From Nazis to Nurses:
Shakespir Edition, License Notes
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My heartiest and most grateful thanks go to my extended family and friends: Donna, Shakira, Cherrie, Victor, and Cindy, also to my friends in the Novato Garden Club. Without all of their constant prayers and well wishes, I would not be here today.
Margo, Malcolm, Jackie, and Jeremy were rooting for me, also. My angels were all around me and my favorite dragon was there as well.
Known to my friends as Lee, at age 78, I think about how full and active my life has been. Now that I want to tell my story, I am taken back to a time and place I haven’t thought about in many years, let alone discussed with others. No, I was okay to stay in a fog of being a desperate refugee from East Prussia during the last months of Hitler’s reign. After the war, my main goal was to get on with my young teenage life and focus on a future of possibilities, not dwell on the horrible past. Considering how my life has turned out and what I have overcome, I realize how the traumatic events of sudden expulsion from East Prussia made me into a strong and driven person able to survive anything and do anything I put my mind to.
Over a half-century ago my family and I enjoyed a wonderful life in our homeland of East Prussia. Within a matter of months, we experienced an upheaval that erased our life, our culture, and country from the map, along with hundreds of thousands of souls. If not for my brave and resourceful mother, who led us on a westward journey with a toppling wagon and two horses in the brutal winter of 1945, my brother, sister and I would have been counted among those lost souls.
A teenager in Germany’s WWII aftermath, I had in me a desire to come to the United States that developed into a focused will. My sights were also set on becoming a nurse and, eventually, I fulfilled both the move to the US and establishing a nursing career, as well as my dream of living in California. But the roses didn’t keep coming: ovarian cancer struck like a bush of thorns and soon after, I lost my husband to black-lung disease. Yet my focused will saw me through remission and widowhood.
Today, I garden, attend to the work-in-progress that is my house, keep in touch with family, and get together with new and old friends who are as diverse as America. After all, I am a long-standing American citizen, proudly retired colonel from the US Army Reserves, a patriot to the core. Here is how my story unfolded…
I was born Gerlinde Charlotte Paul in the wooded town of Bischofsburg in East Prussia, a district of Germany, the first daughter and fourth child of Emil Albert Paul and Gertrude Emeliḧ (Kroll) Paul. The year was 1932, the time Hitler came to power.
Before me, Helmut, my eldest brother, was born in 1927 and Heinz in 1928. Three years later, the rest of us came in quick succession: Siegfried in 1931; me; then my sister Irmgard, the youngest, in 1933.
The Pauls had lived in East Prussia since the nineteenth century when they followed Napoleon out of France and settled in Memel, now Klaipeda, Latvia, on the Baltic Sea. In their later home of Tilsit, a town near Memel, my father was born. Deep in East Prussia, the Krolls lived for generations in Osterode, at the edge of the rugged Harz Mountains.
My mother was born there into a proud family of successful shoemakers. The story of how my father met my mother is one I never knew.
I understood that my parents wanted six children, but during childbirth Mother lost an extraordinary amount of blood and the last baby could not be saved. So there were five of us: three boys and two girls. Hitler wanted Germans to have large families, cannon fodder, I suppose.
After World War II, about 1946. Back, left to right,Heinrich, Siegfried, Irmgard, Helmut. Front Gertrude, Gerlinde, Emile
We were average-looking children, some with brown hair, some with red, some with blue eyes, some brown. I think I inherited my father’s hair, whereas my mother wore her thick chestnut-color hair long and in a bun. I remember one time she had just cut it short. Father was very disappointed! Her response to him went something like, “Well, it’s my hair, and I’m going to do what I want.” Oh, she was not a little wallflower; I picked up on that. She was a strong role model and a brave, wonderful mother. Standing at five-foot-two, she was my hero all the way, wanting her two girls to be independent and educated.
When I was five, Tante Helene, my father’s sister, visited us from Berlin with her daughter, a young woman without any children. My aunt invited my sister and me to stay with them for the summer. My parents decided that since I would be starting school in August that Irmgard, “Irmi,” could go to Berlin; she was four at the time.
Well, Irmi went, but in the fall, she didn’t come back. My mother kept writing my aunt to bring her home. I suppose they enjoyed having a child around and didn’t want to let her go. It wasn’t until 1943 when we saw my little sister again, spurred by my brother Helmut.
Helmut graduated earlier that same year and was asked to join the Waffen-SS of the Nazi Party. Being physically fit, he was offered training as an officer in the Storm Troopers. Instead, he wanted to join as a U-Boat submariner and was told to get into boot camp. On his way to camp, he stopped in Berlin to see Tante Helene and to take food Mother had prepared. She had been sending care packages all along because my sister was there. When Helmut spoke to my mother about his visit, he said, “I wouldn’t send them anything more. The food you sent they gave away, sold, or used for themselves. Get Irmi home. They’ve spoiled her rotten.” When my mother heard how very disappointed Helmut was with his aunt, she took the next train to Berlin to bring Irmi home.
My sister was ten when she returned and acted like a big-city kid, totally spoiled. I said, “What’s going on with you?” She was rude, undisciplined, and without manners. I usually did what I was told, not Irmi. My brothers and I felt she had to be re-socialized. We ganged up on her, and said, “You can’t act like a snotty Berliner!” (The same way some say “snotty New Yorkers.”)
Decades later, when Irmi grew up, she held that incident against me, saying, “You weren’t on my side!” I said, “It’s because you were such a brat! We weren’t raised that way, so we had to retrain you.” Later on, Irmi revealed that she felt abandoned.
I responded, “Then you don’t know the whole story. You weren’t abandoned. Mother always asked Tante Helene to bring you back. Why do you think she finally went to get you? Our mother wasn’t about to give you up.”
But she had learned some bad manners in Berlin and would talk back to my father. You just didn’t do that. My sister was often outright disrespectful. Father was the disciplinarian, not Mother. When he told me to do something, I did not argue. Even so, I still felt I had quite a bit of freedom.
During the time Irmi was away in Berlin, Dad was transferred to a job in Wormditt, a small town of about 9,000 people in East Prussia, but further west than Bischofsburg. We rented an apartment, and I started school in Wormditt. A few years later, not far from our apartment, my parents bought a house at the edge of town. We settled in nicely and swam in a big lake close by.
A fine gardener, Father tended our huge terraced plot that stepped down the hill from our house. At the bottom, across a cobblestone alleyway loomed an old brick building surrounded by a wall. Wormditt was mostly a Catholic town, and I learned that the old building was a Catholic cloister.\
As Lutheran Protestants, we were in the religious minority and considered “no good.” Still, I don’t remember feeling bad or isolated because of it. Whatever religious rivalry there may have been with other schoolchildren didn’t stick with me.
Having such a large garden, Father put us to work doing the weeding. He taught us how to prepare a seedbed, how to put in seeds, how to thin out plants—all necessary gardening tasks. I said to myself, “Well, this is not what I’m going to do when I grow up!”
During wartime, Mother started raising chickens, geese, and rabbits. We also kept a few pets and guinea pigs in the carriage house, where we used to store our car. (At the onset of war, the government seized all the citizens’cars for the war effort.) Of course we had chores to do, for instance, washing dishes after dinner, setting the table, cleaning the kitchen, and helping make preserves for winter supplies, including chopping cabbage to make sauerkraut.
Mother bought bushels of green cabbages every fall, so we knew it was time to get ready for winter. We chopped cabbages as she prepared a whole barrel of fermenting cabbage soaking with caraway seeds and salt. Mother made pickles, too, in big urns: butter pickles, gherkins, you name it. She also preserved vegetables with meat because in those days, in the thirties, there was no refrigeration to speak of.
The house had a root cellar organized into sections that Mother filled with potatoes, carrots, onions, and a variety of vegetables stored for winter. Built-in shelving for the many jars lined parts of the cellar’s thick brick walls. Without these ready supplies, food was scarce and mostly rations. Our family depended on what we stocked to feed us through the season.
With the many food shortages, Mother prepared meals to conserve what we had. She didn’t want Irmi and me to ruin any food, so were not allowed to help in the kitchen. Just by watching her, I learned. My brothers did not help with preserving or housework; the guys went hunting.
As a girl, I grew tall for my age. Like the rest of my siblings, I attended school, played, and helped around the house and garden as was expected. Even though affection was not openly shown, we were a close family and knew we were loved and cared for. With three older brothers constantly challenging me, I learned to compete with the guys and grew up a tomboy. The only girl in our family for a couple of years, I could stand on my own.
There was infighting with my siblings, yes. Everybody said that I was Father’s favorite, and my response was, “Then how come I’m standing in the inspection line with you every morning before school?”
I felt that I wasn’t getting any special treatment to be called “favorite.” Dad might have appreciated that I didn’t talk back to him—maybe that’s a reason. He also thought I could add numbers in my head good enough to help with his bookkeeping. It was better than having to play chess with him, which was pretty boring! If I added the long columns of numbers in the large ledgers he had, I earned extra money.
Our parents taught us about money matters like banking and savings. If my sister and I washed the dishes, maybe we would get ten pfennigs. They took us to the bank for little savings books to keep track of what we earned, not only from allowances, but also from chores.
Just before German children turned ten years of age, they were tested to see if they qualified to attend the Gymnasium, a type of college-prep secondary school. If you didn’t make the grade you went to another type of school. Well, I’ll never forget being tested. I was pretty nervous! It was practically a whole day of answering questions and writing essays. In the end, I passed and was to enter a girls’ school some distance away; co-ed schools didn’t exist in those days. Because the war was already on, my mother didn’t want me to leave town. She met with the school board and asked that I be allowed to attend the boys’ Gymnasium in Wormditt. The board approved Mother’s request.
Most of the time, I was the only girl in class but I defended myself when some of the boys tried to bully me. In general, they left me alone, and school was okay. Being wartime, some classrooms did not have desks, only chairs, which we arranged into circles for our lessons. I remember some boys pulled the chair out from under me when I tried to sit down, and other pranks like that. They were just being boys, playful and competitive, not mean. If they tried to bully me, I stood up to them.
Germany was becoming more defined under Nazi control. Indoctrinating and involving schoolchildren in the party guided everything we did. When I was ten, I had to join the Hitler Jugend (youth organization), as did my brothers at that age. The boys had their separate activities, but I didn’t know what they were. We wore uniforms and joined in a variety of activities, just like the Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts. I remember different types of sports events and the fun of participating. I was very competitive and earned two siegernadel pins for running and jumping and excelling in sports overall. I still have a picture of me dressed in my uniform of a dark skirt and white shirt with a tie bound by a leather knot. My hair was long then and in braids.
Father was a game warden by profession and part of his job was to check on the health of trees and wildlife in the forest. If any were sick, they were marked and taken out. Diseased or fallen trees were not left to infect other trees and growth. This conservationist’s approach applied also to hunting. As game warden, Father was allowed not only to shoot and destroy sick animals, but also to hunt a number of deer that were healthy, for our consumption. Since there was no refrigeration, my dad hung dead deer, rabbits, and ducks outside during the winter. Then he brought the frozen animals into the house to defrost and be prepared or preserved for meals.
I remember one time Dad came home with a deer he shot and put outside on the back patio. He and my brothers skinned the deer and found all these worms under the hide!
I must have been ten or eleven when Father took my sister and me hunting with the boys. We were only allowed to come when they were after certain animals. If they were hunting wild boar, we couldn’t go because it was dangerous. A boar had once chased my brother up a tree! Boars are wild and vicious, but their meat was delicious. My mother was a gourmet cook, but I don’t think we appreciated it at the time.
One of the reasons we always had food was because Dad had friends who were farmers or in the forestry business. With these connections, he was able to exchange meat for produce or wood. I don’t know how ethical it was, but it was customary bartering common in those days. On weekends, Father continued to take us hunting or just walking through the forest. He was an enthusiastic and interesting teacher, and we learned much about nature, native trees, flowers, and plants.
Our youthful days were filled with activities, fun and carefree times, not knowing what was really going on beyond Wormditt. During the long evenings in wintertime without TV, our parents played the radio. We listened to classical music, like Wagner’s Die Walküre and Strauss waltzes my mother enjoyed. As the radio played, Mother taught me and Irmi how to knit socks and crochet handkerchiefs.
When company came, we used the big dining room. We kids sat at the end of the large table. Our parents told us, “When there are guests, you may be seen, but not heard.” So we’d eat and go to play games, play chess, or read. Sundays, we’d go to church and play cards in the afternoons. Life was orderly and predictable, but Mother must have been working her butt off with five kids. Under Hitler, my parents received a stipend and a young woman was sent to help in the house about three days a week. I believe that was party policy.
Father was a wounded veteran of World War I and not at all impressed with Hitler. Officials kept telling him to join the National Socialist German Workers Party (Hitler’s Nazi Party), which Dad deliberately neglected to do. Many times, he was cautioned from speaking his mind. Finally, my father was instructed either to join the Party or suffer the consequences, which would be horrific.
To safeguard our family, Dad joined the Party. Yet he always made sure we children were not exposed to the propaganda, all there was in the news. In Wormditt, we were fairly protected and removed from the politics of the day. Not until the air raids began, did life stop being normal.
Outside of town was a munitions factory. In the summer of 1944, the factory was bombed. After that, alarms started practically every night with planes constantly flying over us en route to bombing destinations. I asked, “What is all this?!” My parents said, “If there’s an alarm, into the cellar!” They instructed us to listen for unfamiliar noises, most likely enemy planes. Whenever we heard rumblings in the sky, we had to run to the cellar. We spent quite a bit of time down there, afraid of being bombed and killed.
Not until much later when we were refugees did the reality of war all around us hit me. I was only seven when Hitler invaded Czechoslovakia and Poland in 1939. The invasions didn’t affect where we were. But in 1941, when Hitler invaded Russia, that’s when all the problems started for East Prussia. That same year, after the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor on December 7, Hitler declared war on America.
My parents didn’t openly discuss the war, listen to daily broadcasts on the radio, or receive newspapers. I was too young to be aware of the war gaining on us in Wormditt, but fear and tension were in the air.
We lived on a circular road and a little bit down the way was our neighbors’ house. They were my teachers as well as family friends. They didn’t have any children and invited me to stay with them now and then. They would also come over to socialize with my family. One night, about the time the war started with Russia, they were our guests for dinner. My father made a comment, saying, “This is the beginning of the end. Hitler should not have gone and invaded Russia.” (They all remembered Napoleon and World War I.)
Our neighbors were so upset, they told him, “You better shut up, or we will report you. You’re against Hitler.” So my father stopped talking. After that, my parents talked about the war only within the family, because you didn’t know who was going to denounce you. The times were weird and scary, pitting neighbor against neighbor.
My father knew a few things about war and was quite astute about politics. During WWI, he was conscripted in the German Army as a messenger and was shot in the back of the head. The bullet exited from his right eye. Hitler was a messenger like him during the war, and my dad said, “Well, he may have been a messenger like I was, but I don’t agree with him. He just went nuts.” Dad became somewhat depressed when fighting progressed on two fronts on top of the Russian invasion.
Hitler’s propaganda machine always spouted positive news on the radio, all lies, of course—nothing but propaganda. News broadcasters announced, “We will defend our country! We need your help! You need to do your part!”
In school, we had to collect herbs and get them into drums for medicinal use. That was the students’ job. And, of course, it was always, “Heil Hitler.” One day, I was sitting on the steps of the school when a teacher walked by. I must have arrived early or maybe was just sitting there. He said, “You will stand at attention and say, ‘Heil Hitler!’” I said, “Okay. ‘Heil Hitler.’” It wasn’t automatic to me, no. And I don’t know how automatic it was for other people.
By then, I had learned to distinguish German planes from others by the engine noise. What I heard above us in the rural countryside were mostly American planes, because the Americans were supporting the Russians. One day, when my mother and I were out in an open field, I looked up, and said, “That’s not one of our planes.” Sure enough, they started shooting at us and we ran for cover under the trees. I’d survived my first experience of being strafed by bullets.
Once when my father sent us to some friends’ house, we passed men wearing striped uniforms. I asked my dad who they were. He said, “They’re prisoners working for the government.”
At the time, no one knew about any camps. It was all hush-hush, because if you asked any questions or said anything, you might get into trouble. We only found out after the war that Jews were in concentration camps, being gassed and starved because of their religion. Things were kept secret, and we were told only what officials wanted us to know.
Goebbels, Hitler’s propaganda minister, was very successful keeping us in the dark. He said, “The Russians will never enter our soil …,” blah-blah-blah. Well, with the Konigsbërg Battle, 1945; and German losses there, the Russians were already on the move to attack the most eastern disrict of Germany: East Prussia.
By then, everything was falling apart. We didn’t know what was going to happen. Everyone felt an urgency to escape, but to leave was to defy Hitler’s policy. Under penalty of death, no one was allowed to abandon their homes, unless they received official permission.
My dad knew this and obeyed the law by staying, as long as he could keep us safe. Once Hitler had to retreat from Russia, my father said, “We’ve got to get out of here. The Russians will be invading soon.”
Half-way down the terraces of our garden, my father and brothers had dug out places to keep food we could find later, just in case. In these hidden pockets, they stored large glass jars of meat. We were lucky because Father was allowed to shoot many animals such as wild duck, wild boar, deer, and hare that Mother prepared and preserved. Pickles filled big ceramic containers and more large jars. I still visualize these very containers that saved us from starvation.
At the end of 1944, the war was at our doorstep and more bombings occurred.
Considering Hitler’s no-evacuation policy, my parents discussed what to do. They decided to celebrate Christmas at home, and then try getting out right after Christmas. Well, a bad, harsh winter set in. I remember coming in through the back door from the patio without my gloves on. I gripped the doorknob and couldn’t move my hand; it was stuck right there. That’s how bitterly cold it was. My brother Siegfried poured warm water over my hand so I wouldn’t lose my skin.
My eldest brother Helmut completed boot camp in the spring of 1944, and we didn’t hear from him anymore. It was only later when we were all reunited did we find out that he didn’t become a submariner in the Navy; he was sent to defend the shore at Normandy in June 1944. He told us that the soldiers didn’t know what was going to happen — just that something would happen. To prepare the soldiers, officers kept them on alert half the nights with countless practice alarms and exercises for invasion. Once the actual invasion took place, the soldiers were so exhausted and sleepy they didn’t even want to fight. Yet they had to and thousands of American and German soldiers were killed.
Five days after the start of the Allied invasion, Helmut was captured near Cherbourg, France and became a prisoner-of-war. The US kept him to help move the dead and wounded, and then he was shipped to England. From there, he was sent to the United States to replace people on farms who’d gone to war. He worked on farms and in factories around the states of Ohio and Illinois. Helmut told us that he loved it. The Americans treated him well despite being a German prisoner-of-war.
“I could have escaped, and they would never have known the difference, or if they did, they wouldn’t have tried to catch me,” he said. I could have married an American girl and settled down.” Of course, he didn’t do any of that, but many German soldiers went AWOL and did not return.
After Christmas 1944, my Father went to see some friends. He returned to explain, “They’re going to put me and Heinz in the Volkssturm to defend what’s left.” My brother Heinz was only sixteen. “They’re giving civilians weapons with orders to hold back the Russians,” he said. (The Volkssturm, the “people’s army,” was Hitler’s newly created militia of men and boys, aged 16 to 60 years old.)
We gathered around Mother, and Father told us, “You have to get away fast!” We hurried and packed whatever we could and set out for the train station with our luggage. Just before we arrived, the station was bombed. Destruction was everywhere. I thought, now what?
We came back to our house, and Father went to see farmers he knew about getting a wagon and horses. One of the farmers said, “It’s going to be taken anyway, so use it.” Father returned with a large wagon and two horses.
Mother prepared the wagon by nailing our rugs over the top. She stuffed bedding, clothing, food, and whatever she could inside. She settled the three of us into the wagon: Siegfried (thirteen), me (twelve), and Irmi (almost eleven), with our two little dogs. We were refugees now, going west.
Before he left with Heinz, Father told us that he would be at a farm in the area and to send him any messages there. At the time, communication in rural areas amounted to crank-up phones, but we never had a phone in our house and walked from place to place for information. Besides, phone service was already dead.
Chaos was everywhere. Fathers and sons were forced into war to defend the Fatherland and fight for whatever was left. Yet nothing was left! Families were being separated with women, children, and old people left behind to save themselves.
Mother drove our wagon to a farm beyond Wormditt where we spent the night. For the first time, I saw all sorts of strange people and soldiers in the farmhouse. Some of them were Ukrainians on the side of the Germans (even though Hitler mistreated them). I’d never seen faces like theirs before. They were all very foreign, yet I wasn’t afraid.
The next morning, I awoke and went to the outhouse. It was a sunny winter’s day with fresh snow everywhere and bitter cold, minus 20 degrees. Walking back, I heard a plane and knew it wasn’t German. Bullets sprayed around me as I ran towards the house; some hit right next to the doorframe. It was the second time I was strafed by bullets and not hurt.
Once I made it inside, the shooting stopped. In the quiet, Mother asked me to take a message to my dad. I knew the farm where he said he’d be. When I found him, he read the message and told me to hurry back.
On my return, I passed a farmhouse damaged from an air raid. On either side of the road, the snow was bloody with dead soldiers, dead civilians, and dead horses. That’s when reality hit me. I said to myself, well, this is the beginning. It’s not an adventure anymore.
We were in the wagon and on our way again. Whatever food there was, we ate. I don’t know where we got water; I guess from the snow. We came to a river and headed for the bridge, but the soldiers turned us back before we reached the crossing. They told us that the bridge was already wired to blow up any minute. They directed us north toward Frisches Haff on the Baltic Coast.
The Haff was a huge fresh-water lagoon where my parents took us on vacation a few times. Now it was an escape passage for us and thousands of other refugees escaping west from the Russians.
We drove our wagon along a road gouged out by bombs. The road was so narrow, more like a path, and our wagon could barely fit. At that point, my mother told us to get down from the wagon and walk to save the horses.
Dead bodies lined the sides of the road, left there in the snow, out in the open, abandoned, and unable to be buried. Some had clothes on and coverings on their heads. Frozen, they had no smell. Everything was frozen: land and people.
I suppose I was in shock seeing all the dead bodies. We were silent a long time on that road. By now, it was just survival. It was January 1945; I would turn thirteen in two months.
We finally reached the Haff. It, too, was frozen. A curving stream of people, wagons, and horses were ahead of us, and we had to join them to get across. Our smart, little dachshund, Mira, was with us, but going over the ice on an unmarked path, Mira disappeared. She was the second dog lost on our journey.
