MISS KATIE DIETRICH, R. N.
By Polly Fuller Griffin
Graphics by Heather Peck
The year was 1952, and the place was 2nd Floor of St. Lukeís Hospital in Richmond, Virginia. The nursesí station suddenly became very quiet and very lonely. All the other nurses had just gone off duty, and I was aloneĖjust me and a floor full of patients.
This was my first night on duty by myself. My feelings were mixed. I was very proud to be finally realizing a childhood dream of becoming a nurse, but I was very scared to have all the responsibility that goes with nursing.
The older student nurses had told me their first-night-alone experiences. They told me not to worry because "Katie" would be there to help me. As they said this, they would give me a sly grin. That made me wonder just how much help I could expect from "Katie." (Everyone called her "Katie" when speaking of her but always Miss Dietrich when speaking to her.)
"Katie" was night superintendent. I was told she worked from 8 p.m. to 8 a.m. six nights a week. All nurses worked twelve-hour shifts years ago; but when the working-day schedule was shortened to eight-hour shifts, she preferred to continue in the old way. She was unmarried and had devoted her life to nursing.
I didnít have long to wait before meeting her. Shortly after 8 oíclock a little white-haired nurse, not more than five feet tall, came down the hall. What she had to say was short and sweet: "There is an emergency patient of Dr. Barnes coming in. Put her in Room 44." That was all. She walked away without asking me how things were going or anything else. I thought to myself, "Maybe she thinks Iím one of the older students. Now what am I going to do?" The other girls had said not to worry: but here Miss Dietrich is (or was), and she certainly didnít offer any help.
I thought I had been scared before, but now I was petrified. I had previously admitted patients, but I never had the responsibility of carrying out all the immediate orders in an emergency situation by myself. I was still a "probie" which means I was on probation, as all student nurses are for the first six months. I hadnít gotten my cap, and right now my chances for ever getting it seemed dim. At least it looked that way to me.
The humming of the elevator soon told me that the patient had arrived along with Dr. Barnes. He could be pretty tough on the nurses, I had heard, particularly dumb student nurses. I wondered where Miss Dietrich was! I didnít have to wonder for long, because she came down the stairs with an older student nurse just when I needed help. All my apprehensions left me immediately. The patient, it turned out, had an intestinal obstruction; and nothing was to be done until the next day. So a sedative was given to her, and my temporary helper went back to her duties on another floor. That was my first meeting with "Katie"; but throughout the next 2 Ĺ years, I had occasion to have many, many more.
After a few nights, I became an "old pro" at admitting patients. Instead of wanting "Katie" on the floor to give me confidence, I soon wished she would stay on some other floor and "help" someone else. Sometimes it seemed that, instead of helping, she created more jobs. Often things would be very hectic: room lights to be answered, medicines to be passed, hypos to be given, telephones ringing, etc. Along would come "Katie" down the hall with a box of flowers. Sheíd hand them to me and ask that they be arranged for a patient.
"How can anyone think of fixing flowers at a time like this?" I murmured under my breath. Since there was nothing else to do, Iíd take them, shove them into a vase, pour a little water in, and take them to the patientís room. Iíd tell the patient how lovely they were and then hurry back to my more important jobs. "Katie" had a knack for finding flowers to be arranged at the busiest times. I wished she would just leave my floor and go somewhere else.
Often there were visitors who spent the night with a seriously ill patient. That was all right, but "Katie" thought we should take care of these visitors, too. There was usually one nurse to about 20 patients, and we thought we had enough to do without worrying about the visitors. However, we soon learned to accept the fact that if there were overnight visitors, we were to be sure they had a pillow and a blanket to make them comfortable in their "chair" bed. Always we had to ask if they wanted a breakfast tray; if not, we had to at least give them coffee and toast. The nurses wouldnít have minded doing these things; but we had so much to do with the sick patients, I often wondered if I would ever get it all done.
St. Lukeís was fairly small with only four floors. We had medical students who lived there. They took calls at night and attended classes at the Medical College of Virginia during the day. Naturally, with such a schedule, they were often tired when they went to bed. "Katie" didnít like to wake them, but she would never give a medicine without an order. So she would wake a student and say, "Is it O.K. for Mr. Smith to have a Nembutal for sleep?" I think sometimes they probably said "Yes" without waking because they knew she could tell just what should be given. In fact, all the doctors had complete confidence in her. Still, she refused to give anything without an order.
