Column #100 - September 24, 2000




by Glenn Tunney



        Last week we followed a student nurse through a typical day at the old Brownsville General Hospital School of Nursing.  Today we will hear from nurses who cared for the patients  in the wards of the old Brownsville General Hospital.
         Ruth Gomery of Brownsville, a 1930 graduate of the Uniontown Hospital School of Nursing, began working in Brownsville General Hospital around 1950.   She was later a school nurse, retiring from that position in 1970.  In 1989 she was interviewed on audio tape by researcher Hannah Millward Fisher.
         "Hardly anything you used in the hospital was disposable, is that right?" Hannah asked Ruth.
         "Oh, no," replied Ruth.  "Goodness sakes, rubber gloves were not disposed of until they couldn't dare be used any more.  When the operating room was finished with them, we used them on the ward if you needed a pair of gloves.  They weren't thrown out.  In the operating room, we had to patch them if they had holes in them, then they were autoclaved and powdered.  They weren't used unless they were safe enough to be used.   On major cases they had to be new ones.  Even catheters and Levine tubes were re-used."
        Nowadays mothers who have just given birth are often wheeled out the hospital door just a couple of days after delivering.  That was not so in Ruth's day.
         "At that time," said Ruth, "if a woman came into the hospital for the delivery of a baby, it was customary for the mother to remain hospitalized for approximately eleven days.  Nine of those were designated for bed rest.  Many of these mothers already had quite a few children.  It was often quipped that this might be the only rest some of these women were able to get!"
         Mrs. Gomery described a medical advance that she said was discovered accidentally during World War I.  It was called "Dakin's Solution," and it was utilized on the Frick wards in both Uniontown and Brownsville hospitals, where victims of mine accidents  were often treated.
         "I remember the poor men that would come in from the mine," said Ruth, "with these horrible wounds in the calves of their legs or their thighs, just mangled.  We would take rubber tubing the size of catheters, and we had a little metal punch.  We would punch pin holes in this tubing, then the tubing was wormed down into the wound and affixed with a piece of adhesive tape on the leg.  Then it would be bandaged, but the end of the tube was always exposed.  Every four hours or so, we took a large glass syringe and drew up the Dakin's Solution.  We would place the tip of the syringe into the little rubber catheter and force the solution into the wound through the perforations.  This would kill many of the germs in the wound.  They found that this treatment had worked well on the soldiers during the war, and after the war it was introduced into hospitals."
         Oleda Sebolt Davison of West Brownsville graduated from Brownsville's School of Nursing in 1952, then worked at Brownsville General Hospital for the next forty years.  She remembers those mine accident victims too.
         "On Frick ward in Brownsville General Hospital," Oleda told me recently, "when we got a patient from the mines who had been injured in a slate fall, Miss [Christine] Smith would have a royal fit if those men were not cleaned properly."
         At a time when antibiotics were not commonly available, infection was a potentially deadly complication.
         "We had a bath tub that was stretcher-high," recalled Oleda, "and only about six inches deep.  You had to get them off that stretcher, no matter how badly they were injured, and get that mine dirt off them.  Cleanliness was so important.  Until you get the dirt out, you cannot heal them.  We didn't have penicillin until around 1950, only sulfa.  So we had to prevent an infection from starting."
         Ann Bogden Rymarchyk of Blainesburg worked at Brownsville General Hospital for forty years beginning in 1942.  She too worked on the Frick Ward, and she remembers that the demanding Christine Smith was a great nurse.
           "I was supervisor on Ward A, the UMW ward," Ann told me.   "Christine Smith was my supervisor."  In a voice reflecting her admiration, she said, "Miss Smith and Dr. Sphar ‘made' that ward what it was."
         "Wasn't it difficult to work on a ward that had so many injured patients to care for at once?" I asked Ann.
         "At the old hospital," Ann replied, "everybody knew everybody and helped each other.  It was really a kind of family atmosphere."
          The ward system had its medical advantages, believe it or not.
         "You could bring the patients forward who needed the most attention.  You could put them where you could watch them," Oleda Davison explained to me.  Then she sighed.  "Now they are scattered in rooms all over the hospital."
