Amy Choate-Nielsen: Grandma's career was shaped by many factors

Published: Tuesday, June 10 2014 3:30 p.m. MDT

Amy Choate-Nielsen contemplates why her grandmother chose a career in nursing.

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I don't cope well when my children are sick.

When they're feverish, it consumes me. When they wake up in the middle of the night burning up and shivering with the chills, I am in anguish. When their throats hurt, or their heads hurt, or their tummies hurt, I am broken in sympathy. I would do anything for them. Heaven help me if they ever have any of the serious problems so many brave parents cope with every day.

I think about those parents often, and my lack of knowledge about all things medical, plus my fear that the slightest thing is the tip of an awful iceberg, leaves me feeling powerless and vulnerable.

I think that is one reason why I am so fascinated by the fact that my grandmother, Fleeta, who died before I was born, was a registered nurse.

This last weekend, my middle child didn't feel well. He was hot to the touch, his cheeks were bright red and he said his throat hurt. So I took his temperature and my heart sank when I saw the results: 103.3 degrees. I worried over him until he started chasing his sister around the house again a couple of days later.

And a few days before that, I took my baby, who just turned 1, to see an occupational therapist to teach him how to eat food. He can't eat any finger foods without gagging and throwing up. Again, my husband and I furrowed our brows and worried over what could be wrong with our little boy.

Not knowing how to make it all better makes me crazy. So, I often find comfort in calling my friends who are schooled in medicine. I call my sister, my friend, my mom (she's not technically educated in medicine, but talking to her helps anyway) and anyone else who knows anything about the human body and I ask for guidance. They tell me what to do.

I figure that if I were a nurse, like Fleeta, I wouldn't have to ask anyone if this fever is dangerous or if that bump is a problem. I would already know. Triage would be my middle name.

The other thing that fascinated me about my grandmother was the fact that she worked full time in an age when not many women did, yet she somehow managed to be the kind of homemaker who cooked everything from scratch, cleaned, sewed and changed tires. She made a great team with her husband, and her two sons, my dad and uncle, absolutely adore her.

I’m not necessarily surprised by the fact that she worked and cooked and mothered at the same time. It seems to me that she marched to the beat of her own drum.

Fleeta was born in 1911, and she was officially accepted into nursing school in Oklahoma in 1930. At that time, there were some 230,000 nurses in America, according to the U.S. National Library of Medicine at the National Institutes of Health, and 98 percent of them were women. Moreover, in the 1930s, 95 percent of nurses were white women. So, maybe she wasn’t exactly as pioneering as I had imagined.

I've sometimes wondered why she chose to be a nurse. She had experienced a lot of death in her life — her mother, nieces and nephews, and other close relatives — and certainly it was an acceptable form of employment for women at the time. But it recently dawned on me that there might have been another reason she chose to be a nurse.

She was born just before World War I, and she lived through the Great Depression, which actually took a toll on nurses, according to a study published in the Journal of Clinical Nursing.

"By 1944, the American Hospital Association warned that close to 23 percent of American Hospitals had closed wards and operating rooms because they had too few nurses," Patricia D'Antonio and Jean Whelan wrote in a 2009 study, "Counting Nurses: The Power of Historical Census Data."

By 1950 the association reported over 22,000 unfilled nursing positions, the study says. My grandmother was a nurse well into the 1960s when she went back to school to earn her master's degree in 1966. By then, the profession had balanced itself out, somewhat, becoming more diversified and stable.

So, perhaps my grandmother was a nurse because she was a revolutionary. Perhaps it was the thing for women to do. Perhaps it was because there was a worldwide war going on, and perhaps it was simply because she saw a need and she knew she could help.

In any regard, I hope I inherited a little of her bravery. The next time my kids get sick, I'll need it.

Amy Choate-Nielsen is a full-time mom and part-time writer. She spends her days at the park and her nights at the computer. She writes about family history and her quest to understand life while learning about her deceased grandmother, Fleeta.

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