We followed signposts so as not to break the ice and fall through. We didn’t get far when we heard rumbling sounds and saw planes flying so low I thought I could touch them! I said, “Those are American planes! Why are they here?” Russian planes were there, too. They started to strafe us with machine-gun fire. All we saw were raining bullets. Assaulted by engine noise and shooting, horses bolted and took off in all directions pulling wagons. Whole wagons fell over and broke through the ice, disappearing with everything—families, horses, pets, belongings, everything. My mother drove the horses at a gallop across the lagoon, about two or three miles. Jolted in the wagon as screams and gunfire filled the air with the cracking of ice beneath us, I was in a panic; we all were.
At the shore’s brown slush of melting ice, I leapt frantically from the wagon to a dark strip of ground. Like me, others were scared, too, jumping from wagons. It so happened that I landed atop a pile of excrement in a trench. My mother, sister, and brother didn’t jump into the stuff, only I did. Despite it, I could not move. Terror clung to me, and I stayed in the trench. I guess during fighting, soldiers went to the bathroom where they stood.
My mother said, “If you want any food, you’ve got to get out and get in line!” I slowly climbed out. On this strip of forested land strung with barbed wire fences, soldiers were there giving people a little bread and something hot to drink.
Irmi, Siegfried, and I stayed near Mother. I remember drinking watered-down coffee made out of grain (not coffee-beans). Mother spoke softly to us as we leaned against the heavy coat she wore. She showed us where her coat’s fur-lining had caught pieces of shrapnel, but she was not hit.
People were asking the soldiers why the Americans were shooting at us crossing the ice. They told us that the Americans and Russians suspected German military were hiding among the refugees. As far as I knew, there were only civilian adults (women, old men) and children, all refugees. We wondered what to do next. Soldiers said that ships would take us west or to Denmark and that another ship had already left.
We unloaded our belongings from the wagon. The horses and wagon were taken by the military because they could use them. We waited on the beach where a large ship was anchored off shore. The ship appeared huge to me, bigger than anything I’d ever seen in water. Getting onto it was daunting. We had to scramble up a ladder with people pushing us out of the way. Mother instructed us to hang back or be trampled to death or thrown off into the water. I stood back with Irmi and Siegfried, and we looked on with mother. It was each family for themselves, protecting and saving their own. We could not get aboard among the other people. The ship quickly filled and set out to sea without us. We watched it go out further and further from land, thinking now what? What’s the next step? We saw a plane appear on the horizon, next, flashes. The ship was hit and sank. Hundreds of people went down in the icy Baltic Sea.
The soldiers instructed us to go back to our hometowns. After running from the Russians invading Wormditt we were being told to return there. Whatever we could carry on our backs we took and walked to the next village; it must have been ten miles. The journey was long and difficult in rain and wind, everything muddy and melting in an early thaw. Mother managed to get us food, I don’t know how, but we had at least bread. Walking to a place, I ate a piece from the loaf she asked me to hold and ate more on the way back. Mother scolded me, saying I shouldn’t have done that; I was supposed to share with everybody. I don’t remember being too hungry, but I guess I was.
Finally, we came upon a large estate with farmland all around a big mansion; it seemed abandoned. The owners were most likely the blue-blooded Prussians, the Rittergut, but they had all fled. As we were going toward the house, a man met us and asked where we were from, where we were heading. We said we were lost refugees. He said, “Don’t stay in the house. If you’re in the house and the Russians come, they’ll kill you right then-and-there figuring you’re the owners. Use the dwellings for the workers over there. One is empty. You are welcome to move in for the time being.” He pointed to where ten or twelve farmworker houses were lined up in a row.
We moved into the small empty house that had one big room, a kitchen and bedroom. I don’t know how long we stayed there, but we needed to rest. It was shelter, but where were we supposed to get food? Mother had saved some of her jewelry hidden on her body. Along the way, she sold it for bread and food. She was a tough one, but her auburn hair turned white overnight, just from the shock of everything. Maybe it wasn’t all of a sudden, but it didn’t happen gradually.
We were invited to join some people from the area in a root cellar used to preserve vegetables. It was a rounded hovel, nice and warm, with a door.
The locals heard that the Russians would walk into a place armed with hand grenades. If they saw any picture of Hitler, or any military personnel, they would just throw in a grenade. They told us, “The Russians are coming; they’re very close. We all need to hide in here.” There were three or four men and several children, too. We fit right in.
During the day we’d be in our house and, at night, we’d hide in the root cellar — I don’t know how many nights that went on. Even though it was a root cellar of sorts, there wasn’t any food. Yet, somehow, my mother fed us. She must have found other root cellars around that weren’t empty, because we did eat.
One morning, the door opened and Russian combat troops walked in. They looked around and pulled out the men in our group. We never saw them again. We didn’t know what happened to them, if they were sent to Russia, somewhere else, or just killed. We didn’t go back to the root cellar again and always had someone watching out for Russians. When they were coming, we’d hide. Being tall for my age, my mother said, “I don’t want you to get raped.” She had me mingle with the children and stay with them, trying to reduce my body to their size.
The Russians came off-and-on and plundered. They took women and raped them. After we just missed some Russians, I stepped out of our house and there stood before me two men, smaller than I was, in uniform. Asian and brown-skinned, they stared at my face and touched me. I thought, oh, my God! They’re going to rape me! I must have been shaking and so scared they left me alone. I think they were Mongolians that the Russians had conscripted to help with the war.
While we were at the house, Mother took in a young woman named Carla, a big, buxom farm girl from the region. Carla was separated from her family, and the Russians caught up with her. She told us she screamed at them, “You’re not going to rape me! I won’t let you! You may as well kill me!” The Russians shot her twice: in the leg and chest. Except for a little infection in her leg, she was lucky she wasn’t dead. My mother took care of her. How Carla managed to get to us, I don’t know.
When the Russians saw Carla, they said, “We need her.” One of the officers, possibly the captain, said, “We want her to work. We need her up there.” My mother told them, “She’s not ready. You shot her! She is still recovering.” One day, the Russians decided Carla was well enough and came for her with a horse and flatbed wagon. (There were no trucks, no motor vehicles, except in the war effort.) The Russians ordered her to get on the wagon. She climbed up and sat down, while the Russians plundered and ransacked everything we had, taking whatever they wanted. While the soldiers were distracted, Carla jumped from the wagon and ran into the fields, soldiers fast at her heels. One soldier caught up with her, pulled out his gun and cracked it on her head. He dragged her back onto the wagon and took off.
About two days later, Carla reappeared badly beaten and very disgusted. She said they had her working at first, and then they raped her. My mother questioned Carla. She cried and said that the soldiers tied down her hands and feet. Because she fought them, she was hurt even more —gang raped. Yes, that was her story.
Even though I was somewhat clueless regarding sex, I had a pretty clear idea what she meant by “gang raped.” The only thing we learned about sex in school was in biology, limited to human anatomy and physiology. We didn’t have sex education.
Carla insisted that she was going to complain to the Russian commissar. My mother said, “Ja, you can try, but you won’t get anywhere.” There was no way of communicating anything, no mail service, no phones, no infrastructure, nothing.
One day, the Russians came and grabbed my mother to take her away and rape her. She was forced to walk alongside a Russian officer riding his horse. One of the women told my sister and me, “You keep running after your mother. And never stop screaming!” So that’s what Irmi and I did for about half-a-mile. The Russian must have gotten sick-and-tired of our screaming and crying, because he let my mother go.
Soon after this, we left the little house to resume our journey back to Wormditt. We walked and walked, ate what food we had, and stayed together. We traveled for days on tired feet and tried not to freeze at night. Through woods and clearings still deep in snow, Mother was our leader and protector. Russians were everywhere along the way, but we hid and remained invisible.
When we reached Wormditt, it was February 1945, during an early winter thaw with everything muddy and melting. We reached our house, but it was no longer ours. I remember looking up into the kitchen and seeing Russians cooking at our stove; they had laid claim to our house and everything in it. My mother’s crystal was thrown outside; they had defecated in it. No class, whatsoever! We didn’t even tell Mother about this. We crawled up the terraced garden at the back of the house to the cache my father and brothers had built for our food stash. The jars were still there and that’s part of what we lived on. My mother befriended some people and we were able to stay in an apartment in another part of town designated by the Russians.
The town was deserted, people had fled, and nothing was the same. Irmi and I went to look for whatever we could find. Everything was quiet and still in the cold. All we saw were dead horses, dead animals, dead bodies left in the street unburied. Discarded carts and wagons were crumpled and upended. Shop doors hung wide open, their windows shattered.
I guess my sister and I had a lot of nerve, the two of us alone, checking things out in war-damaged Wormditt. We were just in survival mode, hungry and searching for food. My brother was always off on his own, hunting for food, like us.
We walked passed a church and were heading down a hill when a Russian soldier showed up out of nowhere. He must have been an officer. He put his hand on his gun, a forty-five, pointed at me and motioned. My sister said, “Don’t go … don’t go.” I said, “I don’t intend to.” She whispered, “What are we going to do? At the count of three, let’s run!” So that’s what we did—we ran, and he didn’t shoot us. We got away.
The invading Russians brought lice with them which infected us all and caused disease. With starvation and poor conditionsno hygiene, no medicine, no physicianspeople got sick with typhus fever and died with no antibiotics. Because it’s highly contagious, my mother, brother, and sister were all infected with typhus fever. My brother was terribly sick and was taken to the so-called hospital. Irmi and Mother didn’t have it as bad as Siegfried. I took care of them as best I could until I fell sick myself, so sick they thought I would die. My temperature was 105 day-after-day for weeks. Delirious from the fever, I screamed at the top of my voice. Whatever food they found to give me, I couldn’t eat. I was skin and bones.
My bedroom had a big armoire with a mirror. I could see myself in bed, trying to get up and falling back down. For weeks, I remained in bed, and bedsores erupted. I still have the scars. I was made to drink lots of strong, herbal tea, and complained, “It’s not hot enough … not hot enough.” My mother said my tongue was like leather. When my cheeks started to bulge, she didn’t know what to do. A Russian doctor came, took my pulse, dropped my hand, and walked out, as if I was a goner. Mother finally found a Catholic nun to see me; she asked her about my bulging cheeks. “Oh, that’s parotitis,” the nun answered. Because I hadn’t rinsed my mouth or brushed my teeth, hadn’t eaten real food, and drank enough tea, the nun said that the parotid glands had become infected and were full of puss. She took a pair of scissors, cut behind my right ear, and opened up the abscess on that side. (That’s why I have a scar there.) She drained the puss and placed a dressing on it. I don’t remember feeling any pain; my temperature was still way up. The left side wasn’t ready to open. The nun told my mother to wait a few days. When my mother went to find her again, she was gone. All of the nuns were gone and my mother couldn’t find out where they went.
One night, the abscess on the left side broke and puss spilled onto the pillow. Mother pulled the pillow out from under me and that’s how I lost the top piece of my left ear. It didn’t hurt! I still had that fever; I was close to dying. I remember seeing myself on a meadow with the sun and flowers. I was in a very good place! It must have been a near-death experience.
Finally, the fever broke without any antibiotics or medical care except for what my mother provided under the circumstances. I was still not conscious as far as I know, except for something inside me … yes, the will to live.
In the meantime, my brother Siegfried’s health was better, so he was released from the hospital. We didn’t have much protein, and my mother knew that was what I needed. Siegfried came back with a dog he found and killed it. Mother fed me the meat, and I ate most of it.
When I was stronger, my brother asked me, “How was that food?” “It was okay; it tasted like chicken,” I said. “Well, that was a dog!” Siegried said.
He did not have to tell me that! Then he asked, “What day is it today?” I answered that I didn’t have a clue. He said, “See! You’re stupid! With all that temperature, you lost your brain!” He was just teasing, but I overheard Mother talking to him about telling me I was “stupid.”
I started to recover and tried walking again after so long in bed without eating. We were all getting better, but officials interrogated Mother to see if we were Nazis. The Poles were forcing us out.
Off-and-on over the centuries Wormditt and the surrounding area belonged to Poland. The Polish government was sending their people to live in our houses, even though the Polish people did not want to be there either.
My mother said, “We have to leave.” We were refugees being expelled; it wasn’t our homeland anymore. East Prussia was no more.
The Russians had repaired Wormditt’s train station. The Poles said there would be a train, and we would be taken west. I could barely walk and was still very weak. When the train came, refugees, like us, surged forward to board cattle cars. Mother pushed up into the train first then helped us climb aboard. Some straw was on the floor, and the smell was bad. There were no windows. We were given water and a piece of bread before pulling from the station. I don’t know where we stopped along the way or for how long, because I was out of it. I don’t know how I survived the journey; I slept through most of it. At rare stops, all the operators ever did was open the cattle cars, throw in water, some bread, and take out the dead. People were dying crammed in there. Starvation, old age, the bitter cold, or lack of medical care were the causes.
Some of the railroad cars were filled with household goods—from sewing machines to clothing to art. The Russians stole everything from houses, whatever they could find. I heard that when one of them didn’t like the sink being on one side of the wall, he ripped it out and nailed it on the other side, expecting water to come out. That’s when I realized, they’re ignorant. They probably were the uneducated class, because Stalin forced men and women from backwoods’ villages all over Russia to go to war. They were simple peasants, not used to the material wealth they found in Germany and wanted to take things home.
Back when we stayed in the little houses with field workers, I remember we met a Russian doctor from Moscow. He said, “I don’t have much better than this.” Even doctors lived hard lives in Russia.
At one point, the train stopped; it was late afternoon. There was a big commotion down the track. My mother got out to see what was going on. The train was being separated and we were on one end. Mother spoke a little Polish and Russian and understood the fact that we were going to Siberia, going east. She quickly said, “We’ve got to get out of here and on the train going west-in the right direction!” That’s what we did, scrambling onto a westbound cattle car that was just as crowded, dark, and awful as the one we left.
The train stopped somewhere near a military compound with large buildings, where the Russians gave us a room and bathroom. In the morning, soldiers picked us up and took us to work on farms. We worked in a barn with piles of grain ready to be threshed from wheat, rye, or whatever they grew. Soldiers came in with machinery, and we had to move the grain into it for threshing. By this time, the weather was warming up, and the smell in the barn was awful! I asked, “What is that smell?!”
During the deep of winter, the farmers killed some cows and put them in the barn under the grain harvest, hoping to have food upon their return. Of course, the farmers never returned. The Russians came and found the grain which they could use for food, but beneath it, the cows were decomposing and turning putrid, ergo the awful smell.
I was put to work with my sister in the barn. At one point, a Russian came with a carbine on his shoulder to watch us. Irmi was smaller than I, and he pointed at me. I thought, oh no, here we go, and I kept on working. I was terrified and still underweight and weak getting over typhus fever. He came over, pushed me aside, put down his weapon, and ordered, “Rest!” I was really surprised. I thought, gee, there are some good Russians out there!
A Russian captain ran the camp operation. He was old, already grey-haired, and spoke German. My mother knew a little Russian, and I guess he befriended her. He told her (figuring she couldn’t do anything about it anyway) that he went to a military academy in Germany before World War II, so he was a little pro-German. When they knew each other better, my mother made a request, “I want you to help us get out of here, to be reunited with my husband in the west.” He responded, “Well, you have to bring your husband here.” She said, “No, he’s sick. I have to go where he is.” She wrote a letter to Tante Helene in Berlin, hoping to find out where my father was. I think the captain helped allow the letter to be mailed. There were guardian angels out there, I tell you!
At the camp, an old German army post near Rostock, I saw several German civilians removed from their rooms, dead. Their boots and coats were taken, and they were buried in a mass grave in the center of the field.
I don’t know how long we’d been at the camp, or what time of day or night it was while we were there. The Russians had taken all the watches from us. There were no clocks in the buildings, no calendars. Every day was the same, taken to farms, put in fields or in barns to work. My mother kept us from starving somehow. After a while, I don’t know how, we were permitted to leave and taken to the train station. We boarded a train and not long after, the train stopped.
Suddenly, I saw a black American soldier. I thought, my God! Where are we now! It was my first time seeing a black person. The city was not recognizable, but we had arrived in Berlin. We saw the Americans, and my mother said, “I guess the war is over.” They told us, “Yes, it was over in May 1945.” Without newspapers, communications, telephones, we hadn’t known the war was over a year before. We were in the American zone of Berlin watching scenes of calm activity with people walking about, not running, in the wreckage of their city. Piles of rubble were up and down the streets. It was probably July 1946. I was so tired and still out of it.
When we reached Tante Helene’s place, we found her living alone in the lower level of her demolished house. Many civilians were killed during air raids and constant fires. My aunt seemed to be the only one left in the wreckage of her street. In Mother’s letter sent from the Russian camp, she notified Tante Helene that somehow we were going to get to Berlin, and we made it! We were tearfully happy to be reunited and alive.
A letter from my father was already there with Tante Helene. We learned what had become of Father after he was forced to join the Volkssturm. He wrote that he was in Denmark when Nazi officials surrendered in early May 1945. So he was not captured by the Russians, but by the British. We also learned that Heinz, too, had become a British POW. His troop was stranded against the Elbe River when the Russians were about to attack. To avoid being killed or captured, Heinz jumped into the Elbe and swam to the other side, surrendering to the British. He later told us, “Those Russians might have sent me to Siberia, who knows?” So both my father and brother became British POWs in separate locations.
When father was released, he crossed from Denmark into Flensburg in northern Germany. Because of his experience, the government found him a job in the forestry department of Glucksburg, a pretty town about seven miles from Flensburg. This was welcome news for us. After about ten days, we said goodbye to Tante Helene and took a train from Berlin to Glucksburg.
On the way, we had to spend a few days in a refugee camp at the border of East/West Germany filling out papers. The camp was crowded and noisy with a mix of people, sick and healthy.
Finally, we reached Glucksburg, meaning “lucky castle.” In the State of Schleswig-Holstein, its picturesque castle is guarded by four tower-peaks sitting in a wide water-moat, actually a man-made lake. The war had left this historical fortress-town untouched; it was indeed lucky. And we were lucky, too, being with Father, together again as a family. We had all survived! Even though I was skinny and still recovering from everything that had happened, I felt stronger, physically and mentally.
When we arrived, father requested quarters to accommodate his family and was provided an apartment near the post office downtown. It was very small, but there were many displaced families looking for shelter. The locals did not welcome us being there. We were like many others in town refugees in a strange land. It was August 1946.
From this small apartment, Father was assigned a house at the edge of the woods, a two-story duplex owned by the forestry department. When we moved into the duplex, everything started to settle down, and the three of us children went back to school in Flensburg. I had missed a whole year of classes. The same applied to Siegfried and Irmi.
In the meantime, Heinz, my middle brother, came home. The British had released him and we were very relieved, but still no news from my older brother, Helmut. Mother was concerned because the war was over a year ago. She felt he was alive in the United States, but didn’t have an address. Finally, he wrote Tante Helene in Berlin, our point of contact. My aunt got ahold of us, and we found out that Helmut would be coming home. We waited, but he didn’t come home, although he knew where we lived.
The French had grabbed him. In Marseilles, all the men returning from the US were grabbed as they disembarked and their possessions seized. Being German, they were taken away and forced to work in France’s coal mines for two years as “reparation.”
I don’t know what my father’s forestry salary was, but the money was worthless. My mother told us of when she was young going to the market with a basket of money and being able to buy only a box of matches! Anything you had saved in the bank, you got six pfennigs on the mark, six percent. Well, you can imagine, we had nothing, no welfare either! It wasn’t until the Deutsch Mark (DM) was introduced in 1948 did things start to improve.
We went to church in the castle. My sister and I were going to be confirmed there. We had to attend Sunday school and prepare. For confirmation, we had to wear a black dress. My mother was worried since money was scarce and the economy not well. She was told to approach the minister of our church, because they received donations of food and clothing. Perhaps they had black dresses. Mother went to the minister’s house and felt really humiliated. She was told that my sister and I did not have to go to high school, that we should work and earn money. Between the minister and his wife, their resentment towards refugees was obvious. My mother was very disgusted with this attitude. She managed to find some dresses anyway, and we were properly confirmed.
I was enrolled at Auguste Viktoria Schule (high school) in Flensburg. The school was a grand old building of red-brick and white-paned windows. In East Prussia, we studied Latin and English; in Flensburg, we learned Danish, English or French. I enjoyed going to high school in beautiful Flensburg, an old mariner’s town with a tradition of fishing, sailing, and sea stories.
It was three years after the war and life seemed to be returning to normal, then I started feeling sick. I was sixteen, in high school, losing weight, and constantly coughing. The doctors thought I had tuberculosis. Even though we endured crowded conditions packed in cattle cars during the war, it wasn’t TB. My mother was also very concerned because I had not started my period yet. She took me to the doctor. He explained that menstruation did not happen due to starvation, stress, and my wartime experiences in survival mode. But my sister had started to menstruate before I did. She must have been fifteen by the time it happened to her.
Lab work was ordered. I was told that my thymus gland wasn’t functioning properly, suggesting a poor immune system. I was admitted to the hospital for more tests that resulted in a diagnosis of “syphilis.” That sounded like a bad disease to have! The doctors asked my mother if I’d been raped, which she denied. It got pretty close, but no, it didn’t happen. The doctors checked me for symptoms of syphilis and asked my parents if I had had any rashes or sores. No, I had none of that.
We told the doctors that in 1946, on our way from Berlin to Glucksburg, we stayed a few days in a refugee camp that was extremely crowded. The doctors thought maybe I had contracted syphilis there due to contaminated toilet seats. This was doubtful because the disease is mostly through sexual contact. All I knew about sex was from biology class and putting two-and-two together. I was just as baffled as the doctors and my parents were about why I was sick. One doctor thought it was something entirely different from syphilis, because I was not raped and not showing any other symptoms, except a problem with my lungs, probably because of what I’d been through.
My whole family was tested with the idea that they may have contracted syphilis and given it to me, but all of their lab work came back negative. Despite all that and no proof of the disease, it was decided to start treating me for syphilis with Salvasan. In those days, the use of penicillin was just beginning. I had to undergo two kinds of shots with big needles and a big syringe, and it hurt like hell. Before I took the second treatment a week later, I had a reaction. The doctor remarked that I was not able to tolerate the medication, and that something other than syphilis was going on. More tests were ordered. This additional lab work was sent to the Bernhard Nocht Institute for Tropical Medicine in Hamburg. When the results came back, I was told: No syphilis!