One night when I was on duty, she broke her long-standing rule. One of the patients woke with a headache and wanted an aspirin. The medical student on duty had just gotten to bed after having been in emergency surgery for quite some time. She felt very sorry for him and didnít want to wake him. She said to me, "Miss Fuller, has the patient had aspirin before?" After checking his chart, I told her he had. "Well," she said, "I probably shouldnít do this, but give him just one aspirin. I donít want to wake that poor boy for an order this small. You know he is so tired."
When morning came, the patient got up and went to the bathroom. For some unknown reason, he got a nosebleed. "Katie" was sure that the aspirin had done it. She called the doctor at home to confess she had given the aspirin without an order and the patient had a nosebleed. The doctor reassured her that the aspirin had nothing to do with it. I never knew of her giving another pill without an order. She knew herself, Iím sure, that the aspirin had done no harm; but her conscience did bother her.
One thing I couldnít understand about "Katie" was her hearing. One night she would be able to hear, and the next she wouldnít seem to hear a word. I donít think I ever hit it right. Iíd guess that perhaps tonight was one of her deaf nights, so Iíd speak loudly. She would grab her ears and say, "Child, please, youíll wake the patients. I can hear you." The next night Iíd speak in a normal tone, and she would completely ignore me or tell me to speak up. After talking with the other nurses and medical students, we came to the conclusion "Miss Katie" heard just when and what she wanted to hear.
One medical student told about the time she asked him to order a pain pill for a patient. Usually she mentions the name of the medicine she wants ordered in the request. However, this time she must have forgotten it. He told her his order. She looked at him and said, "Did you say ĎGive ten grains of aspirin.í? He hadnít asked for aspirin; but since it would work as well as what he had ordered and since it would please "Katie," he said "Yes."
I donít know how she managed to work 12 hours a night, six nights a week. The rest of us had trouble staying awake for eight hours. Perhaps the glass of fresh orange juice every night helped. It was an important duty of the 4 to 12 nurse on 2nd Floor to squeeze fresh oranges for her each night. The glass of juice was then placed in a small refrigerator in her office.
If it wasnít the orange juice that kept her going, then it must have been her five-minute naps. Each night it was her custom to put her head down on a desk and "sleep." She would always say, "Now wake me at the end of five minutes." I never had to wake her because after five minutes exactly, she would raise her head and go back to work.
"Katie" was concerned about all her patients, but she was always a little afraid of the babies. Whenever I worked in the delivery room or in the nursery, I always knew that I wouldnít see much of her. If she did happen to be in the nursery when one of the babies began to cry, she would insist that I "come and get it."
I have seen pictures of Florence Nightingale visiting patients with a candle in her hand. It is very impressive. To me, Miss Dietrich is a little more modern version of Florence Nightingale. "Modern" is actually the wrong word to describe her. Through the years, she hasnít changed one bit. Nurses who have been at St. Lukeís for several years told me she looked and acted exactly the same when they came to the hospital.
"Katie" liked to visit each patient every morning to see how they were. These visits gave the patients a feeling of importance to know that the night superintendent thought enough of them to come in personally. If they happened to say they didnít rest well, "Katie" wanted to know why. The nurse on duty would "catch it" if she had been lax in any way.
To the casual observer seeing her on these morning visits in her crisp, white, starched uniform and spotless shoes, it would appear that she was finishing up an easy night of duty. Only the nurses knew that she kept two uniforms at the hospital. She changed to the clean one just before her morning rounds so she would look fresh to the patients. Her only thought was for the patientís sense of well-being.
One of my treasured memories is a note from her when I was working in the operating room. It said, "Miss Fuller: Where is Dean Pinchbackís appendix?" Dean Pinchback was president of the University of Richmond and had an appendectomy in St. Lukeís. Organs that were removed from patients during surgeries were then kept in jars and covered with formaldehyde. Dean Pinchback wanted to see his appendix, so after receiving "Katieís" note, I got the jar out so she could show it to him.
I have been out of training for many years now, but Miss Dietrich comes to mind often. Never have I worked with anyone quite like her. Some hospitals in which I have been employed look upon many of the things she stressed as unimportant. Most hospitals wonít even allow the nurses to "give" a cup of coffee to a visitor. If a visitor wants a cup, he (or she) can go to an all-night restaurant and get it. Or if there is no restaurant, he (or she) can pay for it. After having it drilled in me at St. Lukeís by "Katie," I have "given away" many cups of coffee.
I have learned that fixing flowers isnít a waste of time. A beautiful bouquet of flowers can often help a patient as much or more than pain medication.
Many of St. Lukeís graduates look back to their training days and thank Miss Katie Dietrich for teaching them the true meaning of nursing and how the little things mean so much to the patients.