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Learning Center Experience
Imagine that you’re a young single woman, working as a nurse amidst the glamour of star-studded southern California, when you get a job offer you can’t refuse. For the next 2-1/2 years, you’ll work in some of the hottest spots in the world, responsible for providing critical care to handsome young men. Your travel, room, and board will be provided, and you’ll get to see the world. Sounds great, right?
Now, imagine it’s 1943, and the job offer is from Uncle Sam. You’ve got less than one month before you’re to board a ship bound for the South Pacific theater of war to join a hospital unit that treats wounded servicemen coming straight from the war’s toughest battlegrounds. You’ll be an army officer and a nurse, however, no one can guarantee your safety. You might become a prisoner of war like army nurse Millie Dalton, or you might not come home at all. Jeanne Gagnon grew up on her family’s ranch on the dusty plains of northern Montana. As a young woman, she and her sister Erma left home to become nurses in Los Angeles. It was probably pretty exciting for two farm girls to move to the glamorous city of L.A. in the late 1930s, if her scrapbook of movie star postcards and Hollywood maps from the time was any indication.In 1943, Jeanne and Erma joined the U.S. Army’s 4th General Hospital Unit as 2nd Lieutenants and nurses, and were soon on a ship sailing to Brisbane, Australia. They received their uniforms less than 2 hours before departing. For the next 2-1/2 years, these two nurses moved from Australia to New Guinea to the Philippines, treating everything from combat wounds to tropical diseases to malnutrition. They warmed their feet with canteens of hot water in the cold winters, and made mango ice cream in the hot weather of New Guinea. On the night that Japan surrendered, their hospital unit arrived in Manila in preparation for the invasion that never came. Six months later, Jeanne’s service was over, and she returned home to Montana. She married a man from her hometown whom she had written to while he served in Europe, and they started their ranch not far from where he was born. My mother was the second oldest of Jeanne’s six children, and I am one of her 20 grandchildren.I sat with her when her hip replacements were failing, when her eyes were cloudy with cataracts, and when she rolled out the dough for her famous cinnamon rolls. Even as a young boy, I always wanted to talk with her about her time in the Army, and she could remember even the smallest details, down to the dosages of medication that she gave patients. She told me about the good things, like finding out that a soldier from her hometown was being treated in the unit across the street. I asked her about the hard parts, like running low on supplies; eating Spam® for breakfast, lunch, and dinner; and caring for soldiers who had been badly wounded.
When I was older and learning history in school, I asked her what she thought about the decision to drop the atomic bomb on Japan. She said that was a time where she “couldn’t get some of these horrible things out of [her] head.” In the first few years after the war, she and my grandfather worked through the emotions of their wartime experiences until they had made peace with them. Some things were too hard to let go: soon after they were married, they both agreed that they would never, ever have Spam® in their home.My grandmother is my hero. I’ve thought many times about the courage it took her to go off to war. By 1943, many nurses had become prisoners of war, and many others were not going to come home. An Allied victory was not on the horizon. And yet, in her matter-of-fact manner that I’ve come to associate with so many other nurses, she said that she was needed, and so she went. I’m not a nurse. It’s not my particular calling. But I have the privilege of working with nurses every day. And although the nursing profession has changed in so many ways since my grandmother’s time, I see that the most important traits of quiet courage, intense competency, and deep compassion have held true with today’s generation of nurses. I’ve never looked back at my choice to work with nurses.
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