Apparently, a combination of two types of bacteria had hooked up and looked like syphilis under a microscope. With all the unsanitary conditions I’d been through during the war and after, at the refugee camp, from exhaustion to starvation, who knows? It was a big puzzle. As far as my cough, the doctors concluded that it would clear up as my health improved.
In one of my classes at high school, a movie was shown on syphilis. I saw all the horrible symptoms, and thought, my God! I’m supposed to have that? Oh wow!
Six months later, when I finally had my first period, my mother was relieved. It didn’t dawn on her that I’d been physically worse off than my sister. I did have both typhus fever and paratyphoid fever and then was accused of syphilis. Living in some awful conditions infested with lice and rats and sometimes with only contaminated water or food to live on, it’s a wonder that I was the only one that sick.
I had lost all of my hair after the typhus fever, and it grew back curly. For a while, I was able to wear it long. My body was changing and I was growing up, but different from young girls now-no makeup, few clothes-but I had fun. In those days, girls wore dresses or skirts, not pants, and I was still a tomboy playing with the local boys. I was very good at table tennis, different amateur sports, swimming, and played as much as I could when there was time.
In high school, my girlfriend Marion and I were planning our future life. We decided to become x-ray techs/lab techs. In Germany, once you leave high school you have to be on your own and work at a job for one year, even as a nanny; it’s a transition phase, a sign of adulthood and independence. For the work-one-year requirement, our plan was to go to England for nursing school and return to Germany for college to become lab techs; it was combined training for certification as an x-ray tech and lab tech together.
This was our goal, and we were motivated because we had it all planned out. To reach it, I worked on excelling in English and was often told that my English was very good. For my own improvement, I did several extra book reports to read before the class to practice my English. Besides English, I also had a knack for the French language, and of course, I spoke German.
One year, my English teacher, Herr Moldenhauer, gave me a grade of an A minus. I asked him why I did not get an A and was told it was due to my “Canadian accent.” I didn’t even know what a Canadian accent was! I didn’t pursue it; my main objective was getting all of my studies in order and completed.
I was not into dating. In those days, we thought that if a boy kissed you, you might get pregnant! If any boys tried to get fresh, I’d tell them I had plans to go to the UK and would not get involved. I didn’t have any boyfriends.
Once I finished high school, my father wanted to marry me off to a young man in the forestry department. I don’t know if you’d call it an arranged marriage, but I wasn’t going for it!
Marion and I applied to Hillingdon Hospital School of Nursing, located right outside of London. My parents understood my aspirations and figured that I had the potential and the grades to be a nurse. Mother did not really want me to leave Germany, but said nothing to discourage me.
Marion said we would go into nursing for one year, drop out, and then return to Germany to study laboratory/X-ray technology. I was thinking medical school, but I couldn’t ask my parents to pay the expense of putting me through, since they’d lost everything in the war.
Before going to England, I had to take a physical and be evaluated. I didn’t pass the medical and was told it was due to a problem with my lungs. All of my school grades were fine, my English was fine, and everything was fine, except for this chest problem. Examiners told me to try next year. My friend Marion passed and left for the UK and nursing school.
I took a job at a small company in Glucksburg doing typing, bookkeeping, and other office work. It was boring, but I needed the money for my second attempt at nursing school, where Marion was already enrolled. If I didn’t like it, I’d just quit. That was my plan.
At home, after the war was over, there were arguments about getting caught by the Russians. I think my mother was ready to divorce my father. The struggles we’d survived had been very hard on her, but divorce was out of the question in those days, especially for a refugee family of five children. Divorce was not an option; it was tough. My sister accused my dad of not leaving Wormditt earlier, waiting until after Christmas in 1944. I told her, “He didn’t have that power. Everything was chaos. We were lucky that we even left the eastern zone alive. Nobody knew what was going to happen one day to the next.”
Irmi’s response was not to talk to my father. It took many years, but I finally got them to reconcile their differences.
It’s difficult to understand the propaganda machine underlying the German people’s response to the war. Hitler’s people kept lying. We didn’t know how fast the Russians were advancing. The Nazi officials in East Prussia would not permit any Germans to evacuate because it would appear “defeatist,” yet these same officials, aware that the Russians were hours away from invading, were already on trains escaping west, leaving families like ours to fend for themselves.
Mother never talked about what happened to us, or what she did to keep herself and us alive. It was too painful to relive it all. With her, when it was over, it was done. But she should have talked about it to get it out of her system.
It took me years before I could talk about any of my war experiences. When the United States became my home, I thought, who wants to know what I’ve been through?! They’d never understand! As time went by, I managed to talk about what I went through.
Anyway, I worked at my job, saved money, and got healthy. Finally, the required work-year ended and my second attempt to attend nursing school succeeded. Before I left, Mother told me that she really did not want me to go, but that she always told my sister and me to get an education and not to marry unless we had an education to back us up. She gave us girls very good advice, while my father’s saying was, “You made your bed, and you lie in it.” We always had our parents watching over us, as if they sat on our shoulders, but that was okay. We knew we were cared for, that our parents loved us. Yet I never saw any affection between them. They were very reserved, like most people of the Victorian era. Only on holidays and on birthdays, would they be expressive toward us.
I hugged Mother goodbye, and Father took me to the train station in Flensburg. He came aboard to see me off on my journey to England. A man was in the seat across from me, and I thought he was drunk. Father explained to him that I was his daughter and to look out for me. We said goodbye and as the train left, this man was offering me alcohol. Well, I ignored him. My dad really picked the wrong guy to protect me! I was nineteen and wearing my hair short; I guess I looked alright, but was still a tomboy.
From the train, I got onto a ferry to cross the English Channel. That was no picnic! It was August 1951 and rough weather. I started feeling dizzy and a bit seasick, so I went outside. The man from the train was there and he kept trying to befriend me. I got angry and told him to leave me alone!
It was all so confusing finding my way around the ship, all new to me! I didn’t know where to go. This was a ferry with quarters for sleeping and I needed to find my cabin. Finally, I found someone to ask about accommodations. I was told they were looking for me. I was to join three women already sleeping in the cabin. On the bottom was an empty bunk bed. I dropped onto it, and I fell right asleep. The next thing I knew it was morning and an Englishman was walking in (I don’t think he even knocked) bringing tea. I sat up still feeling wobbly and wasn’t used to milk and sugar in my tea. I took a couple of sips and threw up all over the place. I thought, oh, that’s nice. No more British tea!
At last, we docked in London, and I was glad to be on land again. My friend Marion was supposed to pick me up at Victoria Station. It took me a while to call trying to use the phones over there. I reached Hillingdon Hospital, and they came for me. When I arrived at the hospital, I was received by the matron. She said, “Oh, you’re Gerlinde Paul. What happened? You are late!” I explained that my friend Marion was supposed to pick me up. The matron started to laugh, “That’s typical.”
I was shocked because I didn’t know this “typical” side of Marion. I suppose she hadn’t gone through what I’d gone through during the war. She was an only child and used to doing her own thing no matter what. That trait was already there, but I never picked up on it. The matron was being sarcastic with her laughing comment. She told me to go to my assigned room and to be in the dining room by 6:00 pm.
I roomed with a Scottish girl from the Shetland Islands, cold country north of Great Britain. In those days, as junior nurses, we wore starched all-white uniforms with white belts, beige stockings and brown shoes. My roommate was so hot all the time that she didn’t wear anything underneath! I told her, “I don’t think you’re going to get away with that,” but she didn’t believe me. Sure enough, sister tutor said, “You go to your room right now and put on some underwear. And a slip. And a bra.” I think maybe she did wear a bra, but not anything else. When she told me about being scolded, I said, “Well, I didn’t want to get you embarrassed, but I tried to tell you.”
“Sister tutors” were the nursing school instructors. All nurses in the UK were called “sisters.” They wore uniforms that had belts, and caps with flutes and tied with bows under their chins. Students wore different uniforms.
When classes started, I sat up front with my dictionary. Sister tutor went on-and-on instructing, and I understood only half of it, thinking, I am going to flunk out of this class! While she was talking, I looked up words in the dictionary, saying to myself, this dictionary has got to go! I tried another approach and just sat there and listened. What a fiasco!
Through the preliminary stage of training, we studied mostly theory and were tested after three months. Then we went to the laboratory where we learned how to make beds and to master clinical skills. I knew English well enough and liked what I was studying. In spite of my challenges with medical terms, I learned fast. I said to some of the girls in class, “When I make a mistake, I want you to tell me about it.” But the Brits, you know, they are so polite! Only later on would I realize when I made a mistake; none of the students corrected me.
In those days, wards were mostly open with beds lined up against the walls and some cabinets in the center. Private rooms were available for very ill patients. I could pick out the accents of patients coming in and being admitted. I’d say, “Oh, are you from Uxbridge?” or, “You’re from West Drayton.” They’d say, “How do you know?” It seemed I had an ear for accents and could recognize local dialects.
When I was assigned to a male ward, I did not want to go there because I was very shy. I asked one of the girls, “How about switching over?” She said she would, but I’d have to talk to sister tutor because schedules were already arranged, and I’d have to go eventually anyway. So switching from the male ward didn’t happen.
Old and young guys were being cared for in an open ward of twenty-five beds. One day, I was doing my work and a patient made a comment that I didn’t understand. Another patient said, “Oh, he’s just pulling your leg.” I responded, “I hope he’s not pulling my leg!” All this slang, you know! He said, “Let me give you some advice: What you have to do is think in English! Don’t translate to English from German.” Once I tried that, within six weeks I had picked up on the English accent, and patients thought I was English! Nowadays, when I’m speaking German, I have to really think for the proper words. But back then, I had to train myself to think in English, until it got to a point that people didn’t even realize I was from Germany. It was obvious because a patient made a joke about Germans. When I heard it, I stated, “Watch out! This is a German right here!” When he didn’t believe me, I started speaking German. Then the joke was on him!
Sometimes it wasn’t easy being German working in a UK hospital. Some of the women I met hated the Germans. One woman who helped in the kitchen and served tea and drinks had lost her son over Germany. I said, “I was a kid and got shot at.” She started to understand how awful the war was for us, too.
I took care of a German patient on the female ward, who was married to an Englishman in the film industry. They lived out on Love Lane (that’s right!) and invited me to their home. Soon other German girls were invited to their home. The husband had been in the war and knew what it was like for the German people, well, he married a German. They’d been together three years by the time I arrived in England and seemed very happy.
For student nurses, the daily routine began in the dining room at 7:00 for breakfast. By 7:30, we were on our assigned wards, finding out what patients we’d be taking care of and our assignments for a twelve-hour-day shift. We had a fifteen-minute tea break and a lunch break. On other days we had classes from 9:00 am to 12:00 noon. After lunch, we worked until 7:30 pm, and then went to dinner in the dining room. My feeling is that we were used, exploited as cheap labor! And everything was rationed from butter to sugar. I didn’t use much sugar and ate the porridge they served. It was okay; I’m not complaining. We did get a half-day off on Saturday and Sunday off.
We routinely had to work night shift. Whenever Marion was assigned to night shift, she became so stressed that she broke out in a rash. Plus, she smoked. (I smoked a little; she smoked more.) She was excused for three months of night shift, and then rotated back onto it. The matron warned her, “One more time and you will not finish nursing school.” On her next turn at night shift, Marion broke out in another rash. She couldn’t take the responsibility of thirty patients. The matron said, “Goodbye, Charlie!” Marion returned to Germany and went into laboratory/x-ray school.
In the meantime, I liked nursing; I liked people. Even though I planned to be at Hillingdon just for a year, I was saving money. We were paid approximately twenty pounds a month, the equivalent of $100. The school fed and boarded us and took a bundle out of our pay for that. We had to pay for our laundry, too. By the time I completed the first year, I had made nine pounds per month! (The UK pound was worth four Deutsch Marks, or $5.00, I believe.) I bought coffee, tea, and other things and sent them to my mother, things she couldn’t get at home or were still very expensive in 1951.
I made many friends at Hillingdon and met Ursula. We liked movies, but she turned out to be very controlling. I’d throw clothing around in my not-very-neat room, and she’d hang them up. I told her not to do that. If I ran into friends during the day or on breaks, I’d say, “Hey, tomorrow afternoon if you’re off, let’s go to the movies.” When I asked Ursula, her response was, “Sure!” When she found out that a whole bunch of us were going, she said, “I thought only you and I were going.” I said, “What’s the matter? We’ll ALL go.” And we did.
One of our perks was receiving invitations to Albert Hall for classic symphony concerts. All we had to pay was the fare to get there, so a group of us would take the Underground train, very good transportation. Our outings to Albert Hall were so enjoyable that we attended quite a few concerts.
On my free time, I would bicycle all around the area and to the London Airport (Heathrow Airport now) for fun. Uxbridge wasn’t that far from Hillingdon, eight or ten miles distance. It was the closest town with a movie theater. We also played tennis (the tennis court was by the nurses’ home), hiked a little bit, and bicycled to the movies.
Because the Duchess of Kent was Hillingdon’s sponsor, she and other royal representatives would come every three months and give a tea and a dance in the nurses’ home ballroom. They would play records and sometimes even bring in a band. We met many interesting people. Princess Margaret, the Duchess of Kent’s niece, would come once in a while for a lawn party. We’d have to curtsey and help with the serving. Princess Margaret supported all nurses as well as student nurses. Oh yes, we were in great company!
Several male students attended Hillingdon and one of them, Jim, invited me to the movies. The talk was that all the male students were “fags.” I said, “Well, he can’t be a fag if he’s asked me out!” Two of them were married to women from the area. So there. They weren’t gay after all.
Jim was kind and cute. At the movies we held hands, did a little kissing, and got a little romantic. On the way back to quarters, I said, “If you think you’re going to get more than this, you are mistaken! I have plans. I’m going to the United States eventually!” I already had it in my head to go to California.
At school, students could stay up until ten o’clock and watch old movies on TV in the large living room. In the fifties, most of the shows were musicals, like “Meet Me in St. Louis” with Judy Garland, and westerns, like “California” with Ray Milland. Occasionally, they’d show movies that became my favorites: “Pride & Prejudice” with Greer Garson and anything with Cary Grant.
All the student nurses had fun together. A girlfriend, Reneta, and I gave tea-leaf readings on the side. We’d say, “You drink your tea, and we’ll swirl the leaves in the cup to tell you your future.” We would assure them we knew a little bit about this. Then we’d make up all the predictions!
I guess I was somewhat of a prankster, especially the time on night shift when I went to the bathroom and had some itching around my rectum. I checked and saw a worm, about six-inches long! I retrieved it from the bowl, wrapped it in toilet paper (in England, toilet paper was like waxed paper), and scrubbed my hands. Since it was the end of my shift, I went to the dining room.
A bunch of students were sitting at the table gossiping about different nurses and students. One of them said, “Oh, did you know so-‘n-so had an abortion?” I said, “Oh, I had one, too.” They yelled, “What?! Not you!” I said, “Well, here’s my abortion! I aborted this worm in the toilet!” They all gasped and laughed, but Hildegard, a girl from Berlin, didn’t think it was so funny. She said, “Now, this is no joke. You passed that worm. You get yourself right to the doctor.”
With the worm in my pocket, I went to see Dr. Steele, the director of the entire hospital and a surgeon. I stood practically at attention. He said, “Oh, Gerlinde, what is your problem?” I told him that I had a rash and didn’t know if it had anything to do with it, but I passed this round worm. He asked, “A round worm? How do you know that’s what it was?” I said, “Well, here it is!’ and pulled out the worm. He looked at me and kind of snickered. “Get admitted!” he ordered. “We have to check if you have any more worms.”
So I was admitted to the hospital and provided my own room. I was given enemas and had to check my own stool for more worms. I didn’t see any, and was told, “Okay, you’ve had your rest. Back to work!” That was England’s nursing school. Not much sympathy. Anyway, the hospital did what they had to do to treat me.
I wondered how a round worm had gotten into my system. We hardly ever ate out because we didn’t have any money. It must have come from the food. I thought of the lettuce and salads served in the dining room. Parasite-eggs must have been sitting in whatever raw food I ate, then, once in my system, grew into worms feeding off my body. I found the one, but Dr. Steele thought more worms might be in me. The enemas were to flush them out, but I didn’t see any more. Once that worm was out and I had some rest, I was fine. But I could not tolerate night shift, because I was not a good day-sleeper. I think being so sleep-deprived is what caused my getting sick, but I don’t really know. By then, we had a new matron and didn’t like her. Compared to the old matron, she treated the more senior students pretty badly.
A couple of times, I saved money for vacation and went to Germany to visit. My classmates always kidded me that I needed to put on some makeup. The British girls, the Irish, they always wore makeup. I said I didn’t believe in it. I tried it, but it felt like I had a mask on. They suggested I should at least use lipstick.
Back in Glucksburg, I was walking down the street one day and ran into the minister, the same one who’d told my mother that my sister and I should “go to work,” that we didn’t need to “buy dresses for confirmation.” The minister looked at me, and said, “Oh, you’ve been out of the country!” I said, “Huh? What do you mean?” He replied, “Well, you’re wearing lipstick!” like that was a big sin. In those days, the fifties, just for wearing lipstick, I was “bad.” It was amazing. I thought, how can I be bad just because I wore lipstick? I didn’t feel bad at all.
During nurses’ training, we all had to work in the operating theater/OR learning how to start IV’s, count sponges, etc. I really liked it. Maybe because I was a tomboy, I didn’t feel intimidated by doctors. The first time I walked into the OR, one doctor was doing eye surgery on a wide-awake patient. While he’s operating, he’s smoking, and I couldn’t help looking at him with disgust. A Navy doctor was there, too; he was tall and dark-haired. I don’t know if he was watching me, but after he corrected the other surgeon, I said, “The ashes can fall into the patient’s eye! Why don’t you stop smoking?” This surgeon yelled at me, and I asked him if he wanted me to leave. He responded, “No, we need you. Stay here!” I stayed, but I was totally disgusted. I thought, is this the way it goes? This incident must have been the exception to the rule.
One Saturday, in the operating theater, where students were allowed to stand around the OR table to observe with gowns and masks on, we watched as a breast was being amputated for cancer. Those days they performed total mastectomies for breast cancer. Well, I’m standing there thinking I’m going to faint with all this blood. I decided to walk away, then thought, pull yourself together! If you’re fainting now, what are you going to do later? So I stayed and was okay.
When I was assigned to the OR/theater, I was curious about an ob-gyn doctor who was performing nothing but D and C’s (dilatation and curettage) to clean out the uterus. I thought, gee, this is a nice-looking doctor. How did he choose this kind of work? I never thought to ask him.
Another doctor, an Irish resident, was interested in me and we started to date. He took me to dinner. I had plans and did not think seriously about marriage. I wondered when he was going to pop the question about sleeping together. We dated for quite a while; sometimes we’d double-date with another couple. One evening, he popped the question about coming to his apartment. I told him, “No, no, no. I’m not interested … and how dare you!” He apologized and wanted to continue the relationship, even hinting at marriage, but I lost respect for him. He kept pursuing me and making a jerk of himself (in plain English). I told him that I had plans, and he said, “But I want to marry you!” I spouted, “Too late,” and that was it. After that, I cut him off totally.
I remember what my father used to say, “You make your bed and you lie in it.” Another thing he always said was, “Don’t let your heart run your brain!” Father was always behind me, my conscience. My mother was different. I think she was a little more laid-back. She believed in romance, but we never saw any between her and Father.
After completing three years and three months (the first three months were a probationary period), I entered my fourth year of training. We had a mixed class of students — Danish, Irish, German — coming from all over and very few English girls. During that year, I was always competing with another student, an Italian girl; I’ll never forget her. I don’t remember many names, but hers was Isabella Mangeroti. Her hair was cut short and she walked sideways. “What is the matter with you? You’d better walk straight,” I teased her. Well, Isabella was sharp, and we were always competing for the number one spot. At one time, I’d be on top, then she’d be on top — of the class! Oh yes, we were doing okay and we were friends.
Hilde, the girl from Berlin, was way ahead of me in training and said she was going to Africa to work in nursing. (She died with a brain tumor over there.) Hilde was motherly towards us and studied in midwifery, something I told her I’d like to do. She explained, “There are two parts of training for a midwife. In the first part, certification, you can always deliver babies in hospitals. In the second, as a full-fledged certified midwife, you’ll go out to the poor people in all the London districts to deliver babies by yourself whenever called upon.” She said that the poverty near the Tower of London was awful and, as a student, she had to go out on a bicycle come rain-or-shine with her kit. The people were very nice, but she had to deliver babies on newspapers, because they had nothing. She hated seeing all that poverty in which they lived. She said, “Don’t do it unless you’re a glutton for punishment. That’s all we did, go into the community to deliver babies independently without any doctor there. That’s how we gained experience in the practice of delivering babies.”
In this second part, midwives would help women in complicated deliveries, following a regular doctor’s orders. Doctors wouldn’t go out into the community. The obstetrician was on-call if unexpected complications arose.
I didn’t really know why I wanted to be a midwife, except that it meant being independent in my own practice. For training we were sent to Oldchurch Hospital in Romford, another town near London. The hospital had 500-beds and handled only maternity cases. The nurses, students, and instructors ran the department. I did the first six months and really enjoyed it. My highpoint in the training was when I delivered twins successfully.
A professor assigned a patient to each of the fifteen or sixteen midwifery students as part of our training. The women usually came in early in the first trimester. Our role was to follow their pregnancy from their first visit to the clinic when we did an initial interview with them, listened for the heartbeat, checked the fetus and position in the uterus. We were allotted ten minutes with the patient before the doctor came in with the rest of the students, and we’d have to present the case.
I remember the professor asked one of the students what she had found. She reported, “Well, she’s about sixteen weeks. I heard the fetal heart, but I couldn’t feel the position of the fetus.” The doctor asked, “Anything else?” She stated the blood pressure and other vitals. He said, “I hate to tell you this, but this woman isn’t even pregnant!” The patient was one of those women who fancied herself being pregnant when she wasn’t. The student became quite embarrassed.
When it was my turn, I presented the patient’s pregnancy data and results of examining her abdomen to determine the fetal position. Turned out I did it right.
We saw the same woman month after month and observed the positioning of the baby. It was possible to feel the head and even move the body around—through the abdominal wall! We weren’t allowed to do this maneuver, but could watch as the fetus moved and, sometimes, we even glimpsed the head. These women weren’t obese, so it was easier to observe much of the fetal movement and growth.
During one of my presentations, I said, “The head is turned around and is now going toward the pelvic floor.” The professor replied, “Oh, that’s good! She should be ready to deliver pretty soon.” Because we followed and detailed the pregnancy, we knew when birth was near. The UK was very attentive to prenatal care.
