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NORTH COUNTRY AT WORK: 1940s memories of Ogdensburg’s nursing school

May 25, 2018
By AMY FEIEREISEL - NCPR Correspondent , Lake Placid News

OGDENSBURG - The first hospital in St. Lawrence County was opened in 1885 by an order of Canadian Catholic nuns. That may seem like the set-up to a joke, but it's actually the opening chapter of one of northern New York's largest hospitals, and the genesis of a very unique nursing school.

The hospital was called the Ogdensburg City Hospital and Orphan Asylum, and it was originally built and run by the Grey Nuns of the Sacred Heart of Ottawa, who also opened hospitals in Plattsburgh and Alaska.

They opened a nursing school at the Ogdensburg hospital in 1902, where nursing students studied under the order of nuns for three years. Thousands of nurses graduated the program, including Frances VanHorne, born in 1927, a native of Canton who graduated from the demanding program in 1947. She remembers: "By the time we graduated, there wasn't one thing in that hospital we couldn't do. Not a thing!"

Article Photos

The nurses of the A. Barton Hepburn Hospital in Ogdensburg. From left to right Alice Hughes, Eliene Tierney, Dorothy Woods, and Louise Plumb. Circa 1930s. Photo: courtesy of the Ogdensburg Historian’s Office

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Entering the A. Barton Hepburn Hospital nursing school

This was a real accomplishment for VanHorne, who says she decided very early on she wanted to be a nurse. She graduated high school in 1943 at the age of 16 with one desire - to go to the nursing school at the A. Barton Hepburn Hospital (renamed in 1918 after donor A. Barton Hepburn) nursing school. Unfortunately, she was told she had a few handicaps.

"Number one, I was barely 16. Number two, I was too thin. And number three, I was too short. So the nuns said 'come back in another year.'"

Not to be deterred, VanHorne went home and took a post-graduate year at Canton High School, grew two-and-a-half inches, and ate.

"My mother and grandmother fed me like you wouldn't believe!"

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Life at the nursing school

At the end of the year, she went back and was accepted into the program. VanHorne packed her bags and moved into the nurses' home on King Street in Ogdensburg, which she shared with about 80 other student nurses, all between the ages of 17 and 20. It was a little different than living at home; she remembers that each morning a student nurse dressed in full uniform would run through the three-storied building ringing a bell.

All the young women, neatly dressed and ready to go, had to be at the dining room entrance by 6:30.

"With a nun outside the dining room door, checking us. That our hair was off the collar, we weren't wearing jewelry, we weren't wearing make-up. Those were the rules!"

After being served breakfast by waiters, the student nurses had to be at the third floor chapel entrance by 6:50, where they took Mass before officially going on duty at 7 a.m. They stayed on duty until 7 at night, and though they were meant to have three hours off within that period, VanHorne says it never happened, since they had class on top of their daily duties.

"We would go on duty, we would take the night report, and we would be assigned which patients to care for. Everybody got a bed bath, their bed changed, a back-rub. You see, in that era patients didn't get out of bed until at least a week after surgery."

VanHorne remembers being assigned to nine patients between 7:30 and 9:30, which "is impossible! But that's how the hospital was."

The nurses' concern that VanHorne was too thin was a real one. The school was a physically and mentally demanding place, and the nuns had high expectations for their pupils. VanHorne says she very much admired the nuns, though she and the other student nurses "tried to outwit them at every turn."

The doctors, for the most part, were quite sympathetic to the student nurses. VanHorne recalls a particular incident when four of her classmates pierced their ears in the dead of night - which wasn't allowed - and were suspended for it. Dr. Dave DePey, a doctor VanHorne describes as a champion for the nurses, insisted they be let back in.

She also remembers a Dr. Stacey muttering darkly "that they brought healthy young women in, and we were physical wrecks when we left. ... but that wasn't true. They [the nuns] were remarkable. They were very dedicated."

VanHorne entered nursing school in 1944, a year before World War II ended. When asked if she cared for many returning veterans, she said she certainly dated a lot of them. The influx of young men when World War II ended in 1945 made the nurses' home a busy place. The students had to be in the building at 9:45, and they were checked on by the nuns. But they did have a window to go out on the town that suitors took advantage of.

"We got off duty at 7 o'clock, and at quarter of 7, the cars were lined up front."

She says the running joke was that the first 30 girls out the door each night were the best dressed, since everyone freely borrowed clothes from each other.

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Post-graduation working life

VanHorne graduated in 1947, and she was hired to work at the hospital in the OB (Obstetrical Nursing) unit, assisting births and doing natal care. She took her state boards in October of that year in Syracuse, and was thrown straight into the thick of things after getting her passing results back on New Year's Eve.

"On Jan. 2, they let me, at 20, be the head nurse at night of the OB during the baby boom years. I look back and I think they must have been crazy."

VanHorne worked with many doctors but says one always stood out to her.

"Dr. Claxton is my all-time favorite doctor. He was the chief of the service. And the wonderful thing about him was that if I called him at 2 o'clock in the morning, he would come in in the best of moods. He never was nasty. And he said, "If you see something that you don't like, you call me. I don't care if you're right once out of a 100 times."

She's referring to Dr. E. Garfield Claxton, who was a prominent doctor at Hepburn from the 1930s to 1960s, and for whom the hospital was renamed for in 2001. He ran the OB unit while VanHorne was in it. She says there were about five doctors she worked with on a regular basis.

But VanHorne remembers several occasions when she flew solo, either because of inclement weather or unusual circumstances, like one night in 1948 when she got a frantic call from the ambulance entrance, before the hospital had an emergency room. They said there was a woman delivering in a car, and that VanHorne had better get down there.

"So I grabbed a pair of gloves and cord set, and I ran for the elevator!"

When she got there, she said the woman's husband was stricken, because he'd just bought the car that very day.

"And she was having a baby in the front seat! You know I wasn't paying attention to him, but he wasn't paying any attention to me either! He didn't give a hoot about she or the baby, but he was concerned about that car!"

VanHorne successfully delivered the baby.

"I didn't have to do much more than catch it. That's a cool trick, delivering a baby in the front seat of a car." She says it's one of her funniest memories.

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Changes at the hospital and Frances's career

VanHorne stayed at Hepburn for three years. At that time, both the hospital and nursing school were still run by the Grey Nuns. The nursing school graduated its final class in 1968, and in 1976 the A. Barton Hepburn Hospital switched to secular management.

After leaving Ogdensburg, VanHorne lived in Detroit and Niagara Falls, where she also worked as a nurse until she became pregnant and was forced to quit before she showed, "which was antediluvian, but that's what it was. Here I was, working on maternity!"

She and her husband moved back to Canton in the mid-1950s, built a house and raised their two sons there.

VanHorne volunteered and worked part time as a nurse until going back to school for three teaching certificates in the late 1960s. She went on to help found the BOCES Practical Nursing Program.

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(This story comes to you from North Country Public Radio's North Country at Work project, which explores the working lives and history of our region. Find scores of work stories and thousands of work photos online at ncpr.org/work.)

 
 

 

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