         Blanche Pursglove of Brownsville, 1948 graduate of Brownsville's School of Nursing,  was a staff nurse and a head nurse at Brownsville General Hospital.  In her 1989 interview with Hannah Millward Fisher, Blanche was asked to describe the typical ‘diploma nurse,' a graduate of a hospital school of nursing.
         "To me," said Blanche, "a diploma nurse was a person that looked like a nurse, with a cap on, with a nice uniform, with polished shoes, hair neat, and devoted to patient alone.  When I say having the patient in mind, that didn't mean just seeing that the patient was bathed properly, given the right medication and all that.  You made their room look perfect.  Their beds were made perfectly and the room was put in order.   We were not above cleaning bedpans, emptying bedpans, cleaning urinals.   We were there to check that their diets were proper, that they were being fed and having the proper food.   We spent a lot of time making sure that the patient was comfortable.  Afternoon care didn't involve going in and giving a little bit of a back rub.  You had a pan of water and a wash cloth and your soap.  Their back was washed, and they were powdered, and they were turned.  They just really got excellent care."
         Oleda Davison expressed great pride in the quality of medical care delivered at the old Brownsville General Hospital.
         "At the old hospital," she said, " when the state came in, we were always recognized for our cleanliness and nursing care, no matter how old the building was.  We were always at the top.  Always.  And we were recognized for our food too.  The cooks there made wonderful homemade food.
         "You know, on the day we moved from the old hospital to the new one, they fired all of our laundry workers and cooks.  I thought that was the most horrible thing.  Then they hired new workers at the new hospital, and it was never the same."
         The fifties and sixties did bring dramatic changes to Brownsville General Hospital and its School of Nursing.  The School of Nursing was the first to take the brunt of the changing times, closing its doors forever in 1952.  The reason?  A Brownsville General Hospital publication stated that the facility stopped training nurses because "the task of preparing nurses has become increasingly academically oriented."
         Oleda Davison was a member of that final graduating class of six nurses --- the Class of ‘52.
         "Did your class know that it would be the last one to graduate from the Brownsville General Hospital School of Nursing?" I asked Oleda.
         "Oh, yes," she said.  "I'm not sure when that decision was made, but no other students entered the school after our class started in 1949.  We graduated at a ceremony in Front Street school in March 1952, even though we were not finished with our schooling yet.  There were six of us who made it through, and six of the class ahead of us were also included in the ceremony."
         Thirteen years after the school of nursing closed, the yellow brick hospital also yielded to the inevitable.  A new facility on Simpson Road east of Brownsville replaced the aging building.
         "The move from the old hospital to the new hospital was fairly smooth," Oleda remembers.  "They discharged everyone they could, then either the family or ambulance took the rest of the patients up to the new hospital.  They moved very little of the old building's equipment.  And that was bad in some ways.  We ended up having to go back down to the old hospital to get the metal fracture beds that were in the Frick ward, because J & L had recently bought them and they were good ones.  The beds at the new hospital didn't have provisions for a broken leg to be placed in traction.  So they took apart a few of the Frick ward beds at the old hospital and brought them up to the new building."
         Nowadays the intersection of Fifth Avenue and Church Street on Brownsville's North Side, once the site of a busy hospital and a fully occupied nurses home, is quiet.   Following the 1952 closing of the School of Nursing, the Horner Memorial Nurses Home remained a residence for some of the nurses who worked at the hospital across the street.  Eventually it was utilized as a long term care facility for elderly patients.  After the old Brownsville General Hospital building closed in 1965, it was purchased by Frank (Al) Bock and converted into the "Golden Age Nursing Home."  Today both buildings stand empty and silent.  They are part of an era in Brownsville's history when they epitomized top-notch training and medical care facilities in our region.  They are an important part of the life stories of many Brownsville area residents.
         Next week, this series will conclude with a look back at the 1965 opening of the "new" Brownsville General Hospital and a poignant reflection by some retired nurses upon the state of nursing then and now.

Readers may call me at 724-785-3201, e-mail me at [email protected], or write me at 6068 National Pike East, Grindstone, PA   15442.  For past articles on the Web, go to and click on "Communities."