As a novice-midwife, I was able to deliver twins only because the woman had given birth before. If it were her first, students couldn’t deliver her. Her twins were extremely active. We could see their feet moving up! Nursing students and medical students were trying to get their hands on her and gain the experience of delivering twins, but the instructor said, “Gerlinde, this is yours!”
I was stunned; it was my first delivery. All of these people were around looking at me. I thought, oh, my God! I got up there and the head for the first twin came out; the delivery went well. Then I said, “Where’s the second one?” I was checking things out and realized it was going to be a breach, hips first. The instructor said, “You know what to do!” So I had to rotate the shoulders to turn the head into the birth canal for a proper delivery. The instructors were full-fledged midwives. No doctors were allowed unless they were called in.
During birthing, a woman’s cervix is so dilated that you can turn the baby right at the vagina, when the head is coming through the canal. Sometimes the women are yelling, sometimes they’re laughing because of the laughing gas. All they received for pain was chloral hydrate. We also taught them the Lamaze technique for breathing.
We had one woman in labor for hours, not dilating and in extreme pain. I didn’t know what was wrong. I said, “The pressure of her contractions will kill that baby in there!” The doctor was called. He asked her, “We want the truth — have you had an abortion before? Have you done anything that might have caused this to happen? You may both die if you don’t tell us the truth.” The woman said, “Yes, I had an abortion. And I put Clorox up there.” The result was she had so much scarring in the cervix that the canal could not expand and open up. Once we knew this, she was rushed to the theater for a Cesarean section. The mother was utterly exhausted. A few more hours and that baby would have died.
The doctor, the professor teaching us, was sexist and nasty. He would always try and embarrass students. When he made crude, personal comments in class, we all turned red. One time we had to call him when a student was delivering triplets — a rarity! The first two were delivered, then the mother’s uterus went into inertia, flaccid with no contractions. So this doctor had to be called. Well, he came in, put on his gloves, got his hand in there, pulled the third baby out, and said, “There it is!” Then he walked out. I thought, what a bastard this guy is! The woman was okay. She was completely exhausted, but recovered.
These mothers were all young women. To calm them and keep up their strength, we gave them dark Guinness beer, a heavy deep beer full of good amounts of iron. It was nutritious, like food, and relaxing with alcohol.
Back to this doctor … I was working on night shift when nothing much was going on, so we were packing drums. When the midwives were called out for deliveries in the district, they took a drum filled with special equipment to perform a sterile delivery. If the midwives were already in the field, they would call the hospital for whatever they needed. This doctor was on-call and a midwife in the district requested help in an emergency. The doctor rode with the ambulance and took a full drum.
When he returned, we were still packing. The obstetrician asked, “Who packed this drum?” The Irish sister tutor answered, “I don’t know. We don’t put our initials on them, but one of us probably did, or whoever was on duty before.” He retorted, “I want you to know this woman needed an episiotomy. I had to do some suturing and was standing there without scissors in the drum. So guess what? I had to use my teeth to cut the thread!” I will never forget how this sister tutor replied in her Irish brogue, “Well, I hope you brushed your teeth before you did it!”
It was the ongoing joke about this obstetrician. The sister tutor didn’t pay any attention to him. After that incident, he left us alone. As I said, we had fun. We worked hard, but had good times and camaraderie.
Heinrich in Kiel, Germany
During the last semester of midwifery school in 1954, my mother passed away. She was fifty-nine, not that old, and I went back to Glucksburg for the funeral. At the funeral, I saw the rest of my family and some aunts and uncles who did not disappear or die in the war. There was much crying and grieving, but after a glass of vino, things loosened up with a little reminiscing and joking. My father asked me to return to Germany after school. At first, I thought I would.
Gerlinde and Irmgrad
I returned to England, finished my training and was issued a cap and gown and my certificate. I took the state boards and became a registered nurse in the UK. The midwifery exam, mostly oral and show ‘n tell, was difficult but I passed. From midwifery, I decided to work at Hillingdon and asked to be assigned to the theater. I was good in the operating room; I didn’t panic or faint. Also, the doctors in OR wanted me back after graduation, so I asked to work there. Instead, the new matron put a nurse junior to me in the position. When I went to see the matron to complain, she said, “Well, we all have to wait our turn.” I said, “This isn’t fair,” to which she replied, “What’s fair in this world? You go where we need you.” I said, “Okay, have it your way,” and quit.
By then, I decided I would definitely return to Germany. The problem was I had to stick around for the money owed me by the UK health service. They said it might take a while. So my friend Hilde invited me to stay with her and her husband. She lived close by, and said, “You can get a job while you’re waiting.” I couldn’t commit to a nursing job, because I would leave once I got my money out. I stayed with Hilde and worked in a nursery pruning chrysanthemums.
In the meantime, my friend Marion and I had kept in touch. After she left Hillingdon, she became a lab tech in a Wiesbaden hospital. She said, “Come on, I’ll pick you up.” I laughed, “Oh yeah? I don’t know if I trust you still.”
I had come across magazines advertising for nurses in the United States and all over the world. I could go wherever I wanted, but was most drawn to the US, especially when Ursula said she would go with me. She ended her training after me without studying midwifery.
My refund from the health service still hadn’t shown up, but I had earned enough money at the nursery to travel back to Germany. I asked my friend Hilde, “Just send me my check from the health service when it comes in.” I traveled to Wiesbaden with little spare money and looked for a place to stay. Finally, I found a room for ten marks a month, meaning I was constantly worried about money for food.
I applied at the US Air Force Hospital in Wiesbaden and was interviewed at the department of nursing. In the fifties, animosity with Germany from the war was still out there. The interviewer said, “You’re German, but you speak very good English.” I replied, “I’m an RN in England.” She said, “We can’t accept that credential.” So I was hired to work as a “graduate nurse.” Graduate nurses weren’t paid as much as regular RNs.
A couple of older Air Force nurses at the hospital befriended me. I kept wondering why they were taking me out on all these dates. What were they up to? Anelise, a German nurse I’d met, told me, “You know, they’re gay. I think the captain is after you. Better watch it!” I said, “Oh, I don’t believe that crap.” The captain was big and ugly, but she was friendly and we worked very well together. She took me out to breakfast and dropped me off at my cold, small flat. Sometimes, we’d go out for a drink. I thought that maybe Anelise was just jealous, because she wasn’t invited to come along.
Anyway, one night, there was a knock at the door. I opened the door and it was her, the Air Force captain, completely drunk, saying, “I’m in love with you! I miss you!” I was dumbfounded, and asked, “Why were you trying to hook me up with all those guys?” She said, “I was testing to see if you were a lesbian.” I replied, “No, I’m not! But just because I wouldn’t date those men doesn’t mean I’m gay. I have other plans! And I’m disciplined enough not to get involved in any relationships.” After that, we would just joke with each other, but I kept to myself.
In the meantime, Marion had gone to the United States; she was always a few steps ahead of me. Some of the American nurses were asking what I wanted to do. I said, “Go to America! To California, if I can.” “What was I waiting for?” they asked. I said my application for a work pass to the US hadn’t been processed yet, “it takes time.”
“That’s crap!” they told me. “Marry one of these GIs. When you get over there, you dump him!” I said, “I can’t do that. If I can’t go on my own, I’m not going.”
Ursula had come to Wiesbaden; she and I were determined to immigrate to the United States together. We worked, saved our money, and finally gathered all the information we needed. We were in touch with Marion to pick us up in New York and crossed our fingers.
After a long flight across the Atlantic, we made it to New York City and waited for Marion. Same old story: she didn’t show! It was May 1957, during a heat wave. Oh my God, it was so hot! Of course, we spoke English, asked questions, and were directed to Grand Central Station and the Green Line Bus, which took us to Hackensack, New Jersey, where Marion was. We were dropped off right across the street from the Hackensack Hospital. When we met the director of nurses, she had been expecting us earlier in the day. I thought, here we go again! I explained that Marion was supposed to pick us up at New York Airport. The director said, “I don’t know where she is, but you’re all staying in the nursing quarters in Hackensack.” She told us we would be in the workforce and required all the information about our education. I was surprised, and commented, “You said you were taking care of that.” The director replied, “Oh no, you have to write to England.” I felt betrayed again, because until the records came in from UK, we would be paid as graduate nurses.
I should have brought all that paperwork with me from England. Now, I had to request my records and wait six weeks for them to show up. Meanwhile, there I was, working in pediatrics at Hackensack Hospital doing the same level of care as regular RNs for less pay. The three-months of required psychiatric-nursing training at Greystone Park, New Jersey, kept being delayed due to misinformation.
Ursula was working in ear-nose-and-throat (ENT) at Hackensack. One of her patients on the ward was named Bill, a barbershop-quartet singer, who had polyps on his vocal cord. Bill was extremely happy with how well Ursula took care of him and invited her to have dinner at his Italian restaurant off of Highway 46; he told her to bring her friends. When Ursula asked me and Erna, another nurse, if we’d like to go, we weren’t sure and had questions about Bill’s intentions. Ursula said, “Well, he’s very nice.” So we decided to go.
Bill picked us up at Hackensack’s nurses’ quarters and drove us to his restaurant in Hasbrouck Heights; it wasn’t that far, a little over three miles. We enjoyed a delicious dinner and decided on a nightcap. I volunteered to get our drinks at the bar while Ursula and Erna stayed at the table. As I waited for our drinks to be prepared, a man came in and sat down practically next to me at the bar. Bill introduced us. The man’s name was Patrick Pizzuto and he lived in Hasbrouck Heights. Bill knew him from somewhere; both of them were engineers. Patrick said he was a retired Navy commander and had a job in Kingston, New York, building barges for a marine engineer corps. The next thing I knew, he asked me to go out to dinner. I said, “Well, I don’t know you. Why would I date you?” His response was that I could bring somebody to chaperone. I think he asked me out then because I would have been gone that night with no plans to return there.
The three of us were walking out together and Pat asked if he could drop us off somewhere. I was very conservative coming from Germany, and the car Pat was driving was a pink Chrysler with fins! I looked at it, and said, “Are you a mafia guy?” I didn’t mince words. I knew he was Italian, because the other guys at the restaurant were also Italian. I asked, “Why are you driving that kind of car?” He told us that he was planning to move to Arizona and that’s why he bought this car. I still don’t know why he needed that particular car for Arizona.
He took us back to the hospital, and I gave him my phone number. On our first date, Erna, my “chaperone,” came with us and we had dinner at a New York restaurant.
Our records finally arrived from the UK, but we were still working as graduate nurses. One day, I woke up and it must have been a bad-hair day. I railed that I was going to march into the director’s office and demand equal pay with the RNs. Ursula said, “Don’t do that! They don’t like us.” I said, “Listen, they didn’t invite us. We came here. I’m going to make this right no matter what, but I’m not going back.” Ursula had little self-confidence; I don’t know where I got all of mine! I always tried to be fair and expected to be treated fairly. If you step on my toes, watch out! It’s instinctive from being a survivor. My motto was: Don’t give up!
I went to the director’s office and was told that they compared the curriculum from the UK with the one in New Jersey and found psychiatric nursing missing. (Back then in England, psychiatric nurses’ training was a three-year program.) To become RNs in the state of New Jersey, we were required to complete three-months of psych-nursing training and pass the State Boards. Only then would we be paid full RN salaries.
A short time after, I ran into a nurse I hadn’t met before. I think her name was Ida Burke. She was Irish, spoke with an Irish brogue, and made me laugh. I said, “Gee, I haven’t seen you around. Where have you been?” Ida said, “Oh, Greystone Park in New Jersey. You know we all have to do our three months of mental-health nursing.” I said, “Yes, but there’s a waiting list.” “No, there isn’t,” Ida said.
I told Ursula, “Either you make the phone call to Greystone or I will. We are going over there as soon as possible.” We both went to sign up and were notified that we’d be studying at Greystone before Christmas. The psychiatric hospital was in Morris Plains, New Jersey, about thirty miles west of Hackensack.
By then, Pat and I had dated a few more times. I told him that I’d be at Greystone for classes and boarding at least three months, so there wasn’t any point in making another date. He said, “Well, I’m commuting from Hasbrouck Heights to Kingston, New York. I’m already driving 120 miles a day.” He had friends in Kingston that he stayed with, renting a room from them during the week. Then he’d drive back to Hasbrouck Heights to stay with his sister and parents for the weekend. I said, “We’ll see what happens about our dating.”
I didn’t learn much about Patrick prior to leaving for Greystone, but felt comfortable around him. I liked his confidence and mannerisms. He looked a lot like Humphrey Bogart to me; I thought, hmmm. I was fascinated that he was older, more mature. The young guys didn’t do much for me; they didn’t have the maturity and hadn’t gone through what I had.
Mental-health courses started, and I settled into a cottage at Greystone’s nurses’ quarters.
Within about a week, there was a phone call for me, but I thought nobody knew that I was there. It was Patrick and he wanted to invite me for dinner. I said, “I thought we were done?” It was Saturday, and I had to work the next day.
He picked me up, we went on our date, he dropped me off, and I went to sleep. The next morning I woke up to get ready for work and there was Pat’s Chrysler parked right outside my cottage. I said, “My God, what is he doing here?”
I assumed he had been too tired to drive back to Hasbrouck Heights, so just slept in his car. I knocked on his window. “Hey, you’re going to give me a bad name, parking right out front here,” I said.
The resident staff of psychiatrists at Greystone was from all over: Germany, China, and the US One of the German doctors was from Bavaria. He and I were always bantering. It’s a custom that Bavarians and Prussians don’t see eye-to-eye; they’re too different.
Ursula met a Chinese psychiatrist, a resident, and ended up marrying him within a few months. I was dating a minister, George, from Greystone, who was originally from Berkeley, California. He liked jazz, and we’d have parties in the Greystone offices, listening to jazz, talking and dancing.
I liked jazz myself. Sometimes, I would go alone on the “A” train to New York Central Park to listen to jazz and attend concerts. I don’t know why I wasn’t afraid … stupid, I guess. When I first met George, a bunch of us drove into New York City, all the way to 142nd Street in Harlem, where many jazz musicians played. Yes, I’d say we were a multicultural group in a multicultural setting. We really enjoyed it. We’d have one drink and listen to some famous jazz musicians, like Dave Brubeck. I was thrilled, and said, “I should have my brother here!” Helmut was the one who first turned me on to jazz. I used to listen to jazz with him and have liked it ever since.
In those days, I was playing-the-field, dating several guys at one time! I remember once asking George, “Why did you become a man-of-the-cloth?” He said, “Because I like to talk.” After a few more dates with Pat, all of a sudden, I think I fell for him and dropped the minister.
Pat was a more interesting guy. He had been in the Navy, which fascinated me, and had many good stories. Later on, when he told me about his divorce, I didn’t think about marrying him; it was against my religion to marry a divorced man. And he was Catholic, whereas I was Lutheran.
Ursula and I completed the required three months of psych-nursing training at Greystone, took the State Boards, and became registered. I went back to Hackensack, marched into the director of nursing’s office, and said, “Now I want my salary like every other RN.” The director replied, “Well, I’ve got to see the necessary papers.” I showed her my license, was polite, but stated, “You were not fair to keep us here and stop us from getting the education we needed to become licensed.” She said, “Don’t tell anyone that you were granted this raise in pay.” “I’m going to tell everybody. Fair is fair,” I replied.
In the meantime, I would sit with other nurses, planning all sorts of scenarios after Hackensack, from joining the US Army Nurse Corps (ANC) to returning to our hometowns or countries. As a German citizen in America, my immigration papers allowed me to work three years with renewals. Of course, I had a passport and reported every year to immigration. I also had a sponsor: Hackensack Hospital. If I wanted to stay longer, all of my papers would be valid and in order. An idea I had was to stay in the US and become an American citizen after five years. But basically, I was just cruising for three years, soaking in American culture.
After my mother died, my father asked me to return home. He told me, “I’m alone here.” But I wasn’t ready to go back to Germany. Then he married again, so he didn’t need me. Anyway, I wouldn’t be there just to take care of him. I always remembered one of the things he told my brothers: “When birds are ready to fly, they fly out of the nest.” I thought, I guess that applies to me, too!
Father’s new wife, Helen, looked amazingly like my mother. I have no idea how they met, but to me, Helen was such a phony. She took advantage of my father and spent his money. When he died in 1983, Helen took off with his bankbooks. Well, c’est la vie, right?
It was the summer of 1958, and no sooner was I back at Hackensack when Pat called. I don’t know how he knew my schedule. Maybe he called before, while I was at Greystone, but something was going on.
We were driving down the highway, and Pat asked me to check his pocket. “There’s a little box in there. Open it up.” I did and it was an engagement ring. I said, “How romantic can you get?” I mean, finding a box with a ring inside-all this while driving! I said, “Oh my goodness! This is a bit of a surprise!” He said, “I hope we can get married, the sooner the better.” Then he told me we were going to see his family. I thought, oh boy, this is getting serious, fast!
The two of us had dinner, and I accepted his proposal. After dinner, we drove to his home in Hasbrouck Heights to meet his family. Guess what his sister Rosetta said: “She’s too young. Too young!” Well, I was twenty-six, and Pat was around forty-three. Rosetta was younger than Pat and married with two children. After her statement, Pat said, “I hope this works out.”
“You know,” I said, “I’ve been through a helluva lot. And you’ve been through war also. I think we both know about life and where we’re going.” Pat said, “My first wife was beautiful, but neurotic.” “Well, why did you marry her?” I asked. “It’s the old story,” he said. “When sailors come home, they meet a girl and get married. There’s no time to get to know each other.” I asked, “Didn’t you find any prostitutes when you were in the Navy?” He said, “I went to one once. I saw the cross on the wall and walked right out. I couldn’t do it.”
No, he couldn’t do it. It was the way he was raised—Catholic. I remember a Catholic friend asking me, “How can you be engaged to a Catholic when you’re not even Catholic?” I told her, “Religion does not enter into it!” Anyway, Pat was divorced and already out of the Church.
Of course, I liked Pat a lot, and I also liked his sister, Rosetta, and her two girls. Rosetta’s husband was also very nice and very Italian. He said, “When you set the date to get married, you let me know. We’ll bring the family together and have a big wedding.” Well, Pat and I didn’t tell anybody our plans to be married in Kingston, New York, Pat’s “second” home, in just a few weeks.
Before the wedding, I went to get my hair done and took along the ten-year-old daughter of Pat’s friends for a haircut. She announced to the hairdresser, “Lee’s getting married! We’re giving her a cookbook, because she doesn’t know how to cook!” It was true. Growing up in wartime, I could only watch whatever my mother made of the little food we had.
Pat and I were married on August 21, 1958. It was a Thursday, a warm humid day in Kingston, a pretty colonial town on the Hudson River. Pat’s close friends from Kingston were our witnesses, and that was it. Of course I wanted my family to be there, but knew they couldn’t travel from Germany on such short notice.
Patrick, now my husband, continued building barges for Rosenblatt & Son, New York marine engineers. Our first apartment was a small one-bedroom in Kingston. When Pat completed that job, we moved to a bigger apartment in Hasbrouck Heights, New Jersey. I was happy and content setting it up. And Pat and I were getting to know each other better after our short courtship.
When we first met, Pat was already retired from the Navy and caring of his parents. I met Pat’s dad at one of the family gatherings, but he died soon after we were married. I learned more details about Pat’s first marriage. There were three children; one died of complications from a tonsillectomy. Apparently, his wife was helpless running a household, flipping through magazines in bed while their two children climbed the kitchen counters to reach the cereal. All the responsibility fell on Pat; he couldn’t deal with a household, raising their son and daughter, plus his career. That’s why he got a divorce, because his wife was such a nut. I never met her, but I got to know Pat’s son in California when he was in college. (By then, his mother had done her damage.)
Early in our marriage, I thought, oh my God, what have I gotten into here? On the weekend, Pat would sleep in. I’d would have breakfast ready and he wasn’t getting up. When he finally came out of the bedroom, the first thing he did was smoke a cigarette and have a cup of coffee, saying, “I don’t eat breakfast.” That was a revelation! Well, I was learning.
The seventeen-year spread in our ages didn’t seem to make much difference, neither did our religions. Pat was mostly into politics and sports, but those subjects didn’t interest me much. When he watched games on TV, I’d be sitting there twiddling my thumbs, thinking, this is starting out really well. I did some part-time nursing in Kingston until Pat completed his contract building barges.
We enjoyed a busy social life. We would drive over to Kingston for breakfast with his friends, the ones with the ten-year-old daughter. Pat wasn’t really a drinker, but he drank with his buddies who were his age. They’d start out with Bloody Marys, then the champagne. Finally, we’d have Eggs Benedict with the works.
In Hasbrouck Heights, since I wasn’t working, I found myself spending lots of free time with Pat’s family. We went shopping or out to lunch. I’d listen to all the family talk. Pat commuted to work in New York City by bus and train and was gone all day. I got so bored that I told Pat I wanted to go back to work. “I understand. Do what you want,” he said.
My job was five days a week and one weekend a month with days off during the week. I worked at the same place I started when I stepped off the plane from the UK — Hackensack Hospital. It was rewarding to be applying skills and knowledge that took me years to learn. One day, my Italian mother-in-law told me, “If your husband can’t support you, then you shouldn’t have gotten married.” I said, “What are you talking about? I’m working because I’m bored.”
Pat and I didn’t have any children. The constant goings-on revolving around family were pretty boring to me. It’s not that I disliked them, or children, but with all the activity-crowds of company, family affairs, non-stop talking-I simply wanted my own space. I was not used to the commotion. Maybe I felt different, because of what I’d been through during the war. My experiences separated me. I never brought up what I went through and saw; they never asked me about my childhood or Germany. Around them, everything was Italian. And, like good Italians, they served huge meals of four or five courses. By the time the main course arrived, I was stuffed.
This is just an aside, but Pat found a book on astrology, and said, “You know, we shouldn’t even be married because it says you’re fire and I’m water. We eliminate each other!” Pat’s zodiac sign was Cancer for the crab, a water sign. Mine is Aries, the ram, a fire sign. Compatibility charts showed we clashed, both being strong-willed and stubborn. I said, “I don’t believe that. There must be another way of looking at it. Besides, we’re married. If it doesn’t work out, maybe we’ll get divorced.”
Six months after we were married, I was on day shift at the hospital and suddenly felt sick and nauseated. Intense abdominal pain made me think it was appendicitis. I went to lunch in the cafeteria, but just the smell of the onions and burgers made me sicker. When I reported my symptoms to the head nurse, she sent me to emergency. I had a temperature, and they did some lab work. I was told, “You’re going to be admitted. We think it’s appendicitis.”
