Celebrating 125 Years of Remarkable Nursing

nurses-and-doc.JPGIn the 1890s, antibiotics had not yet been discovered, and a fever was treated by bloodletting. The diseases of the day were tuberculosis and diphtheria, and treatments were often done in patients’ homes. While medicine was much different back then, one thing has remained constant since Bangor General Hospital, now known as Eastern Maine Medical Center, opened its doors in 1892: Highly qualified, compassionate nurses have always been at the bedside to serve patients.

Elizabeth Spratt from Boston was the hospital’s first nurse and the founder of the nursing school. She resigned after six months because of illness and was replaced by Ellen Paine. The instructors and their nursing students cared for 150 patients during that first year. The curriculum included cooking and Swedish massage.

In 1899, graduate nurses were paid $18 each week. They were responsible for everything, from providing bedside care and preparing food to cleaning up after surgery. According to the definitive history of Eastern Maine Medical Center written by Maynard Beach, MD, by the early 1900s, nurses at the hospital were prohibited from attending public gatherings due to the risk of contracting contagious diseases such as smallpox and typhoid fever.

Treatments improved by the Great Depression but were still crude by today’s standards. In 1930, nursing student Vivian McDonald Dwyer observed treatment of the most vulnerable victims of pneumonia and declared that “the only thing to do (for the aged) is to give whiskey every three or four hours,” and for babies, “take out of bed and hold in arms.”

Obeying the rules

The rules in the nurse residence were strict. In 1933, among the 74 conditions students had to abide by were “6 am rising bell, 10 pm in bed. Lights out. Absolutely quiet. Use only 25 watt bulbs. Never appear in the corridor without bathrobe or kimono. Nurses are requested to ask callers to refrain from sounding automobile horns while waiting. Nurses will please not call out the windows to anyone.”

PICT0015.JPGIn 1944, with war raging overseas, what was then known as Eastern Maine General Hospital almost closed because so many nurses were serving their country. In total, 51 hospital nurses went away to help with the war efforts. Patients with chronic or less urgent issues had to withstand long waits.

The practice of nursing continued to evolve throughout the 1950s and 1960s. In 1967, the hospital hired aides to clean patient rooms, which allowed nurses to focus more of their time on other tasks.

In the mid-1970s, the Grant Tower opened, relieving overcrowding in the hospital and providing nurses with more room to provide patient care and use new technology. Not long after, Helen McKinnon, RN, vice president of Support Services, started her career at Eastern Maine Medical Center in an unusual way. In 1978, she was traveling from her hometown of Sherman Mills to Portland to start a new job, but when her red Volkswagen broke down in Bangor, she decided to apply for a job at Eastern Maine Medical Center. She began working just a few days later.

“There have been many changes over the years, from technology to length of stay,” she says. “When I started, there was a separate nurse who administered all of the medication. The technology used for diagnosis and treatment has certainly changed, and all for the good.”

Modern times

Connie Brown, BSN, RN, nurse manager, has worked on the third floor of the building since 1986. She recalls that in the mid-1980s, nursing uniforms were all white, and most nurses wore dresses with white nylons and white nursing shoes. Blood pressure readings were taken manually, sometimes as often as four times an hour for some patients. Nurses did not routinely wear gloves during procedures.

“Everything was on paper back then. We didn’t use computers,” she says. “Patients would come two days before surgery, and we did all of the pre-op teaching the night before in the unit. Patients used to stay anywhere from a week to two weeks for any type of surgery. A gallbladder surgery required a minimum of seven days in the hospital, but now patients go home the same day.”

Eastern Maine Medical Center’s size and large scope of services have provided opportunities for nurses like Helen and Connie to pursue leadership opportunities. In 2004, Eastern Maine Medical Center’s board of trustees chose Deborah Carey Johnson, RN, to be the hospital’s new president and CEO. Debbie, the first woman to hold the top leadership position at the hospital, began her career in the 1970s as a new graduate in the Critical Care Unit. She recently retired as CEO.

Today, Eastern Maine Medical Center nurses are leading the way in improving quality of care, safety, and patient experience. Many nurses further their education to continue to develop the advanced knowledge and skills that help them meet the challenges of modern nursing.

“The state of nursing at Eastern Maine Medical Center is strong, with more than 1,400 registered nurses working in a variety of care settings,” says Deborah Sanford, MBA, MSN, RN vice president, nursing and patient care services. “Eastern Maine Medical Center nurses are at the forefront of their profession, so our patients can rest easy knowing that they will be cared for by some of the most skilled and professional nurses in Maine.”

While healthcare is much different today than it was when Elizabeth Spratt arrived at Bangor General Hospital in 1892, one thing remains the same: Whenever anyone is in need of healthcare services, a compassionate, professional nurse will be there to provide care as has been the case in Bangor for 125 years.