across her in the arms of Dr. Ray White, staff anesthesiologist, whom she’s known since she was a girl and has no romantic inclinations toward. It is a curious feature in nurse novels that the heroines frequently go on dates and kiss men in whom they frankly state they have no interest.

By a huge coincidence, the biggest slacker nurse in the hospital, Sylvia Cleveland, is transferred to the OR the day before Dr. Wingate arrives, and soon it becomes clear—eventually widely known—that the pair are very close, engaged even! This makes Catharine’s ability to discipline Sylvia, and leads to more trouble, but the whole story of Peter’s animosity is unclear; we overhear him moaning to Sylvia that Catharine looks “so incredibly like Evelyn,” and soon he’s given notice that he will leave the hospital. Unfortunately, he must stay a month or two until they find a replacement—how will the pair be able to work together in that time?

In the meantime Catharine dates Ray, much to the increasing consternation of her best friend Nurse Sue Hickey, and also steps out with another surgeon, Sir John Watkins. Too early in the book, we are suddenly told that Catharine is in love with Peter. He has been nothing but mean, prejudiced and even slanderous of Catharine, but all of a sudden, literally dropped from the blue into a paragraph, we learn that “she had fallen in love with a man who could barely stand the sight of her. What could be more ironical, more heartbreaking?” Stupid plot twists rank high in heartbreak, but even I must admit are not worse than that.

Now, driven by Peter’s accusations that she’s a silly flirt—and Sue’s increasing hostility toward her, which stems from Catharine’s continuing to go out with Ray when he tells her he’s in love with her—she finally decides to stop seeing anyone at all. Then, driven by her curiosity, she heads off for a surgery conference at the same hospital that Peter had come from, and there meets a friend who had once been on the staff at her current hospital. The friend tells Catharine that Peter the previous year had done a nephrectomy during which the patient died, and that he had blamed himself for being distracted by surgery nurse Evelyn Kilster, with whom he had been engaged, even though it turned out that she was a mean, cruel person.

Then she heads back to the hospital and waits around for Peter’s term to expire. Meanwhile she grows increasingly fond of nurse Sylvia, whose prior claims have ruined her hopes, and Peter even kisses her “cruelly” a few times—another plot device that is not a good one, and is in fact rather creepy, particularly since after the first time, he snarls, “I hope that satisfies you. That’s what you wanted, isn’t it? You, with your soft words and your limpid blue eyes. I hate and despise you!” This man needs therapy—and she needs a restraining order.

Of course, everything and everyone is sorted out in the end. Catharine, with her sturdy professionalism and faith, assists Peter in a nephrectomy in which no one dies or is distracted and his confidence is restored, and there’s a little twist in regards to Sylvia and Peter. Unfortunately, there are a number of loose ends that never get tucked away—Catharine is convinced she’s seen Sylvia somewhere before, and how the initial nephrectomy patient actually died or why Peter thought he had killed them, but we never learn the answers to these questions. Overall the book isn’t badly written, and I did enjoy some of the characters and relationships. But the falling in love out of nowhere with a man who doesn’t deserve it is one of my least favorite tropes. So I just couldn’t love Theatre Nurse, either.

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