That same night, they operated and found a ruptured ovarian cyst. When I was awake, the surgeon told me, “We should have done a hysterectomy, but you’re so young, you might want to have a child.” A few weeks after the surgery, I came down with endometriosis—inflammation of the uterus lining (what sloughs off every time you have a period). If endometriosis occurred previously, I wasn’t aware of it.
When I was a student, I remember fainting when I had my period. (The term “PMS” did not exist in those days.) My periods were irregular with menstrual pain that I thought was normal. No, I didn’t have any intimate relations prior to marriage.
After the surgery, I was pretty depressed for a while. I asked Pat, “Are you ready to have a baby?” “Whatever you want, it’s okay with me,” he said. Pat’s two children were already grown: Robert was fifteen and his daughter Carolyn worked for the telephone company.
I never got pregnant-part of my ovary was taken out.
We had a heat wave in New Jersey with such high humidity! Pat and I went out on the weekend to buy an air conditioner for the bedroom and living room. Pat asked, “Do you want to stay here in New Jersey?” “No, it’s too humid!” I said. We considered moving to Europe, or Arizona, or Florida, where we’d spent our honeymoon. When Pat was offered a job in Ft. Lauderdale, he said, “Let’s move to Florida.” I was all for it.
Once we left New Jersey, my mother-in-law, Josephine, would sometimes come and visit. Before I met Patrick, Josephine’s first son, “Ben-the-doctor,” was killed in a car crash many years before. She never recovered from the loss. When we picked her up at the airport, oh, she was still so sad! I tried to cheer her up.
Since being married, I had learned to cook Italian as well as German dishes. I knew I’d come a long way when I surprised family and friends with how edible my cooking was. Not only was the food tasty, but the table was set with glistening Hutschenreuther china and silver-wedding gifts from Germany.
Anyway, Josephine came into the kitchen while I was making Rouladen, a German dish made with beef, sliced very thin, spread with mustard, bacon, pickle, onion, salt and pepper, then rolled up and fastened with toothpicks. First, I browned the beef, then made gravy from the juices. I served the Rouladen with rice and red cabbage. Josephine called the dish by an Italian name. I explained that this was “the German version.” Once she tasted it, she remarked that it was better than the Italian recipe.
For another meal, I was making spaghetti and meatballs and using sauce from a jar. Josephine scolded me for not creating my own marinara sauce. My defense was that there were experts who knew more about sauces than I did. She made some critical comments, and finally, I said, “You know, if you want to cook, I’ll get out of the kitchen.” She left the kitchen and didn’t come back to supervise after that exchange.
Within one year after Pat and I were married, I applied for US citizenship. The process took only three years instead of five, because I was married to a US citizen. In 1962, while living in Florida, my citizenship papers came through. I was proud to be an American!
It turned out that Pat didn’t like his new job, but I was having a good time as a nurse at Broward General Hospital in Ft. Lauderdale. Broward had opened a psychiatric ward, and I was asked to work in psychiatry and inspect the rooms, because of my experience, such as it was. In my review, I said, “The way these rooms are set up is ridiculous.” I gave them some advice: “Patients can take down mirrors, break them, and cut themselves. There should be no glass in here, or anything patients could use to hurt themselves.” The administration’s response was to take my advice “under consideration.” A couple of days later, a young woman came in, jumped out the window, broke her hip, and sued the hospital. The administration admitted that I was right to have advised them to barricade the windows and take out all the mirrors -- whatever might help patients kill themselves.
Lee and Patrick
In May 1962, we were visiting family and friends in New Jersey when Pat received a phone call from the Rosenblatt Marine Engineering office, offering him a job in San Francisco. I was happy to hear this news! Going to California one-way-or-another was my goal from way back, and I was finally getting there.
We drove back to Florida, put the house up for sale and sold most of the furniture. Tired of the creepy-crawlies, the heat, and humidity, I was glad to leave it all behind, even though I would miss the friends I made there. We packed up our station wagon and took our time driving cross-country. Traveling through the desert, we drank water, water, water. I saw a lot of the US and enjoyed the trip. Pat did all of the driving. I was copilot, reading the maps.
We reached San Francisco in August shrouded in fog. I thought, this is it!
“I guess this is Eureka for you,” Pat said. He was never crazy about California. In the Navy, he was stationed in Long Beach. His comment was, “Everything’s so temporary in California.”
Our friends from Long Island, John and Ruth, were now living in San Francisco and had already rented an apartment for us in their building on 9th Avenue. Ruth loved to shop and took me with her. She drove to several stores to pick up bargains and spent all day doing so. I couldn’t believe it, but put up with it for a while. That life wasn’t my cup of tea.
Pat soon became involved with work, and we settled into San Francisco life. It didn’t take long for me to want a job. John said he had connections at St. Mary’s Hospital and could easily land me a job there. Instead, I applied at San Francisco General, a public hospital with lots of action. SFGH checked my papers and resume and hired me as a staff nurse. I requested to work in psychiatric nursing, and that’s where I was assigned. It was the end of October 1962.
I worked full-time, five days a week in psych to gain more experience. I enjoyed the work and my co-workers. I met Jean, the head nurse, there; she’s still a good friend of mine. During my two years in the psych department, there was never a dull moment. I learned a lot and the things I saw were amazing!
Back in 1962, Dr. Gloria Benting was Chief of the Psychiatric Department. Medical students, interns, and residents rotated through psych at SFGH, because it was a teaching institution run by UC, San Francisco Medical Center. Dr. Benting usually agreed with the psychiatrists’ findings and recommendations. Some of these doctors were envious of her diagnostic skills, such as determining whether a patient outwardly presented schizophrenic symptoms, or was really an alcoholic experiencing D.T.s, delirium tremens. Dr. Benting taught interns and residents a lifetime of experience in psych medicine and practice, and she provided the same quality of instruction to RNs. Patients were sent to us for observation and treatment because of Dr. Benting’s reputation and ability.
As patients were admitted, Dr. Benting taught us to do all of the assessing. We were trained in observing and interviewing patients on their medical history to help with the doctor’s diagnosis. Dr. Benting also read our notes (most doctors did not). We made rounds with her, reporting about the new admissions. After looking at my notes, she asked me a couple of questions, and approved them. She knew most of the patients. Some of them were repeaters.
Dr. Benting was not the only clinical psychiatrist diagnosing patients; other psychiatrists were also. They had to come up with a diagnosis and, hopefully, not one that would stigmatize patients for the rest of their lives. When someone was determined “schizophrenic,” that stuck with them forever. Dr. Benting was very careful about labeling a patient.
Doctors did their rounds, talked a few minutes with each patient and ordered meds and diet. If patients needed further treatment, or were headed for jail, they had a hearing before a judge. Papers had to be signed based on information from the psychiatrists. Depending on the outcome of the hearing with the judge, patients could be sent home, taken to jail, sent to a state hospital, provided private care, or moved to the treatment ward at SFGH or UC Med Center Psychiatric Unit.
Ideally, the judge and psychiatrists decided a patient’s fate together, but one particular judge frequently allowed patients to go free against psychiatric advice. The psychiatrists looked upon this judge as practicing medicine without a license. He released critical patients not only a danger to themselves, but also to others, a situation the community had to live with.
In one case, I was the only nurse in a locked ward, so other patients had to pull a woman away who tried to strangle me. The patient went before the judge, and he let her go. She had composed herself for court and acted like a normal rational person. After she was discharged, this same woman attacked a bus driver. Within a couple of hours, she was back in the hospital committed for therapy to the State Hospital in Napa.
Generally speaking, most of the patients admitted for “observation,” a 72-hour involuntary psychiatric hold, were picked up on the streets of San Francisco without much money, if any money at all. During this three-day detention, the docs dealt with patients efficiently in order to keep the psychiatric ward open for new cases turning up. Some of them were alcoholics, users of various drugs, bipolar in the manic phase, and suicidal. At the time, SFGH had 120 beds in the psychiatric department for treatment of chronic mental disorders in female and male wards.
I remember an occasion when I had had just rotated into night shift. A woman came in extremely agitated, screaming, and bent on committing suicide. A picture to behold, she also wore black lacy underwear. I wondered, what’s with her? She was locked in an isolation room to help quiet her down. After she was calmer, I had to give her shots and tried to get her medical history. She asked about her “little black book.” I said I didn’t know anything about it. She demanded her black book. I asked what was in it. She screamed, “None of your goddamned business! I want that book!” Finally, she was sedated and put to bed.
The next day, interns hovered over her, because she was interesting and sexy. Maybe they knew who she was; I didn’t have a clue. But somehow, I gained her confidence, and she told me she was a call-girl, a pricey one at that. She said, “The names of very prominent people are in there, the so-called pillars of the community. I can’t let that book out of my hands.” I asked how she got into this business. She said, “My family’s middle-class; it was boring, always being told what to do.” Her parents lived in Northern California, and her father was a sheriff. She said, “I was kind of a rebel. That’s why I wound up doing what I’m doing. I made a lot of money … a lot of money.” I thought, how interesting. I asked why she wanted to commit suicide. “One of my boyfriends threw all my records out the window in an argument.”
The interns were fascinated by her; she was different, young and attractive. Oh yes, the docs swarmed in to check her out. I think her black book was finally placed in her hands. It was confiscated by police and locked in a safe, while she was in the psych ward. I don’t know whatever happened to her.
Patients admitted due to suicide attempts were placed under guard and in padded cells where they couldn’t hurt themselves. If they were in extreme states, we tied them down at four points, restraining arms and legs. (Things have really changed since the sixties.) Some patients still managed to hurt themselves no matter what we did.
One woman was seen by a judge and committed to the state hospital for treatment. She was to get dressed and transported out that day. At lunch, when everyone was busy with meal service for patients, she went into the bathroom. Someone came to check on her and found she’d hung herself by the cord from her pajamas. We cut her down and worked on her until she was transferred to ICU where she died.
During the “Hippie Era” of the sixties, legions of young people were dropping acid and experimenting with all kinds of drugs. Many of them were admitted to SFGH psych department. I remember one young man came in, and yelled, “Don’t touch me! I’m an orange, don’t squeeze me!” Fueled by LSD, he kept beating his head against the wall. We put him in a padded room so he wouldn’t split his skull open.
Heroin addicts came and went. One woman admitted was a heavy-duty addict shooting up inside her mouth; all her veins and arteries were scarred with needle marks. Then she injected heroin into her buttock and got infected, picking up tetanus from a dirty needle. She was brought into emergency with seizures and lock jaw. Tetanus was a frequently fatal disease.
I was “specialing” her (a term in psychiatric nursing referring to one nurse in constant attendance to one patient), and as soon as her body started to seize, I pushed the button. The doctor rushed in and administered IV meds to stop her seizures. She also needed oxygen since the meds paralyzed her lungs. One doctor treating her said, “See how much time we’re wasting with this addict? Twenty-four-hour-shift nurses, doctors on call, the IVs, the medications.…” The docs didn’t like it, but she did get better.
Another patient was as paranoid as they come. She was German and worked as a breakfast cook for the Folger’s Company in San Francisco. Previously, she had also worked for the Folger family in Florida. Once I gained her trust, she told me, “They’re always following me. I just couldn’t take it in Florida anymore. I couldn’t tell anybody I was afraid. One day, I just left and got on the train. I thought, Thank God! Then I saw two men jump on-board behind me. They were after me!” She was admitted immediately, because the Folger family wasn’t going to put up with that. She was sent to the female psych ward for treatment.
Another patient was quite aggressive a petite, feisty woman. In the morning, I went to take her from the isolation room for lab work. She seemed quiet, and I thought, wow, she’s really calmed down. After the blood was drawn, I said, “Okay, Jane, let’s go back to your room.” I don’t know what happened, but all of a sudden, she hauled off and belted me one! The doctor grabbed her and got her back to the room.
I kind of felt sorry for another patient a judge had released against the psychiatrist’s recommendation. Charlene (not her name) had become an alcoholic and lost her husband and son due to drinking. She was very tall, a good-looking blonde with long hair, an ex-model turned to prostitution. She was picked up for bad behavior frequently and admitted to the hospital. Over time and with every visit, it was easy to tell that Charlene was deteriorating.
On one occasion, she came in with a severe burn on her buttock. The nurses that cared for her recognized the burn from a coiled hot-plate. Apparently, Charlene had gotten so drunk she didn’t know what was beneath her. Her agitation was such that she had to be locked up in an isolation room. When she went to court, she lost it and called the judge all kinds of names. He wouldn’t have that and sentenced Charlene to ninety days in jail. In that time, she recovered very well from lots of rest and decent food. She was physically improved and discharged. As soon as she was released, I don’t know where she got the clothes, but she dressed up and went to one of the better hotel bars in San Francisco. Pretty soon, admirers were buying her drinks. It didn’t take much for her to lose her inhibitions and start dancing on top of the piano, taking her clothes off. About three or four days later, Charlene was back at the hospital. It’s too bad how alcohol can ruin a life.
RNs had access to much of the research on alcoholism and were aware that most alcoholics drank to hide other psychological symptoms — delusions, hallucinations, depression, among others. Of course, we saw the extremes. I always thought that some chemicals must have been missing in their brains to cause cravings for alcohol, that there was an imbalance somewhere, especially for binge drinkers. What I did know was that the end state of alcoholism was not pretty. Quite a few alcoholics were diagnosed with cirrhosis of the liver, an irreversible disease. At the end state of alcoholism, the liver no longer functions and stops processing bile. The gall bladder then releases bile, so alcoholics turn green. Doctors named these patients “green hornets” and tried to treat them with blood transfusions. These patients would have diarrhea; it’s all blood. The nurses would become quite upset watching these treatments, thinking, what a waste of blood! We’re pouring it in, and it’s coming out the other end! It is a horrible death.
I remember one agitated patient, a well-educated engineer, was assigned to me. I had to obtain his information and medical history, take his vital signs, and get a urine sample, for which I gave him a small jar. I said, “I’ll be back in a little while to pick it up, whenever you’re ready.” When I returned for his urine specimen, he looked at me, and said, “Is that enough? Or do you want me to run it through again?” He brought the jar to his mouth as if he was going to drink his own urine. I said, “Come off it!” Some of them were jokers; some of them were violent.
I was assigned to the psych treatment ward for more training and heard about a patient, a black woman, who had attacked some of the care givers. One day, she said, “Oh, hi Lee. How are you doing?” I said, “I’m fine.” After a little conversation, she came close in my face, and said, “How would you like it if I hit you?” I said, “Try me. I’ll hit you right back!” Well, she moved off. The other people that she’d hit were intimidated by her, and she got away with it.
I found the job fascinating and learned a lot. I enjoyed working with a great team of nurses and doctors. Over time, however, my frustrations grew. When I finally decided to leave the psychiatric department in 1964, it was due to unfair treatment in assigning night shifts. I was supposed to work only three months of night shifts a year, but was assigned more. I talked to the supervisor, and she questioned me about my private life, which I found vey offensive. I did not respect her and knew of her reputation as a gossip. In the end, the handling of nurse’s complaints became so political, I decided to leave.
I had vacation time coming, so Pat and I went to Germany for a month. It had been eight-or-so years since I was last there. When we returned, I was back working at SFGH on the condition that I would not be working in psych. I was assigned to the main building, doing one of the easiest jobs I ever had.
Back-Lee, Heinrich: middle-Monica (Heinrich’s niece), Lucas; lower-Lucas, David
A small ward was set aside for UCSF Med Center to conduct research on alcoholics. My assignment was specializing the alcoholics: compiling their complete family background, eating habits, drinking habits, smoking habits, and behavior. The doctors were studying a census of six to eight patients. I learned extensively about alcoholics, not only from this research, but also concerning medical treatments when they reached the point of liver damage. During this time, I met up with the US Army.
It was 1965, when the US Army 347th General Hospital Chief Nurse, Lt. Col. Lorraine Friedman, came knocking. I was working in the research ward, and she questioned me about my assignment for alcoholic research. She also asked about my background and interest in joining the Army Reserve Nurse Corps. The officer gave me her card and, one evening, called me at home. She explained the papers required and their processing, which could take a year or two. Depending on my experience and education, I would be assigned a rank. I was already in school for my undergraduate degree, but it had to be completed to count.
In the meantime, the UCSF research on alcoholics was completed, and I was next assigned to medicine. In the sixties, SFGH’s surgical and medical patients were separated in open wards of partitioned cubicles for privacy. About thirty-two patients occupied each ward, some in private rooms down the hall, but still open. It was difficult work for the nurses dealing with mostly very sick patients. On weekend shifts, two nurses on the ward cared for fifteen to seventeen patients each. I think we had one aide to help us with these very ill patients. Between us, we did the bathing, linen changes, medications, and IV’s. Patient-to-nurse ratios are better nowadays. I considered my paycheck combat pay, especially, when caring for patients rejected by ICU. The medical ward seemed to collect all the rejects. If the psych ward was overcrowded with no empty beds, patients would be sent to the medical ward.
In the medical ward, I was assigned a patient in four-point restraints, a big black man, an alcoholic in DTs, convinced of ghosts under his bed. In a very restless state, he got himself out of the restraints. The next thing, I saw him pulling tracheostomy tubes from patients’ necks. He said he was “taking care of the snakes.” Talk about a snake pit! I didn’t need this crisis on top of everything else. I administered Librium by mouth as prescribed, but in my opinion, this patient needed a lot more.
“We’ll get you back in bed …” I kept talking and he didn’t attack me. “I know what you’re doing,” he said. I managed to get him in the restraints, and he seemed to quiet down. Minutes later, he freed himself and jumped out the window. It was four-levels down.
We had a conference about the event. I said, “There has to be a happy medium,” concerning the amount of Librium prescribed. The doctors explained that treatment was a challenge, that they walked a fine line. This patient, in particular, was an alcoholic without a properly functioning liver. If given too many medications, his liver wouldn’t be able to metabolize them, and he’d become listless, even comatose. Another outcome might be that the patient developed pneumonia and died. The doctors would then be accused of inadequate monitoring of patients. Unable to calculate the tolerance of a patient’s liver, they were hard-pressed to find a middle ground.
I stopped working five days a week. Always doing overtime, no opportunity for breaks or to go to the bathroom it was exhausting. I began a part-time schedule, so my husband and I could spend most weekends together. I started to “float” through the hospital, meaning I went wherever I was assigned due to staff shortages as a floater nurse. I refused to work in psych, so was never sent back there. Many floaters didn’t spend more than one day on a ward. We didn’t know who our patients were — there wasn’t time.
With shortage of personnel, the need for floaters steadily occurred in ICU. Floaters were assigned to care for only two patients and not the worst cases. However, as a floater, I was frequently assigned three patients in ICU. The staff took advantage of me because, “She’s a good worker! She can do it!” After a while, some of the float nurses refused being assigned to ICU.
When a new coronary care unit was opened, I was asked if I wanted to learn about caring for patients with heart diseases. I was accepted into a five-day research course professionally run by UCSF at SFGH. In our instruction, we had to zap a German Shepherd dog to stop its heart, then start it up again with IV’s and medications. When a couple of the nurses found out about experimentation on animals going on in a regular lab at SFGH, they wanted to drop the course. The doctors told them to stick around.
After the clinical work, we went to class. To our surprise, the instructor led into the room the same female dog we had zapped that morning. She was unharmed and even surrounded by her month-old puppies. A couple of the nurses dropped out anyway, not wanting anything to do with it.
Once completing training, we took care of patients in the coronary unit equipped with new and experimental machines. Every time the bells and monitors went off, I’d jump! I thought, this has got to stop. I reassured myself, you’ve assessed patients with a stethoscope, with your fingers, and with your eyes. Why be afraid of bells? It occurred to me that the machines were on our side. Patients were hooked up and we were able to see their heart activity on the monitor. At the desk, the bell would ring and strips would print that we’d check if anything’s going on with the heart. We found out there were many false alarms. It just took working with the equipment and getting comfortable with it for things to settle down and become routine.
When I was asked to be the night nurse, I declined and left the coronary care unit. I was very bad with night shift because I could not sleep during the day. I had done lots of night shifts for a while in psych. Night shift became especially hard when we moved from San Francisco to a condo in Greenbrae, north of the Golden Gate Bridge. We liked the climate of Marin County better than the city, but many times I was afraid I’d fall asleep behind the wheel driving home. The distance from our condo to SFGH was three times further than our apartment on 9th Avenue. I continued to float, going wherever I was assigned in the hospital.
Finally, the Army Reserves called me. It took two years, but at the end of June 1967, my required papers were in order, and I took the physical. Back in Florida in 1962, I had become a US citizen, and the FBI checked out my entire record for security clearance. I was to begin active duty the coming weekend stationed at Fort Ord. I asked myself, what now? How do I get ready? I bought the necessary uniforms, and Pat, ex-Navy man, instructed me on the basics: how to stand in formation, how to salute, how to cadence, how to put the rank on the uniform.
I was sworn in on July 5, 1967 as a first lieutenant at Fort Ord, US Army post on Monterey Bay, California, where I was stationed for two weeks of active duty. My assigned base was to be the 347th General Hospital at the Presidio of San Francisco, with training at SFGH.
I became a “ramp tramp,” meaning I walked and walked, often on planks between buildings, making rounds at the old hospital. Soon after, I made second lieutenant.
By the end of my Fort Ord assignment, I was promoted to captain, I think because of my assistance in their brand new coronary care unit. My experience at SFGH’s CCU helped to solve a couple of their equipment problems for heart patients. The Army staff in coronary care was not experienced in that area, whereas my experience was in medicine and heart disease. The Fort Ord nurses were regular RNs without CCU training.
When I returned home to civilian life, I felt that I had made the right decision joining the Army Reserves Nurse Corps. It was fun! I looked forward to my next turn at active duty and a full career in the military.
At SFGH, I continued part-time as a floater assigned now-and-then to a surgical floor. Patients came in with shotgun wounds, stabbings, hit-and-run, and car-crash injuries. My assignment was primarily administering medications. It never stopped: the pre-ops, the post-ops, the regular antibiotics, and pain medications. The types of patients were mixed, mostly the poor, quite a few elderly, blacks, Orientals, and out-of-towners caught up in accidents, mishaps, and violent acts of passion. In the late sixties, there weren’t many Hispanic or homeless patients admitted.
