Mother-in-Law Day (yes, there is such a thing) doesn’t come until October 25 this year but I’m not waiting until then to tell you about my own mother-in-law. On this Mother’s Day so many are separated from their mothers due to the COVID-19 pandemic or can not be with their children because they are caring for the critically ill in hospitals and nursing homes across the world. My own mother passed away nearly eight years ago (still hard to believe) and my mother-in-law died only within a year of my family moving to Bellingham, nearly 24 years ago. That too is hard to believe some times.
I’ve been thinking about my mother-in-law a lot recently since the COVID-19 crises brought to the forefront the important contribution, and seldom recognized, work and sacrifice, that healthcare professionals, nurses in particular make to our society. I have long had the utmost respect for nurses.
As a journalist who covered medicine for part of my career for TIME and others, nurses were some of my most trusted, reliable and valuable sources when reporting on medical events or issues. I developed a relationship with many to whom I could turn when I needed a recommendation, not only for personal medical care, but for experts to quote, insider info and verifications on stories.
I suspect this was due, in part, to Elaine, my mother-in-law, who was a career nurse. Elaine began her nursing career in the most dramatic way, graduating from nursing school at Kansas State University and enlisting immediately in the Women’s Army Corps as a nurse. Not long after, she was shipped overseas (on the very same ship as my Dad, see my post: Saluting a Veteran…) to serve in a field hospital for the Fifth Army during World War II.
Imagine what it was for a young woman still in her early 20s, fresh out of nursing school and never out of Kansas (as far as I know) to be suddenly thrown into a situation caring for and attending severely wounded and dying soldiers, most of them no older than herself. I suspect that many of the nurses on the front lines in our hospitals today, caring for COVID patients, are facing some of the same challenges, stresses and strains.
We have photographs that Elaine took during her service overseas, but with the exception of one, none were taken of the hospitals or her patients. Instead, she focused on her nursing friends, the local children and the places where she was stationed. These were the visual memories she brought home with her after the War ended. I am sure the mental memories stuck with her until her passing nearly 50 years later. The only time I ever heard her talk about her wartime memories, was on a few occasions when she and my father sat down together. And even then, their conversations were tinted with the happier times of those life-changing years. I think about that because I am sure that all of the nurses tending today’s COVID patients, will carry with them the faces and cases of their patients for long time after the virus subsides and many, I am sure, will suffer post-traumatic stress syndrome.
That’s why, last Wednesday, May 6, National Nurses Day, was such a significant day this year and why, when International Nurses Day comes up this week on May 12, people need to remember these incredibly dedicated people and honor them.
Elaine spent her entire life as a caregiver, returning after the War to a career as a nurse in the Veteran’s Administration hospitals in Phoenix and Prescott, Az., as a single-mother who worked the graveyard shifts so she could be home in the early a.m. to send her only son off to school and see him again after and early evening before heading off for her job, as a daughter who took in and cared for her own mother in her last years, and finally as a grandmother who looked after my own three young sons on days when I worked.
I consider myself fortunate to have had her in my life, regret that she didn’t live longer to see my own sons grow up and to share their triumphs and tribulations along with us. I have no doubt, had she lived long enough (she would have been 100 this year) she would have been right beside all those dedicated nurses laboring daily at great risk to themselves, in the hospitals now, if only in spirit.