Dorothy Day and Nursing

From Creative Commons

Dorothy Day is known for her work in social justice, and especially for her co-founding and longtime work with the Catholic Worker Movement. Earlier in my career I worked with the Richmond, Virginia-based Freedom House, modeled after Day’s houses of hospitality. Freedom House, like Day’s original house of hospitality in the Lower East Side of NYC, included a shelter, soup kitchen, laundry and clothing services, counseling and friendship. The staff members of Freedom House lived in voluntary poverty as a mark of solidarity, and as a way to become un-insulated from the realities of poverty and homelessness.

I also knew that Dorothy Day had been a journalist and had been involved with the women’s suffrage movement. She picketed the White House in 1917 as part of the Silent Sentinels’ nonviolent civil disobedience, and was arrested and jailed for her part in the peaceful protest.

But, I had no idea that Dorothy Day was also a nurse. I discovered that fact recently when I read her autobiography, The Long Loneliness¬†(Harper and Row, 1952). In 1918, as WWI and the influenza pandemic raged on, Dorothy wrote to a friend: ‘I hate being Utopian and trying to escape from reality . (,,,) What good am I doing my fellow men? They are sick and there are not enough nurses to care for them. It’s the poor that are suffering. I’ve got to do something.”

So she went to work as a nurse–or a nurse-in-training– at the Kings County Hospital in Brooklyn. She writes of this time: “From the beginning I enjoyed the work. (…) My experience there reassured me as to the care one received from the city. It was a care given to citizens, not to paupers. And it was all free.”

In her autobiography, she describes specific patients and hospital wards that were particuarly memorable to her. Two female patients dying near each other in a ward, one a woman of fifty and the other a girl of twenty-two. Of the younger patient she writes, “There was the smell of death around her, I kept thinking, and there was no one to bring her flowers to deaden it.” She moved to a fracture ward. ‘This ward broke me, the work was so hard. (…) One afternoon when I had been cleaning up filth all day, and the perverse patient had again thrown her bedpan out on the floor dirtying my shoes and stockings, I left the ward in tears and sat in the washroom weeping uncontrollably at the ugliness and misery of life.” Day claims that she had a sympathetic nursing supervisor who took her off the difficult ward, “… transferring me to medical where there were fifty patients with influenza.” (I’m not so sure I’d call her supervisor sympathetic.)

We forget how devastating the 1918 flu pandemic was: “This was the time of the ‘flu’ epidemic and the wards were filled and the halls too. Many of the nurses became ill and we were very short-handed. Every night before going off duty there were bodies to be wrapped in sheets and wheeled away to the morgue. When we came on duty in the morning, the night nurse was performing the same grim task.(…) It was hard not to be careless at this time when every day ten or twelve new patients were carried in or walked staggeringly only to fall unconscious as soon as their clothes were taken from them.”

Of burnout and emotional numbing in her work a a nurse, Day writes this: “Nursing was like newspaper work. It was impossible to suffer long over the tragedies which took place every day. One was too close to them to have perspective. They happened too continuously. They weighed on you, gave you a still and subdued feeling, but the very fact that you were continually busy left you no time to brood.” She writes of finding solace and peace outside in the hospital grounds: “I just sat for a brief rest and watched the sparrows and starlings looking for crumbs from the apron pockets of the old women. ”

Dorothy Day worked as a nurse at the hospital for a year, until after the influenza epidemic was over. “Then a longing to write, to be pursuing the career of a journalist which I had chosen for myself, swept over me so that even though I loved the work in the hospital, I felt it was a second choice, and not my vocation. My work was to write and there was no time for that where I was.” She concludes this chapter of her life by writing, “…I had been a good and sympathetic nurse. I knew that I loved the work, and that if I had not had the irresistible urge to write, I would have clung to the profession of nursing as the most noble work (…).”

Nurse Dorothy Day, along with suffragist/activist/radical hospitality Dorothy Day: an inspiration.

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