I remember one Chinese patient assigned to me didn’t speak English. (The staff spoke only English.) As I was trying to give him a bed bath, he made a comment in Chinese that caused the other patients to laugh. When I asked what he said, the response was, “Get the hell out of here and leave me alone, you bitch!’” He did not want to be bothered. I said, “Well, this is what it takes.” If patients came in dirty, they had to have a bath, but in the emergency room there wasn’t time. Patients were admitted and, depending on how busy the night staff was, baths might not be given until the next day.
Back then, 90 percent of the nursing staff at SFGH was female. The male nurses I knew worked in the psychiatric unit. I started noticing that male nurses moved into administration as soon as possible. Most of the nurses were Caucasian. In psychiatric nursing, I remember we had two black RNs, two Japanese RNs, and several black psych techs. Through one of them, I met O.J. Simpson, because his mother worked as a psych tech. When I was on day shift, O.J. occasionally came in after his classes at San Francisco City College.
Despite the good salaries (in those days), shortages of nurses existed off-and-on throughout the years. It seemed that patients were showing up much sicker and with multiple diagnoses. As time went on, I noticed more and more nurses being recruited from the Philippines and, also, Russia.
In 1969, when I finally decided to leave SFGH for good, I had worked at the hospital for seven years. Towards the end, I was seriously thinking of returning to college to earn my undergraduate degree. In the fall of that year, I did just that and became a full-time student at Lone Mountain, a private college in San Francisco. I took as many units as possible and majored in sociology, minored in psychology and nursing. With my fluency in German, the college gave me credit for the language requirement, plus recognized my prior nursing experience.
While going to school, I worked part-time at Marin General Hospital and was still associated with San Francisco General. The Army Reserves had assigned me to the 347th General Hospital to train corpsmen in the SFGH neurosurgical ward. A majority of the corpsmen had to start from the beginning, because they had professions and jobs in civilian life entirely unrelated to nursing.
As a past floater in the hospital, I was often assigned to head-injury patients in the neurosurgical ward and learned about their special needs. When I would come into the neuro ward with the corpsmen on my Army weekends, the regular SFGH neuro staff loved us! They were very overworked with even more shortages on the weekends, when the administration didn’t want to spend money on overtime or extra staff! The extra help made their weekend easier. In neuro, my job was to teach the corpsmen all the basic nursing skills with patients in mostly total-care conditions as well as learn neurological assessments and vital signs.
I sat down with the SFGH charge nurse and negotiated with her as to which patients, usually numbering from ten to twelve, we were going to care for, giving basic care and dressings, taking vital signs, feeding, ambulating as required by doctor’s orders.
The staff thought that one of the patients diagnosed with a “back injury,” whom I had assigned to the corpsmen, was faking and not really that ill. He refused to be touched, so was not bathed for days or ambulated. His bed was in a corner behind a screen smelling up a storm.
I introduced myself and two corpsmen, and said, “We are going to take care of you today.” He asked, “They are?” Oh, he was with it. I said, “Yes, and you will get a bath and shave. We’ll get you in a wheelchair, make your bed, and give you something to eat, drinkwhatever you want.” He said, “Not on your life.” I let him know we won’t take no for an answer and walked away.
I told the guys, “You know what to do. I’ll be back.” The corpsmen had learned how to give a bed-bath, shave, and transfer patients. They managed to do what this patient needed. I heard a lot of yelling and swearing, but I couldn’t supervise just these two corpsmen. I had about six or seven other corpsmen doing assignments which needed checking. After a while, one of the corpsmen said, “Oh, this guy wants to marry you!” I said, “Really? Why?” He had told the corpsman, “I’ll marry her, then kill her!” I’ll never forget that one!
My Army stint at SFGH was followed by the 347th training corpsmen at Letterman Army Medical Center (LAMC) at San Francisco Presidio, teaching Army procedures and policies, so we would all perform according to Army regulations.
In May 1971, I graduated with a BA in sociology from Lone Mountain. Already teaching to train corpsmen for the Army, I couldn’t forget experiences that I had during seven years working at San Francisco General. Especially towards the end, I observed that ancillary staff and orderlies lacked minimal nursing skills and basic education. To me, young women and men in nursing needed proper schooling, as well as instruction in the humane care of patients. I was inspired to consider teaching as a profession.
After Lone Mountain, I pursued a teaching credential at UC Berkeley Extension. Patrick wasn’t too crazy about my teaching nursing, but he went along with the idea since I was determined.
Being in the Army Nurse Corps (ANC) felt natural to me, so when I was offered a permanent active-duty position, I had to think. With a husband and another life besides the US Army, I decided to turn it down. Instead, I took short tours of two weeks’ active duty in the summer, such as at “higher headquarters” in the state of Washington. It worked out well since I had received my teaching credential and started teaching for the San Francisco School District WIN (Workforce Initiative Network) program in the Mission District. I taught remedial math, remedial English, and medical terminology to young people, mostly blacks, and some Hispanics.
A male instructor, teaching mostly mathematics, and I were to get these students up-to-snuff and to the point of taking their high school equivalency test. The year after I started, the WIN program folded for unknown reasons. I was told of an opening for a Licensed Vocational Nursing instructor at the John Adams Campus of San Francisco City College. I applied and was hired. The LVN program was a three-semester course of instruction/theory and clinical work.
John Adams Campus was the former Lowell High School and showing its age with old and dilapidated classrooms and laboratory equipment. One of my assignments was teaching a course to upgrade foreign RNs. Most of them, originally from China and Russia, were behind clinically, as well as in the theory of nursing, and challenged with language difficulties. Some of these students scared me due to their ignorance. They did not know a thing about electrolytes or any technical procedures such as suctioning and collecting urine, to name a few. I refused to teach them after the first class. I felt they were dangerous and needed much more training and education before working with real patients. In a long letter to the director, I reported my observations and explained that I did not want to lose my license if anything went wrong. These “trainees” were dealing with defenseless patients!
For the first three weeks in the LVN program, students learned both theory and skills to enable them to work in clinical areas. I enjoyed teaching clinical aspects more than theoretical, because of the interaction students had with patients. Students were closely supervised and taught how to administer medications and apply dressings, among other skills such as bed-making, taking vital signs, giving bed baths, and understanding body mechanics. LVNs received about 80 percent of the nursing education that RNs received. In my opinion, our students were much better in clinical performance. Many of our LVNs progressed toward RN programs of two or four years.
In 1972, after an appointment with my OB-GYN, I was diagnosed with ovarian cancer. I remained petrified when the oncologist told me it may not be treatable if the cancer had gone to the liver. It hadn’t. My first surgery was in August at Marin General Hospital, followed by chemotherapy, eight weeks of radiation, then back on chemotherapy. I was off work for three months, until November.
Dealing with cancer was no picnic, but support from my husband and friends helped me through the ordeal. I underwent chemotherapy for a total of six years, even while I was in the Army, out in the field for annual training, or working at San Quentin State Prison.
In retrospect, the awareness of cancer and its ramifications were a wake-up call. I learned yoga, visualization, praying, and meditation. I also changed my diet. With the research pointing to red meat, we no longer ate much of it. I reverted to the diet of my childhood in East Prussia: less meat, more greens, more raw vegetables, and fruit. When my mother made naturally-fermented cabbage, I remembered how delicious it was. My sister and I chopped cabbage, and I would eat a handful of it every day during winter. In the years of WWII and after, not much else was available except fresh carrots, potatoes, turnips, and some apples—all seasonal.
We didn’t have any sugar to speak of. Everything was rationed during the war. For sweetness, we ate fruit and what my mother preserved. It was a treat to get a cookie, or if Mother baked a cake. After being diagnosed with cancer, I wanted to get away from sugar in any form and go back to my childhood diet.
At John Adams Campus I resumed teaching vocational nursing students, and also delved into my weekend Army activities assigned to Veterans’ Hospital in Menlo Park. I taught corpsmen in a geriatric ward, and the work turned out to be really boring. I also felt the setting was not appropriate for training corpsmen that needed to care for acute combat patients with injuries beyond basic nursing care, although learning took place.
Nursing group at Ft. Ord
I transferred to the 352nd Evacuation Hospital (EH) in Oakland, thinking that I would later return to the 347th, which had moved to Moffit Field near San Jose. It turned out that I liked everything about the 352nd assignment. As a Reserve Evac Hospital, training had to take place in a military hospital setting to specifications. Like me, most of the Reserves Army nurses were female, and they had to learn to teach soldiers how to be corpsmen; the majority of corpsmen were of the Vietnam era. Some of the nurses even went to Veterans’ Hospital in San Francisco to train corpsmen and to take care of vets, whereas I was assigned to Letterman Army Medical Center. All nurses needed to learn military nursing which was different from civilian care which is less formalized.
While the personnel section took care of paperwork, my time was divided between training at LAMC and in the field with MUST (Mobile Unit Surgical Team) equipment. During inclement weather, the nurses and corpsmen worked in the clinical setting at LAMC and Oakland.
The 352nd unit members, soldiers, medics, doctors/professional staff, officers all worked hard together with great camaraderie. They were tireless moving gear to the field and training with MUST equipment used extensively in Vietnam. It wasn’t easy setting up a field hospital. Much of the material was rubber. When the weather turned hot, the rubber was too hot to touch. In the cold, the material was so cold, it was difficult to handle. Later the equipment was changed to DEPMEDS (Deployable Medical Sets), which was easier to care for and set up.
After about six months, I was promoted to major and assigned supervisor in charge of all the corpsmen at LAMC. When I became major, Col. Harry Lee, Cdr. of the 352nd EH, a Chinese physician, said, “Now you can go back to where you came from, the 347th GH.” I responded, “No, I like the 352nd. I’ll stick around here.”
I developed a skills’ curriculum to teach basic nursing care, vital signs, sterile dressings, body mechanics, bed baths, transportation, catheterization, enemas, oxygen therapy, etc. The corpsmen were being skills-tested without actual hands-on training. We needed to teach the enlisted thoroughly to ensure confidence in providing the necessary care. They received nursing theory with practice ahead of time. Then we found patients appropriate for the various tasks on the skills list, e.g., doing a catheterization. It seemed to work except some of the Army nurses wanted to split us up and have the corpsmen do the “gofer” jobs.
We were Reservists and the regular LAMC staff was telling my people what to do, such as, “Pass the water and take vital signs.” My response was, “We’re an Evac Hospital. We will not pass out water and give urinals. We have a wartime mission.” One Army nurse, Capt. Rosenberg, told me, “You’re the first supervisor of a Reserve unit to put her foot down and insist on training her people.” We had a list of skills/tasks for the training year with a copy to the Nursing office at LAMC. A copy also went to the 352nd training officer to keep records of the list we intended to follow.
In summer, with time off from teaching at John Adams, I went on active duty with the 352nd Evac Hospital. We trained at Camp Parks, also at Two Rock Coast Guard Station in Petaluma, and a reservoir near San Jose. Higher headquarters designated Camp Parks as the Medical Training Area.
In the field, the Chief Nurse was responsible for the hospital’s layout. The Chief Ward Master, as right-hand of the Chief Nurse, was more hands-on with hospital plans and equipment, usually teaching students various hospital layouts to enable good patient flow.
I remember a very cold morning, there I was, a new major, out in the field setting up the MUST Unit. One of the Medical Corps members, a full colonel, was wandering around the area and commenting on how cold it was. I said, “Well, if you take your hands out of your pockets and help us work, maybe you’ll get warm!” After I said it, I thought, he could get me in trouble for insubordination. I mean, you just don’t talk like that to a colonel. But he did put on his gloves and do some work. You can’t act like a prima donna while everyone around you is working their booties off, especially when the commander of the unit worked alongside with us. With top-heavy medical units short of workers, all the various specialties were officers, including the nurses.
We used to pull all kinds of dirty tricks on this colonel, and he was Chief of Professional Services! As a matter of fact, he had been enlisted in the Hungarian Army, the Red Army, on the “other” side of the fence. When he immigrated to the US, he went to medical school and actually became a very good public-health medic doctor with specialties in bio-terrorism, except he was lazy. I was the only one able to get work out of him in the field. (The same applied later at our nursing meetings, after I became Chief Nurse.)
In the field, we’d set up a hospital to check patient flow: how patients were admitted and moved through the systemfrom EMT to lab to X-ray, etc.—for a properly designed setup. Our own soldiers acted as patients. The wounded, moulaged for various injuries, were brought to the EMT and triaged. We used a couple of doctors if available, otherwise, the ER nurses would triage patients and decide on priority of care. After the patient play, we critiqued and had a debriefing session on what was good, bad, and what to improve useful training for all concerned.
Later on, when I was promoted to Acting Chief Nurse of the 352nd, officers in administration and training tried to gang up on me and embarrass me. They didn’t know surviving the war taught me what was important.
In civilian life, I found a teaching position at San Quentin State Prison’s Neumiller Hospital School of Vocational Nursing to replace its retiring director/instructor. In the 1970s, San Quentin was like a little city with 4,500 – 5,250 inmates. Its hospital had 120 beds, a clinic, an emergency room, recovery room, ICU, and operating room. It was a regular hospital in a separate building connected to one of San Quentin’s two different blocks. Neumiller Hospital allowed the students solid exposure to clinical experiences.
Only men were imprisoned at San Quentin, but I was never afraid. Sometimes, I would go behind the double gates where the high-profile, heavy-duty prisoners were held. Sirhan Sirhan, the man who killed Robert Kennedy, was there. This area was always locked up with extremely tight security.
My hours were 7:30 am to 4:30 pm, Monday through Friday, teaching theory and clinical nursing, making sure students received the best possible exposure and education. Mornings were spent in the clinical areas, followed by classes in theory from 1:00 pm to 3:00 pm After learning basic skills in the lab setting, students were assigned to patients to provide appropriate care as ordered under my supervision and, of course, doctor’s orders.
The director finished the year’s program, and then I started teaching the majority of classes in clinical procedures. I spent most of my time in the clinical area of the hospital. The outgoing director watched and evaluated my clinical skills, which she often complimented. I also rewrote and updated the LVN curriculum for the school, because the old director focused on theory, not clinical. My belief was that nursing needed balance, considering that LVNs work primarily in clinical areas caring for patients. The director and I set it up so that I would teach all the clinical basics during the first sixteen weeks, including anatomy and physiology. Students were tested on these subjects, plus the medical math they needed for administering medication. If students passed the final test of that section, they would continue their LVN education. If they failed, they were certified and became Certified Nursing Assistants.
I had fifteen students in my first class, all of whom the director had interviewed and approved for the course. (California state law limited the number of students to fifteen per instructor.) The average age of my students was about thirty years; the oldest was in his late thirties. Their ethnic backgrounds were mixed, mostly Caucasians, but also several blacks, Asians, Filipinos, and Japanese. Most of them were very smart, too. They were the ones with the intelligence and education to be accepted for the class.
On the day the director retired, we had a big party for her with punch, fruit, and cake. From what I had observed, the job had taken its toll on her. She was getting on in age, challenged by all kinds of physical problems, and turning into an alcoholic. My feeling was that she was too easy on the students, and they took advantage of her. Yet she did what she was able to do, and the students loved her for caring. After she hired me and saw that I had a stricter approach than she did, she wasn’t happy. To me, just because students faced unique challenges as convicts in San Quentin did not mean they weren’t intelligent and able to learn like any other motivated students in school. The day had arrived when the director/instructor position at Neumiller Hospital’s LVN program became my responsibility.
In the ten-month program, students had to complete the hours required for both theory and clinical to graduate. I expected that some students would not be able to proceed beyond sixteen weeks due to lack of schooling, among other reasons.
When I picked inmates for class, I wanted the best of them, not the premeditated killers. I checked out the jackets of probably 150 applicants for their potential, education, criminal past, as well as their IQs. (Intelligence tests were given in prison.) Then I interviewed them face-to-face, on an individual basis.
Many prisoners at San Quentin were sociopaths or psychopaths. Their jackets were full of criminal offenses they’d committed over the years; history and behavior patterns were there. Some of them were classified schizophrenic, “simple schiz,” some of them paranoid schizophrenic. Some were extremely agitated, because they heard voices all the time. Maybe they became so used to hearing them, it didn’t bother them. They grew withdrawn and reclusive. On medication, they functioned okay.
Lots of applicants were drug addicts, some figuring to get near drugs in the hospital. If they were accepted into the program, I watched them every step of the way, only allowing one of them present at a time during any routine or special medication administration.
Many students were lifers and would not get out soon, or ever, but wanted training to work in the prison hospital or its clinic as attendants. Some of the applicants I considered had committed murder in crimes-of-passion without premeditation. The administration told me to accept certain cold-blooded killers into the program, and I refused. One of the prisoners I refused to put in my class had shot a man in the back of the head and shot off the man’s fingertips, a totally premeditated act to destroy his victim’s identification. Another convict had found his wife with another man and killed her in a fit of rage. He graduated from the LVN course, but was not licensed by the state. As time went by, he couldn’t stand the guilt of his action and hung himself in his cell.
I felt that most of the convicts were in prison because they were emotionally troubled due to a dysfunctional home, no home, or no love. Some of them, though, were really con-artists. One of them wore thick-rimmed glasses and was very astute. He was called “the professor” and was quite a manipulator, but he could type. Others were just regular people. I could tell that some prisoners had their own little businesses going. One of them, not in my class, ran a prostitution ring outside. Who knows how he did it, but he did.
One of my students was in the Mensa Society, open to people with IQs of 160 to 168. A few other students were just as eligible for Mensa, but did not join the society. Each of them could have accomplished anything they wanted to and been successful on the outside. When I asked how they wound up at San Quentin with such high IQs, they said, “We do things for the thrill of it all … always on the edge, just for the excitement.” The convict with an IQ of 168 had killed two people while high on LSD. He was in prison for life, but was qualified to work in the hospital. In one class, I had three students with very high IQs; they all seemed emotionally immature.
I did not have time to tutor individual students. Once they became delinquent, I had to let them go. If they were close to delinquency, I’d give them notice in writing, warning them of being dropped if they missed the required hours. A few of the students thought they could get away with it and tried to manipulate me, but it didn’t work. They didn’t grasp that I was accountable to strict regulations of the State Board.
To find out how I was doing as director and instructor, the State Board of Nursing requested a visit. On the day I was asked to present a class , my objective was to go over a test. The Nursing Board representative said that would be fine. She sat in the back of the class and listened to the bantering.
The retired director had allowed the students to keep the old tests with the correct answers. Students expected to be prepared with memorized answers to take the same test, but they were outmaneuvered. I rewrote the whole test and most of them failed. By the time of the Nursing Board representative’s visit, students had wised up to the new tests and would spend half the night researching a test question. I had to be very careful with the questions and be prepared for their arguments when they challenged me about some of the answers. We practically used up the whole hour going over the test. I told them if they could convince me that I was not clear in a question, it would be dropped altogether.
The classroom was a neutral space, where students were treated like human beings. In the clinical area, I was always checking patients’ diagnosis to teach certain procedures that students had to learn: sterile dressings, burn dressings, irrigations, debridement, and other procedures.
When I heard about a convict who refused to have his dressing changed, I requested to see the man and was allowed. He was Hispanic, spoke English, and had been burned during firefighting in the mountains. He had a large burn on his right thigh which was infected, but he refused treatment. I introduced myself. He said, “I heard about you.” I said, “I need to teach my students sterile dressings. Do you mind if I come and bring a student in here? I’ll tell you what’s going to happen: We’re going to give you a shot of pain medication about an hour before I’ll change the dressing. I’ll pull off the dressing which will debride the burn tissue. Then I’ll clean it up, removing any debris, and redress the wound. You haven’t had a dressing change for so long, there’s infection and puss.” I explained to him that without treatment he might lose his leg. He agreed.
He was medicated for pain. The guard was standing outside the cell with my student who was to watch me. I put gloves on and pulled off the old dressing. The patient shouted and was going to hit me. I told him not to be “chicken!” He restrained himself and was glad when it was over. He then gave permission for students to do a daily dressing. The students learned a great deal from these wound treatments, including the irrigation, debridement, plus the sterile dressing. It was good experience for them.
The guards stated, “Prisoners get better care here than they would at Marin General.” My response was that that was not my problem. I explained that as the director/instructor of the program, my responsibility was to teach selected convicts to become competent LVNs.
As the year went on, several students dropped out. I did many sessions of counseling, but if they could not keep up with the grades or hours, students were dropped. I had to drop one student, a nice, young man who found religion and a calling to stop the violence within the walls of San Quentin. The Black Panthers, Skinheads, Familia—all different factions — were constantly fighting each other, and to his credit he prevented a lot of violence. But he had missed too many classes and clinical; I had to drop him. Too bad he gave up a chance for an education.
For his final counseling, another RN had to be present as witness. The student also was allowed to pick a witness. The session was to be entirely recorded and kept on neutral grounds. While our meeting was in progress, there was a knock at the door. It was “Jonathan,” one of my students who was quite bright. I asked what I could do for him. He said he wanted to be part of the conference. I told him we did not need him, that we had a witness and started to close the door. He called me a “bitch” and put his foot in the door. I made him leave and told him to come to my office afterward.
We resumed our conference which was very amenable. The student dropped out of the program and said he felt it was a fair process.
I returned to my office and instructed my typist to prepare the papers for discharge of the student, “Jonathan,” who crudely disrupted my conference with a student. When Jonathan found out he was dropped from the class, he went to the administration. Of course, I was questioned and responded that I made him responsible for his actions, “period.” Well, Jonathan tried to manipulate me and the administration, but I was not about to give him a pass on bad behavior. He apologized and begged to be kept until graduation.
We were in the last quarter of classes and the administration asked me to give him another chance. I told him if he perpetrated one other offence, he would definitely be out. Jonathan behaved himself, was a good student, and graduated.
Years later, he called me at home, saying, “I just want to let you know my life is going great. I’m married … married to a white woman, a doctor’s daughter. I have two children, a good job, and I’m pursuing more education.” He said, “You know, I thought you were some kind of honky trying to do some good. But it dawned on me that was not you.”
The San Quentin population was generally young and healthy. Patients too sick to be treated at the Neumiller Hospital were sent to be cared for at Marin General Hospital under guard. In the prison hospital, the food was not great, no special diets, but the students and population, in general, were not abused. Some convicts inflicted self-abuse just to get in the hospital and get drugs, or injured themselves from ignorance. For example, a new admission from another prison was suspected of having a knife, a shiv, hidden in his body. All of his struggling against being X-rayed caused the knife, a switchblade, to open in his rectum and perform “surgery” on his colon. At that point he screamed. He had to have a colostomy to repair the damage which takes six months to heal.
An urologist on staff was not only professional as a doctor, but had a good sense of humor. His car’s license plate read, “To PC Lee.” One day we were talking, and he told some stories about his patients. “You wouldn’t believe what these people do to themselves,” he said. “They mutilate their bodies. Some use an open paper clip and push it up the penis, resulting in scar tissue and bleeding. For what reason? I wouldn’t know. Sometimes they’re admitted because they can’t urinate due to scar tissue and have to undergo treatments, or live with a permanent catheter.”
My students treated other convicts, and it was good experience for them. One patient had a shotgun hole in his leg, and the wound was infected. We had to irrigate the wound and put in medicated gauze packing. The wound was treated daily to control infection, plus the patient was given antibiotics. I told him that he would be discharged soon. Well, I guess he wanted to stick around longer. One day he was caught rubbing fecal matter in his wound. It is amazing what some of them did just to stay in the hospital, be medicated, and taken care of by students and staff. Several women worked in the hospital wards who were RNs, LVNs, and CNAs. I was not one of the regular nurses, but an instructor, always supervising the students, working with them in the clinical area every day.
I would not be able to live in prison the way these men did and, probably, would try to escape. There were attempts to escape San Quentin. A couple of convicts dug a tunnel from the prison, scraping with teaspoons under the street! Their escape route was discovered when someone noticed the street was buckling. It was quite a joke for a while.
At three o’clock, all cells were locked and IVs stopped, unless patients were too sick. I would give each post-op patient a can of juice and explain that forcing fluids helped prevent fever and infections. One day, a male nurse started to take the juice away from me stating that I needed a doctor’s order to force liquids. I countered that a nursing order was all that was needed.
The next day, I was doing a burn patient’s dressing, and he said, “I understand ‘Tinkerbell’ has been giving you a hard time.” I said, “Who’s Tinkerbell?” “That male nurse,” he answered. “Do you want me to take care of him?” he asked. I realized this patient was referring to the nurse that stopped me from giving out cans of juice. Curious, I questioned what this burn patient meant by “take care of him.” He replied, “Remember the man found dead in the shower? Stabbed twenty-six times and strangled?” I responded, “No thanks. I don’t need that kind of help,” assuring him I could handle it.
At graduation we handed out certificates to students and followed the ceremony with a party with cake, punch, cookies, and fruit. I had to be very careful, because if I did anything on my own, that meant fraternizing. So it had to be done as a group.
When I was studying for my Master’s degree, after I had already left San Quentin, I wrote a paper that compared the recidivism rate for different vocational programs at San Quentin, such as shoe-making, woodwork, and printing, just to name a few. I found that the recidivism rate in our LVN and CNA programs was 20 percent, whereas the rate of other programs was 80 percent. The students that completed our programs were so proud, even if they could not continue the whole program. They received an education, plus gained the confidence and pride of having a certificate, proof that they had accomplished something. When released and on parole, most of these students were able to make a living. I told them to get a job, pay taxes like I did, and become participating citizens.
One convict in my class lacked schooling and did not pass the test to continue with the LVN course. His jacket noted his classification as “simple schiz,” and that he was in prison for stealing bread. Ridiculous. Today, he would never wind up in San Quentin. He was a pathetic man, but I don’t think he would hurt a fly. He admitted making stupid mistakes, such as stealing food, because he didn’t have any money. Stealing large amounts wasn’t in him; he didn’t have the brain power. He was so simple minded, that to him San Quentin was home. A sad case, yet after sixteen weeks, he became a Certified Nursing Assistant and was beaming with pride. He worked as a CNA on the wards until he was placed on parole. Just before I left, he was being hired in a half-way house, where he would be paid to work with people in transition. I thought justice had gone wrong for him to be in San Quentin in the first place, but he benefitted from it in the end.
The new class just started, and I had cleaned the classroom, brightened it up, and brought some plants in to make it friendly. As time went on in the program, the plants started to droop and die. I expected it must be from the energy in the room — the anger? Finally, there was just one plant left. One day, I was leaving the hospital and a student came running, asking if he could take the plant to his “house” (cell). There were two guards outside the hospital gate watching us intensely. Lights went on in my head, and I told him “No.” He might have been in on a plan to set me up for fraternizing to get back at me for uncovering inmates’ cheating. I caught them just by asking a couple of questions when I was teaching neurology, and they didn’t know the content they claimed they did. I commented to this one student in particular that he would not pass without knowing the material. He responded that he could take the test anytime and pass. I figured that he memorized answers from an old test. Of course, he flunked because I had rewritten the test.
Pat was curious about my work at San Quentin, and I’d tell him some of the stories after the fact. For example, I was accused of fraternization, because a couple of the Italian convicts who were in the Mafia felt they had to protect me and warn me of any trouble. They told the administration that my husband was in the Mafia, and I didn’t even know it. They lied, saying, “Pizzuto’s husband’s family is part of the Mafia,” which was not at all true. Pat told me that some of his relatives might be, “but not I!” I remembered my mother-in-law talking about some of the family in Miami living in a pink mansion who might have Mafia connections, but we were never in touch with any of them. The convicts had concluded, wrongly, that since Pizzuto was a Sicilian name and, apparently, many Sicilians belonged to the Mafia, that Pat did, too.
One prisoner, a Sicilian named “Lucky,” came from St. Louis, Missouri. To cement his life of crime and work for the Mafia on the East Coast, he had to prove himself by becoming a hit man and executing a few people. He was a nice enough guy, and I think he really liked me, but there’s a threshold I won’t cross of being too friendly with convicts; it’s also against the law.
Lucky was quite a storyteller, especially about his time at Alcatraz. At “The Rock,” he said he was once put in a cage about six-foot by six-foot for five days. Lucky was tall, six-foot-three, so it was a tough place for him to be in—too small to stand and barely room to move. He was given nothing but bread and water. The temperature varied between terribly hot or freezing cold; he said one could die in there. Doing time at Alcatraz, Lucky said he was the fall guy, confessing to crimes than he hadn’t committed. This is what typically happened: the Mafia big shots paid fall guys off to take the rap for them, or supported their families while they were in prison. Once he got out, Lucky expected to be well taken care of.
After Alcatraz, when Lucky was on parole, he was stopped by the highway patrol. They found a gun in his trunk and arrested him for parole violation. He went to court, was sentenced, and sent to San Quentin. Lucky was angry about all that, but he was on his own and had to do the time for breaking his parole.
At first I didn’t believe this Mafioso-convict Lucky, when he told me, “They’re going to set you up. Be careful!” I replied, “Your paranoia is coming out.”
I soon noticed that one of the other Italian convicts kept following me around. Suddenly, he warned me not to go on the wards, “something was going down.” Of course, I refused to take his advice. I had to go wherever necessary to do my job. He then followed me to the ward and stood near the stairs. The administration subsequently accused me of fraternization with this man. I demanded an apology, because I had no control over this convict and his actions. My main focus was what happened in the classroom.
For course instruction, my budget for educational materials was $1,000 for fifteen students. I ordered education film strips a year in advance on topics students needed to learn. Each subject-system cost between $400 and $600. I would order multiple programs, review them, show the most important ones, buy one or two, and return the rest. I had two flat boxes of film strips to send back and told the “the professor” (the inmate typing for me in my office), to prepare them for shipping. He assured me the boxes were ready to take to the post office.
As I was walking out with them and leaving the hospital area, he said, “Oh, those packages … don’t mail this one.” I asked, “Why not?” and he didn’t answer me. I was already going through security, where they opened my purse and packages for inspection. Well, I had these two boxes and told the guards at the gate I had to mail them at the post office. I mailed one box and took the other home.
At home, I opened the second box and found a pair of jeans. The inmates sewed a lot of jeans at San Quentin, but sewed this pair for me. I was alarmed that I unwittingly smuggled a pair of jeans out of San Quentin! It was against my grain, but I didn’t know what to do. The jeans had the button-down front, no zipper, like 511-Levis. I tried them on. They fit like they’d measured me. I did get scared. I told my husband Pat about the package and jeans. I told him the convicts knew everything about me, even my birthday. They also knew everything about him. They knew that he was in the Navy. They told the administration that he was in the Mafia, which wasn’t true.
I did wear the jeans, but not to work. It scared me how clever the inmates were, but I was not afraid of any of them; I always felt safe. They realized that I wanted to help them get educated for a better life.
An incident happened when I had to kick out a black student from the course due to lack of attendance. He cornered me right outside my office, a small space away from the hospital gate. Before I started working at San Quentin, I was told that if I was ever taken hostage, there would not be any negotiations to free me, because the administration did not negotiate with convicts. This student could have strangled me and nobody would have known, unless somebody walked towards my office.
He said, “You dropped me from the course.” I said, “I gave you enough warning. If you cannot commit to the work it takes, there’s nothing I can do. You did it yourself.” We went around-and-around. He stared at me, and I stared right back at him. Then he started to laugh. He said, “You know, you’re the only one who’s ever gotten around to me. You saw right through me! My shucking and jiving caught up with me.” I responded, “Well, I’ve been around awhile. I didn’t just fall off a turnip truck. This is an accredited LVN program and standards have to be kept.” I was not about to jeopardize my position at age forty-four.
These students were smart, but some wanted to get through the course the easy way, trying to manipulate me and the system. A few of them might have liked to intimidate me, but back in Germany, I was shot at, the Russians tried to rape me, and I was starved during the war — it couldn’t get much worse. I was not at all afraid to work with convict students. I treated them like human beings, and they appreciated it. Somehow I trusted my students, which they must have sensed, but that didn’t mean I was not careful and observant.
At times I walked through the yard to leave San Quentin. Some convicts whistled, others said hi. They probably knew who I was just by seeing me in the uniform or nurse’s scrubs. The one time I wore a skirt, the convict working in my office taped a mirror on the forward top of his shoe in order to look under my skirt. Of course, I found out what he was doing and kicked him out of my office. I was furious. Later he apologized, which I had to accept, otherwise my office help would disappear.
Walking through the yard, one of the black guards yelled, “Hey, Major!” I turned and remembered him as a corpsman in the 347th General Hospital when I was assigned there. Back then, he wore a Black Panther wrist-band and called me a “honky.” I questioned him about his comments. “Do you mean you are threatening a US Army officer?” He responded, “Take it any way you want.” So I suggested he see a psychiatrist and reported him to my commander. Sometimes I think I was the one who was nuts even to confront this man!
The commander happened to be a doctor, one of the most competent psychiatrists in the Army I’d ever seen. He asked if I was afraid when this incident happened. I answered that I did get shook up about it, but stood my ground. The corpsman was seen by a professional and reprimanded.
“Hey, Major! Hey, Major!” This same corpsman was now a guard at San Quentin and acting friendly towards me. I guess because I didn’t pay any attention to his boloney, or else he was just trying to play with my brain.
It was interesting, challenging work, but at the end of the day in the “Big House,” I’d drive home and go for a swim. Good physical exercise was such a stress-reliever!
During the school year, I was with prison administration in meetings with community business people and nursing staff from Marin General and St. Luke’s Hospital in San Francisco. Some students also participated. The main reason for the meetings was to help students after discharge from prison, and while on parole, to continue their education, and/or find employment.
In order to become State Board-licensed LVNs, students had to complete a six-week course at St. Luke’s School of Nursing in pediatrics, maternity, and the new-born nursery. The hospital directors of Neumiller and St. Luke’s set up a contract for St. Luke’s Director of the Nursing School and staff to perform the clinical instruction.
The hospital nursing staff coordinated with us to teach and supervise the students under the guidance of St. Luke’s Chief Administrator. As a young man, this hospital chief had gotten into trouble and was saved only by the kindness of others. He never forgot about that experience, which motivated him to help the prison’s LVN students by giving them another chance.
A very intelligent student of Japanese ancestry was an OR tech before San Quentin and being accepted into the LVN course. When we brought him over to St. Luke’s, he was assigned to maternity and was also very competent in the delivery room. If he was asked where he went to school, he responded, “Neumiller in Marin County,” and did not say it was part of San Quentin. I assured him that most of the staff knew about where he and the other students were from. And it was up to him to be open or private about his San Quentin address.
I had a few confrontations with the Neumiller Hospital staff who demonstrated they were not up to date with the nursing profession, especially, on clinical procedures. Some of the nurses were not even nice to patients. I wanted Neumiller students to follow my lead and was a role model to them. The hospital staff didn’t like this. Students were taught my philosophy that convicts were human beings and deserved a standard of care and kindness overall.
At Neumiller, or whatever hospital, I also expected a certain level of care from the staff for the patients. I invited San Quentin’s staff to sit in on some of my classes or just watch some film strips about certain procedures. The staff was not too happy with me. There probably was some envy, too.
During a visit by the State Board to check on the students’ clinical training at St. Luke’s, the consultant found that Neumiller students were illegally being supervised by regular staff nurses who were not certified instructors. The program was threatened, and we negotiated to come up with a solution. Miss Bledsoe, the former director/instructor at Neumiller, would return to instruct the students at San Quentin, while I worked with paroled students at St. Luke’s.
For six weeks, at 5 am, I picked up a car at San Quentin and drove to St. Luke’s to teach and supervise for seven hours each day. Then I drove back to San Quentin to return the car. It was very inconvenient.
On weekends, my Army Reserves’ assignment was to supervise all the corpsmen at Lettermen Army Medical Center. In 1977, I was pulled out of Letterman to work in administration at headquarters, when Col. Kenneth Cusick (DDS) was promoted to the new commander. At the time, the chief nurse (CN) was ill, and Col. Novitsky was performing the CN’s job. She needed help, and I was it. Col. Cusick had to find a new chief nurse. There were colonels and lieutenant colonels, all nurses, to pick from, all senior to my lesser rank of major. I wondered why none of the senior nurses wanted to take on the CN position even if qualified.
One evening, the executive officer called me and asked if I wanted to fill the opening for chief nurse. I replied, “Sure.” He said, “But it’s only acting chief nurse. We don’t know if you’re going to be the chief nurse.” I said, “I’ll do it.” Interviews followed, and I attended the chief nurse course. My official military personnel file (201 file) was also reviewed.
I took on the job as Acting Chief Nurse. After a few months, I was promoted to Chief Nurse of the 352nd and promoted to lieutenant colonel (LTC). It wasn’t easy stepping into a job that had been neglected for so long. The frustrations were many.
It was a known fact that reserve hospitals were not in the budget for war-ready equipment, medical or otherwise. I brought in blood pressure cuffs and stethoscopes, whatever medical equipment was available for practice. Before my CN assignment, all that had been taught was theory with no clinical application. Without hands-on training in blood pressure, vital signs, etc., many of them flunked the Military Occupational Specialty (MOS) skills tests. The training officer accused me of failing to train the corpsmen. The only clinical training arranged was at LAMC in the winter! I was furious. We were all overworked with the men, never having enough time to get it all done on the weekend.
At LAMC, we managed to provide training due to good cooperation by the Head Nurse. I explained to her our war-ready mission, and reservists or not, we had to do more than pass out trays, water, and bedpans. The corpsmen practiced certain skills with LAMC patients. As an Army hospital, I insisted on training the nursing staff on military-specific charts for patients, hospital forms, etc., in accordance with Army Standard Operating Procedures. Part of the frustration was that training section did not communicate with the nursing section. These were actually non-nursing officers that wanted to run hospitals (which was nurses’ work); they were clueless.
Our nursing section trained towards the mission of our evacuation hospital. Within the nursing section, we established great teams. The nurses who joined the Army, except for only a few, were very motivated, hard-working, enthusiastic, and eager to learn and train the enlisted personel. We also had a very good commander, Col. Cusick, who was not afraid to get his hands dirty. He was greatly admired and an excellent leader, who knew the military and military history. He had an open-door policy and listened. By then, this was a volunteer army.
It was more difficult to motivate the medics, especially the draftees. They did not want to be there, so they acted up and played games. I had to pull rank more often, which was not my style. Draftees were the young men inducted into the service without deferrals for schooling or hardships. They had to serve active duty and/or serve as reservists within the various military sections.
At LAMC, we took care of wounded soldiers. The 352nd Evacuation Hospital became the Reserves’ best-qualified/trained hospital unit in the command — all due to good leadership and caring. Word got out and nurses transferred in from the Navy to the point that we had an excess of nurses. We could use all the staff we could get because of a shortage of 91 Charlie’s, ie. LVNs.
Some of the nurses loved to teach. Small teams were formed to provide specific training and education. We also had nurses’ meetings every month with follow-ups. Most of the staff got truly involved. They felt that they were doing something worthwhile. I also managed to assign some of the nurses extra duties, such as combining exercise with the latest records and music. That job was assigned to Maj. Capt. Pat Hansen. She later confided in me that she liked doing it. She wondered why I pushed her for the job when she was shy. I told her she had potential and did a great job keeping the troops in good physical shape.
With me as the new Chief Nurse and promoted to LTC, the 352nd went on annual training to Texas. Our unit was stationed at Fort Sam Houston – Camp Bullis. Before going to Camp Bullis to set up the MUST hospital, we were instructed on how to prevent problems in the field: put clothes away and hang everything up because of snakes and scorpions. I guess the chaplain didn’t listen; he got stung by a little scorpion.
Battlefield mock-up of mass casualties.
We were designated to train with the 47th Combat Support Hospital on active duty. Since they had the whole MUST hospital, our reserve unit received only part of the required training. We worked well together and very soon we wanted to do the complete setup up without their help. The active unit was astonished at how well and fast we learned. As a rule, active and reserve components did not get along. Reservists were treated like stepchildren, with disdain. I don’t know why; we were all in the same Army. We showed them!
During 352nd EH team training with the 47th CSH, I received a couple of phone calls with regard to RNs not wearing bras under their t-shirts, noticeable once they took off their battle dress jacket. Texas got pretty hot and humid in July. Word of the nurses spread and a mess of young soldiers stopped to offer help. I spoke with the commander and told the nurses that if they did not wear a bra, they would not be allowed to remove their battle dress jackets. The nurses all came on duty with bras on—end of story.
Lee’s promotion to full colonel.
Without any MC officers (Medical Corps doctors) with us, I was told by Col. Cusick to take on the additional job of Chief of Professional Services. Most of the MCs could not get away for the training. I assigned two nurses to take care of sick call of our troops. When a request came through to send our nurses to work at Brook Army Medical Center, Col. Cusick refused, reiterating that our mission was in the field: how to care for combat casualties and, as an Evac Hospital, to evacuate.
Compared to a MASH (Mobile Army Surgical Hospital) unit, the Evac Hospital was usually further back from the combat area. (Strategies and policies for hospital unit types have changed since the Vietnam War.) Patients were delivered, or they came in by truck and helicopter. (We had a helicopter pad.) As patients arrived, EMT triaged, meaning patients were sorted out and prioritized. They might need to be operated on, but either the patient returned to duty or was admitted in the hospital for treatment, follow-up care, outpatient care, or was evacuated to the rear. We always had to be ready to accept casualties and keep the hospital from filling up. In war time, the philosophy was to save as many lives as possible. Dying patients were “expectant” and only treated after the acute cases
The 352nd EH staff was over 250 soldiers, officers, and enlisted. It consisted of a commander, administrators, training section, enlisted corpsmen, morgue, logistics, transportation, X-ray, lab, food service, nursing section, professional services (including chaplain and social workers), and pharmacy. Due to the large component of officers, they all had to pitch in to set up the hospital. We worked hard and played when we could.
Every year, at the close of active duty, Col. Cusick held a barbeque for us, spending his own money on food. In the field, he watched the troops, and instructed, “I don’t want anybody to get sick, because I am responsible: no dehydration, no sunburn, no heat strokes. You all watch out for each other and take breaks.”
During my time on active duty, my husband was home alone and knew how to fend for himself. In his spare time, he played golf. I usually cooked meals ahead for him. He understood my motives and that I enjoyed the Army immensely, its challenges and camaraderie. It goes back to honor, loyalty, and integrity. Even to this day, soldiers want to return for another tour of duty in Iraq or Afghanistan. They want to be with their comrades to finish the mission. These soldiers may go through hell together, some get killed, some wounded in action, but there is this common bond that keeps them buddies for the long haul. Most people don’t understand that it’s their training, their character.
The medical department is different. Yes, we are disciplined; one has to be disciplined to be in the business of saving lives and treating whatever is necessary to ready soldiers to return to duty or, if unable due to injuries, to get them discharged into civilian life. The healing profession has to be strong and healthy to perform their duties. I continued my military development even when hot flashes hit me, fallout from ovarian cancer. Vitamin E really helped.
In my sixth year of chemotherapy, I met an RN from Mt. Zion Cancer Research Department and invited her to speak to my students at San Quentin about her work, emphasizing the research and the immune system. In those days, nurses were just starting to specialize, and she was an oncology nurse who knew the immune system inside out. I told her about my history with cancer. She explained that Mt. Zion did not accept patients with a history of chemotherapy and radiation, which severely affects the immune system. This was strange to me because some cancer is caused by a poor immune system. She decided that I should come in to have my immunity tested. It turned out that the oncologist at Mt. Zion had the same biology professor at Lone Mountain as I had years before.
I underwent a patch test involving irritants that would be absorbed and indicate if my immune system was working at any level. After two weeks of checking the patches on my body at Mt. Zion, some areas started to itch and show redness, even small blisters. It was an indication that my immune system was not dead!
The results prompted me to follow up at Letterman Army Medical Center, because I was in the Army and my husband was retired Navy. I had also fired all of my doctors at Marin General Hospital due to their treatment of my ovarian cancer diagnosed in 1972.
I did request LAMC answer why I should continue chemotherapy. Letterman did an array of tests. I sat in on the oncology group’s review of all the results. Their conclusion was that there was no evidence of cancer. I quit chemotherapy altogether right then. I felt I was healed by changing my eating habits to what I ate as a child in Germany, by adding supplements, by meditating, doing visualization, and yoga.
In the meantime, after four years of contending with the administration at San Quentin, they wanted me out. They tried to set me up for a fall a couple of times that didn’t work, like the time I made them apologize for accusing me of fraternizing with one of the convicts. I remembered the administration telling me they wouldn’t help if I was ever taken hostage.
The nursing program started to fall apart. It reached a point that I could not find fifteen students to begin a new class the following term. I did not want to accept convicts who could not read or write, or do math at a tenth-grade level. The administration decided to close down the program. I requested to complete the present class, but my request was denied. The students’ concern led them to get word out to Channel 4 in San Francisco. One day, the administration found out that Channel 4’s reporter was waiting to talk to me outside the main gate. After work, the administration had the guards escort me out through the back door. I was too much of a problem, and they wanted me gone.
On the evening’s news, a Channel 4 reporter commented, “Lee Pizzuto, the nursing program instructor at San Quentin is retiring in the middle of the course, while class is still in session.” I called the station to complain that their report was fiction, and that Channel 4 did not care to find out the truth. I was trying to finish the current class. Unfortunately, the administration wanted me out and that was the end of my career at San Quentin.
I had treated inmates like human beings and they responded. What I learned at the psychiatric unit at SFGH and working at San Quentin was to distinguish between the criminal mind and the mentally ill. To know the difference took observation of displayed behaviors over time. Overall, I felt I learned as much, if not more, as my students did during my four years at San Quentin. That’s when I got the real education in sociology and psychology. It wasn’t easy for inmates to take on this program with the many challenges they faced, even being called “sissies.” Most of the students in the course studied and did their homework. But after my years “inside,” I was worn out.
I took time off after San Quentin and tried to figure out why I got cancer in a family afflicted with heart disease. During one of the sessions in a cancer support group, our group leader, a woman in the program who also claimed to be psychic, told me the reason for my cancer was due to deep anger. (I doubted that was the cause, more like the wrong diet instead.)
Computers were just on the horizon then. My curiosity got to me, and I researched tirelessly at UC Med Center on women and ovarian cancer, reading everything. The best explanation I found related to research in Europe, especially Eastern Europeans. When these people immigrated to the United States, their diets consisted of much more red meat than in “the old country.” The research made sense to me, because I felt that reverting to my old childhood diet of less meat, more vegetables, fruit, and raw foods helped heal me.
By the fall of 1978, I was again working at City College, San Francisco teaching for the LVN program.
Around Easter in 1979, Pat and I went on vacation to Southern California. When we returned home, there was a message for me to make a doctor’s appointment. I learned that an X-ray of my left side showed an increased tumor. I agreed to a second-look surgery. Doctors discovered that what appeared to be a tumor was fecal matter moving through the descending colon. On the left lower abdomen, scar tissue was also stuck to the hipbone (likely from radiation and previous surgeries).
The doctors were amazed at how fast I was healing. I confessed that my husband supplied me with vitamins while I was in the hospital: Vitamin C, E, B-complex, and zinc. It took a year for me to recover from the toxic effects of six years of chemotherapy and well into 1980 to get back my energy level.
One day, my doorbell rang and there stood a familiar character from San Quentin: Lucky, with his girlfriend. I was quite surprised and invited them in. My husband was not at home, and I wasn’t sure how to act under the circumstances. I offered them wine and a snack. Lucky said that he just wanted to thank me for making life tolerable for them in the prison. I responded that I did what I thought needed to be done.
In the fall, I began my master’s degree at the University of San Francisco (USF) in education, administration, and organization. The program consisted of classes every weekend plus one class during the week from 4 pm to 8 pm While doing graduate work, I continued teaching LVNs at City College and worked in the Army Nurse Corps. I graduated with an MA from USF in May 1981.
In order to stay in the Army, I needed forty hours of continuing education every two years for recertification. As a lifelong-learner, I was fine with taking courses meant to update and enhance the practice of nursing. Courses that expanded my knowledge, particularly in medicine and nutrition, were my preference. There were lots of classes to pick from, but some of those offered were ridiculously inappropriate and had nothing to do with nursing. When I joined the American Nurses Association in 1976, my main reason was to change the regulation policy for continuing-ed units for RNs. In 1981, I became ANA secretary of Region 9 in Napa. An ANA committee went to the State Board of Nursing with a policy proposal of rejecting continuing-ed courses unrelated to nursing.
In the summer, I went on active duty with the 352nd at Yakima Firing Range in the State of Washington. We worked well with the active component providing medical support for the 9th Division. One evening, when everyone had gone to dinner, I stayed behind to check last-minute details. I was working alone in the hospital and in came the commander with a colonel. The commander introduced us and asked if I would give the colonel a tour. I agreed and took the colonel around, answering his many questions. After showing him our hospital setup, I finally asked what his job was. He said, “See those Black Hawks over there? They’re all mine.” I said, “Really? How come we haven’t gotten a ride?” He responded that he’d take care of it. The following day, the colonel assigned two helicopters for the nurses to get a ride.
Mount St. Helens had erupted the year before, flattening and burning forests for hundreds of square miles. All the nurses went for rides on the Black Hawks to view the charred landscape. For my trip, the pilot flew right into Mount St. Helens crater. It was a dramatic sight of devastation and a memorable experience. All I had to do to make it happen was ask for a ride.
As I progressed into my fourth year as Chief Nurse at the 352nd EH, Higher Headquarters (HHQ) was looking to replace the Brigade Chief Nurse who was ready to retire from the Second Hospital Center (the old Hamilton Air Force Base Hospital), right here in Novato. The retiring Chief Nurse and someone else had recommended me for the position. I sent in my resume as did other nurses. The interviews took place while I was on active duty at Camp Roberts. It wound up between two nurse-applicants: one with a PhD and me with an MA.
The consensus pointed to the RN with PhD for the job, but the powers that be found out that she could not retain a position and was nasty to the nurses under her. I was requested to report to Brigade HHQ upon my return.
The final decision was made, and I got the job as Nurse Consultant to the General of Second Hospital Center and was made a full colonel. Now my commute headquarters was very short, and my new position, was strictly administrative and consultant to the General. The Chief Nurse in charge before liked me because she saw I was a worker, turning in reports on time and cooperating.
The 2nd Hospital Center (reorganized to 2nd Medical Brigade) was a small unit, consisting mostly of administrative staff and the professional consultants/chiefs in services such as dentistry, nursing, health, veteran care, nutrition, psychiatry, chaplain ministry, and engineering—all reporting to the general and advising subordinate units. During my tenure, I worked with three generals and traveled often to visit units under the 2nd Medical Brigade. Pat came with me in the beginning, until he got too sick.
In the early eighties, my life changed again when Pat became ill. He was admitted to Letterman, where he spent three days for tests and observation. The physicians at LAMC didn’t know what was wrong with him. Diagnosis was undetermined, although lung cancer or liver cancer was suspected. I thought it might be lung cancer because Pat was exposed to asbestos and a smoker. It was difficult for him to breathe, and he became distended and puffy. I thought the cancer had metastasized to the liver from the lungs and was producing excess fluid. He was offered chemotherapy but refused, knowing what I went through. He said, “I had a good life. Whatever comes up, I’ll deal with it!”
Pat and Lee
The following years were painful for us as Pat’s stamina weakened. He couldn’t sleep with the pressure on his chest and shortness of breath. It took convincing for him to consent to being hospitalized here in Novato. A gastroenterologist examined him and put tubing in his abdomen to drain out fluid. That’s when a diagnosis was finally made. My husband had asbestosis. It was 1985. In ten days, Pat was gone.
When asbestosis stays above the rib cage and diaphragm, it might be treatable, but when it moves below that, it enters the large intestine and starts to weep, the residual fluid distending the abdomen. It is an awful way to die. Pat was given morphine to help relieve the pressure, plus oxygen.
My sister-in-law was visiting at the time and gave me support. We were at the hospital. It was seven o’clock, maybe a little later. We went out to eat, went home, and thought about returning to the hospital. Pat was supposed to come home under hospice the following day.
The phone rang. It was the hospital giving us the news of his passing. Pat had pulled out all the tubing, saying, “You know what? I don’t want to live like this.” He also did not want to burden me with his care. I had prepared the house with the necessary equipment for his homecoming. All in vain. I understood his suffering and wish to get it over with. Tough guy! I was fifty-three and widowed.
In retrospect, the only relief Patrick received was Jin Shin Jyutsu (JSJ) treatments, but by then he was in the final stages of asbestosis. After his death, I received JSJ treatments for almost six months from Rose Murry in Petaluma. The treatments helped so much with my depression that I decided to learn more about this healing art.
In 1986, I started taking Jin Shin Jyutsu classes in Santa Rosa, California with 120 other people. We took three week-long courses that had to be completed by a fall or spring deadline, our choice. Once we finished the requirements, we became certified to practice Jin Shin Jyutsu.
JSJ theory was taught in the initial classes, then we applied what we learned. The more experienced students supervised us. We learned how to listen to energy pulses and to use the energy flows according to what we heard from the pulses. The focus on energy flows and energy locks works to harmonize energy on several levels — mental, spiritual, physical, and emotional. Two students worked on me and on other JSJ novices. These classes helped me to see the spiritual aspects of things and become more connected with that side of myself again. I knew I was going to be fine once I got through the grieving process over losing Patrick.
For people suffering with cancer, I now wish to share my belief that it’s not necessarily the end. Cancer is a chronic illness and needs to be conquered, but it’s a hard fight that begins with taking charge of your life and making changes in lifestyle, nutrition, and energy work. This means meditation, visualization, exercising, yoga, and praying.
When I had the chance, I also took classes from Jin Shin Jyutsu Master Mary Burmeister, an American of Japanese ancestry. Mary learned JSJ from Jiro Marai, a Japanese philosopher/researcher, when she was in Japan learning the Japanese language. Jiro had rediscovered the ancient healing art of Jin Shin by using its therapy to heal himself of a terminal illness. He shared his extensive research and knowledge with Mary as a “gift from Japan to America.” When Mary returned to the United States in 1954, she began teaching Jin Shin Jyutsu and its philosophy. She wrote the first English-language texts on Jin Shin and published several books as well as manuals to instruct practitioners.
In the process of studying and becoming a certified JSJ practitioner, I found that I could help people discover their inner energy as well as educate them about self-help, nutrition, and supplements. Many people who believe in energy work, such as JSJ therapy, are helping themselves. Mary Burmeister, the Master teacher, also warned, “Forget the fruitless trees.” I thought, what does she mean by “fruitless trees”? I had to learn its lesson, that those who did not want to commit to learning how to help themselves, or receive energy treatments, could not be forced. Nothing is gained except frustration and the loss of my energy. I will give information and offer a sample treatment, so they experience the energy. This was Mary’s philosophy.
I recommended training the nurses for wartime at Camp Parks, a scene of old buildings and an antiquated meat-packing plant, in 1986. As Chief Nurse of 352nd EH, I had to fight for time to perform patient enactment in the field. It seemed that the administration was only interested in having the MUST setup. The trainers who came to Camp Parks were a team from the East Coast, and they brought a patient-play scenario. We provided the staff and patients. Some of the nurses learned to perform a moulage scenario. We taught medical units how to moulage patients; it looked very realistic.
A two-star general, Cherbourg, came from Seattle to check the training at Camp Parks and liked the activities. My recommendation was to do patient enactment training yearly for every medical unit under his command. He thought the idea a good one, since wartime care is quite different from civilian care. This general appointed me as the commander of AMEA (Army Medical Exercise Area) at Camp Parks. I accepted, but told him that I would make mistakes, to which he responded was okay; he’s made many. “Besides,” he said, “my wife says that nurses need to be in charge more than they are now.” I said, “Well, good for your wife!”
My search was on for support to organize the medical training at Camp Parks. I made a few enemies locating people, but carried on. I brought on a captain, an army nurse who volunteered, Col. Cusick, Deputy Commander of the Hospital Center, a logistics sergeant, and a personnel clerk. Still, more positions needed to be filled.
In the meantime, a new two-star general, Cherbourg, took over as the commander of 124th US Army Reserve Command (ARCOM), with headquarters at Fort Lawton, Washington. He was from Seattle and the CEO of Boeing Company in civilian life. The general requested information about the progress at Camp Parks and wanted to meet at the Alameda Officers Club, where he would be attending a dining-out celebration for one of his units. The appointment was at 5 pm, and I went in my dress blues.
He flew his plane down and, arriving late, apologized. He asked that I come up with him to his room while he changed into his uniform. In the room, he offered me a scotch while I waited, cooling my heels, and wondering what he wanted to discuss about my project. He came out, we sat, and I handed him the report he requested.
The general asked point-blank how things were going. I told him the truth about difficulties finding good people for this new project. He mentioned some names. I explained my main concern was the chief of staff, a member of the team, undermining my authority. The general wanted names and promised to look into it.
The next thing I knew, the group that aimed to overtake my responsibilities disappeared. I was able to proceed at Camp Parks, readying to exercise and test various hospital units under the 124th ARCOM.
In 1991, I was interviewed for Chief Nurse at the 921st MASH unit in Sacramento, California, and got the job. My assignment was to help convert the 921st to a field hospital, which no longer exists due to Army reorganization of the medical department.
While teaching LVNs at the John Adams Campus of City College, I was asked to teach a one-semester Certified Nursing Assistant (CNA) course. Demand for this occupation had risen sharply with the explosion in home-care in the 1980s. It is a less costly and more humane approach to illness when people can be treated in their own home surroundings.
For the CNA course, I needed to teach basic nutrition and basic nursing skills. I had sixty students attend most of the classes. For lab/clinical, we had other instructors help teach and test groups of students. I developed an original curriculum on homecare which, in hindsight, I should have had printed and published. There was no information available at the time for this new area of care.
One of the students’ homework assignments was to keep their own daily food-and-fluid intake and exercise journal for five days. The results were certainly an eye-opener for me, showing that students lacked good nutrition and knowledge about water intake and supplements.
In 1992, to augment CNA and homecare instruction, I also taught Jin Shin Jyutsu, the Japanese healing art all about energy. Just using the finger-holds was a step to self-help that my students used to reduce stress. JSJ is practiced all over the world, because of its effectiveness. It is difficult to know whether Jin Shin Jyutsu led me to home-care or vice versa.
At John Adams, students took six weeks each of chronic disease care and acute care. Our campus had such a good reputation that students were sought after by various homecare agencies or long-term care facilities, and by direct care without an agency. Some of them started working at Laguna Honda Hospital in long-term care at $15 an hour, a lot in those days. They earned competitive pay for what they did, plus holidays and sick-leave pay. By 1996, Certified Nursing Assistants at Laguna Honda were making almost $18 an hour, plus benefits.
I retired from teaching in December 1996, and retired from the US Army in March of 1997, with the rank of colonel since 1981. The commander wanted me to stay on until he found my replacement. When I found a nurse to take over, HHQ decided to pick a nurse from another state. It was a political move and sadly, many of the policies I implemented ceased to be.
In the Army, I was lucky to have had senior officers as mentors sincerely interested in me and my progression into leadership positions. It began when Col. Cusick was commander of the 352nd EH and again, when Col. Cusick was at HHQ. 2nd Medical Brigade Gen. Butz and Col. Erlach also mentored me, among others. These superiors were role models for how I mentored junior officers and the enlisted, especially when I saw their potential.
I started slowly practicing Jin Shin Jyutsu on friends, because I wasn’t sure what I was doing yet. When I saw the results, I was encouraged and started to take on clients. Those I treated all told me of better energy and sleep. One client came with a stiff neck, and I used certain flows on his body. I never touched his neck, but his neck got better.
Another client, an elderly neighbor of mine, had bad rheumatoid arthritis and arrhythmia. She could hardly move and was practically bedridden. Her stepson provided most of her care on a daily basis. After my teaching job in the city, I would drop by twice a week, give her a bath, and a Jin Shin Jyutsu treatment.
One day I came to care for her and turned her over to wash her back. I found her lying in dark, concentrated urine that peeled off the skin of her sacrum causing extreme damage. The condition of the urine indicated that she did not drink enough water. In addition, if she needed the bedpan during the night, her exhausted stepson probably did not hear her call.
I was quite concerned. I had seen bedsores in the hospital, but none that bad. I thought, this is the beginning of the end. Yet she refused to see her doctor.
We rolled her on a large bath towel and lifted her into a chair without touching her body directly. She had a bath and we returned her to a clean bed of changed linen. I took her blood pressure and pulse, and began treating her with JSJ therapy, spending more time just holding energy locks at certain points. After the treatment, her arrhythmia had reverted to normal. In two weeks, with the help of vitamins and minerals, as well as JSJ, the bedsore healed. She tried to drink more water, too, and was moved out of bed as much as possible. I was amazed to see the results.
I have been treating one of my clients with breast cancer for six-plus years. “Dot” underwent the medical gauntlet: surgery, different types of toxic chemotherapy, and reconstructive surgery, which was botched-up and left her with horrible scar tissue—but she surmounted that, too. Over the years Dot did well with JSJ to balance her physical and spiritual well-being. She finally decided to live without further cosmetic surgery on her breast. She took five years of Tamoxifen, which has awful side effects.
In 1997, I partnered with another nurse in the East Bay to form a homecare agency and continued with Jin Shin Jyutsu.
In the spring of 2013, I started to lose weight with abdominal discomfort on my left side.
Something was not right. While doing research on what could be wrong, I went to see Valerie Ozsu, MSN, NP, in Vacaville, who was managing her own wellness clinic. She checked me out and told me to get a second opinion. The following day, the Fourth of July, I collapsed and wound up having major surgery.
Shakira Rowyn, a friend, stepped in and helped solve problems. It turned out that I had a colon-ruptured abscess, peritonitis, and a resulting gangrenous small intestine. After being unresponsive for several days in ICU, I was shuttled into a “comfort room” and left to die.
But I was not ready to die and came out of the coma asking for food.
In addition to the abscess, a blood clot settled in my right groin. The cardiovascular surgeon by-passed it and shifted it so I wound up with a clot in the left groin, which is still there and stabilized.
My two-month rehabilitation was in a horrible place, where I suffered sleep-depravation. The woman next to me ran two TVs all night, every night. My complaints were ignored. The things that kept me sane were my friends’ visits and physical therapy. I went to PT twice daily to get better, become more mobile, and able to leave there as soon as possible.
Another challenge was my colostomy, learning how to empty the bag, etc., and urinary-tract incontinence.
During the surgery at Marin General, I caught a superbug strain of pseudomonas which could have killed me. At Novato Hospital, my kidneys wanted to shut down. A great MD, the infection-control officer of Marin, came to see me while he was on crutches. He checked my urine and asked what meds I was given. His assessment was that the meds were all wrong and were making my immune system weaker.
He provided me information on which antibiotics might work against the superbug but warned that they were highly toxic. My system was in such bad shape that I could not keep down sips of water.
I decided to accept his recommendations and received five days of IV-infusions of a deadly antibiotic therapy. The side effects I was told about did not happen, except that I got a rash. My skin kept peeling off, and my throat wanted to shut down. It was sink or swim, and I swam!! Amazingly, I was finally able to eat and drink fluids.
Fighting these dangerous and deadly threats to my life and health took all of my will and strength in a slow-going process. Recovering, I had to learn about the new conditions of my injured body, now in a high-maintenance phase. I had to learn about my bladder’s behavior, especially, and take care of its business.
Things are now looking up.
I lost part of my gangrenous big toe, but the rest of it has healed. Numbness is there, but I can live with it.
I do not have to see the nephrologist, the hematologist, the podiatrist, the urologist. That’s what I call real progress.
Being a child in wartime is really no fun at all.
We need to be aware of that.
Wartime is bad enough for adults, but hopefully they have the necessary coping mechanisms to understand what is at stake.
I was almost thirteen years old at the time and very confused about what was going on. I was not frightened, since I trusted my mother, my hero, as to what to do.
Wars are supposed to be the last resort if diplomacy fails or has been exhausted over time.
My observation of Hitler’s actions revealed them to be nothing but a power grab to satisfy his ego. He “knew” what was best for the average little guy.
This viewpoint extends to many areas of the planet. Just count the dictatorships around!! People are not the concern as claimed by these entities. People are just the tools to get the leaders where they want to go. The people take the brunt and suffer the consequences every time.
I have learned that we, the people, have to unite and stop big government from being the nanny or the plantation owner, so to speak The best we can do to help ourselves is to become educated and involved in politics to find out what our “leaders” are up to, and that they are making logical decisions.
We, the people, cannot become slaves to corrupt leadership. We need to be disciplined to face the challenges ahead and never give up if we want to remain a strong, free, and humane nation. We cannot allow ourselves to be afraid of our government, which was created to support the people, not terrorize them.
Life goes on.
I am still a caregiver for ten hours a week and still learn new things in my work.
It is give and take.
I enjoy my garden and grow as many veggies as I can. I remain active in the Novato Garden Club, engaged in programs for the membership.
I do feel blessed and fortunate to be as independent as possible with my life, because there is a will, there is a way.
One may wonder what has kept me going through all this. I often think about that. How and why.
I was raised Lutheran and went to church every Sunday. What I did not like then was that it was all fire and brimstone. I did not believe then that there was a bad, punishing God. My parents did not elaborate.
In high school, a friend and I skipped classes on religion to explore what was out there. East Prussia was mainly Catholic. I did not understand Latin, so I still kept being curious about God. I kept doing my prayer.
My father, a game warden, took up hiking and hunting. I learned a lot about nature and to respect and live with nature.
Our prayers were heard during the war, especially at the end, getting through the chaos. Many times, we were saved from harm which was amazing. One such was getting through typhus fever with all its complications and recovering without a hospital, doctors, and medications. My mother was a hero and caregiver. She knew what to do in spite of no available resources during the war and Russian occupation.
Then coming to America was quite an adventure. I always felt protected from any harm. I also felt very safe during my marriage of twenty-eight years.
About one year into my marriage, I was diagnosed with a ruptured ovarian cyst. One-half of the left ovary was removed. I was told that endometriosis was part of the problem so not much chance to have children. That got me depressed for a few days. My motto was to talk to myself, for example, “That’s enough already—get over it!” It helped to dive back into life and work.
I also became more spiritual in accepting my situation. I did meditation daily and found my awareness of my surroundings increasing. Then in 1978 the diagnosis was ovarian cancer. I figured I would fight it successfully and survived. I did quit chemotherapy after six years instead of staying on it for the rests of my life. I also turned every stone to find alternative ways to heal myself, especially nutrition.
My husband accepted my lifestyle changes as well as other changes. I became more outspoken; I changed my whole lifestyle.
Post-chemo testing did not show cancer anywhere. So—cancer-free since then. The universe was there to guide and protect me. I am always asking to do the right thing.
It is all about energy and consciousness! Never become a victim; it reduces your energy/vibrations. We need to feed the physical body so that we can grow spiritually and energetically.
Sometimes I wonder how I’ve done all that I have in my life. It seems that I just fell into events or they came to me. When I think of all that I went through in my childhood in East Prussia, and since, then feeling pulled to come to the United States and to join the Army, it’s as if my destiny was played out. I had always dreamed of coming to California and it became a reality. Maybe the plans that I made on my own were already laid out for me by a Higher Power.
My life so far has been interesting and challenging, with a bit of humor thrown in. Whatever’s next, I’m ready.