Your prompt for this week:
Set your timer for five minutes and do nothing. Stare at the desk or the wall or the dust motes in a slice of sunlight. Then write about the thoughts, the questions, and the answers that came up in that moment of slowness, of stillness.
If I could be so brave and bold to say, I see some parallels to the story of Ruth Bader Ginsburg in my life and in many women born in my time (and hers). Parallels in some ways where I veered off the path, and she bravely ventured forth but parallels in perhaps making a difference
Now, I am not saying, by any means that I compare to this lady who is now famous for so many accomplishments in life, and who is described as paving the way for women in many ways. That would be audacious and disrespectful for sure.
But as I read about her life, the loss of her mother as she was leaving high school left an indelible mark on her life. I relate. My mother died just as I entered my 11th grade, and that defined me in so many ways. RBG was quoted as saying that she owes so much to her mother who told her she could do as much as any man. Her mother was restricted from higher education because the money went to her brother. My mother, according to stories, was restricted from going into Nursing – her passion – because she was more fitted for a bakery girl according to her father, my grandfather. He believed that my mother’s sister, the pretty one, could go to secondary school.
My mother’s father died when he was 64, my mother was 29. The bakery was sold, and mom was allowed to venture off to nursing school, now the age she would have been called a spinster. The story is vague from then on. but she did meet my dad and married and had the three of us- all girls. My legacy is from a mother denied because of sexism and an authoritarian father, and my father who could have been denied because of finances, but worked it out. It was through them I was growing up to believe that I could be anything I wanted to be. My mom became a nursing supervisor, my dad a businessman.
I know my dad’s choice for me would have been Engineering. My mind was logical, my math skills were good, and he had a company ready for me to join. But my shyness baulked at the thought of a class with mostly men – a class with the reputation that every second person would fail. Justice Ginsberg did it though – stood up when there were only nine women in a class of 500, and rejected a professors viewpoint that she didn’t belong there. She went on to sit on the highest court in the land, ironically picked by President Bill Clinton, who was Impeached because of his ways with women.
I chose nursing – to follow in my mother’s footsteps. I remember the letter I wrote to get accepted – I was going to be the helper of the sick and would lead with compassion and caring. Women were expected to be nurses, teachers and secretaries in the late 60’s. It was right for me then, but some days I always wonder if I would have survived the Engineering atmosphere and where that would have lead me.
I started out as an underconfident and obedient bedside nurse, but it wasn’t long that I learned that there were too many parts of nursing that were lost in the dark ages, a place I would rather not stand. Nurses were to do and not ask why. We did menial tasks, like washing gloves and syringes rather than knowing medical answers. We stood when the head nurse walked in and asked how high when the doctor told us to jump. We were criticized for asking questions, reminded it was not ours to diagnose and screamed at if we weren’t handy when the doctor needed us. We had to balance our many tasks at the bedside to run when the busy doctor arrived at our desk. Nurses in those days were mostly women and misogyny was rampant.
It was this atmosphere that allowed a scalpel to pin my shoe to the floor when I handed the surgeon a wrong instrument, that made me disappear crying when I didn’t have answers to a doctor that berated me or a head nurse that chose to “ride” the newest kid on the block. The saying “we eat our own” was very true.
I don’t know when it was that I learned that standing up for what was right was the thing I could do, but I attribute much of it to my first Head Nurse in Edmonton after I was married. Mrs. F (everyone was still called Dr, Mrs. and Miss then) was a feisty little Pilipino head nurse who respected her staff and wanted us to be the best. A turning point for me was when a surgeon came to the desk and started tapping at the desk. When nobody noticed, he uttered a couple of harrumphs. Mrs. F. looked up and smiled at me. I was the team leader for his team and responsible to take him on rounds. He loudly yelled NURSE!! Mrs F. stood her barely 5-foot ground and calmly said: “I didn’t know you hadn’t met Mrs Jago – let me introduce you.” Now I had taken this particular surgeon on rounds many times by that time, and he was taken aback. “Of course, I have met Mrs Jago”. Mrs F looked at him and answered “ Well you won’t call her nurse from now on will you?” Humbled, (and it was hard to humble a surgeon in those days) he nodded and politely asked me, by name, if I was ready for rounds. Surgeons learned not to rap on the desk for attention, to come to where we were working and ask for help, and sometimes even to do their rounds themselves! She taught me not to apologize for calling a doctor – this was his job, and calling was ours. Up to then, we started most sentences with “I am sorry to bother you, doctor”. I learned so much from that workplace, things I used later and incorporated into my nursing career. I learned we were registered nurses educated to do the best for our patients, and we might have to step on a few toes to do it. I am saddened when I hear stories of physicians and surgeons who think they still live in the age of yelling to a “subservient” nurse.
I soon learned that it was the diagnosis and medical part of nursing that I loved the most. I wanted to make the difference by knowing the reason for the symptoms, being ready with an answer to a problem rather than by pretending that the doctor was always right. It didn’t always go well with the physicians but mostly, I earned their respect. But it took some bravery to stand ground with people who didn’t expect that. To hang up the phone when a surgeon swore at me for calling him. To advise a top doc that profanity wasn’t to be used on my unit ever and it didn’t become him. To ask another physician to quit the inappropriate jokes told at the desk – and being called Sister Terry for that behind my back. He was corrected on that too! To report breaches of a policy when necessary even though that indirectly caused me to change places of work.
Soon, the tide changed, and nurses were expected to know, not just do. It was an honour to be taught by doctors how to read an ECG, listen to heart sounds, and diagnose an acute abdomen or a Myocardial Infarction. It was an honour to be told that if they heard my voice in the middle of the night, they knew they had better get dressed, as I didn’t call unless I needed them. I accepted a few apologies when I was right and they were wrong and from others the harrumph that said the same thing, but in a very different way.
I taught others as well, by example or by a story, that we are nurses, proud nurses and never “Just a nurse”. That our assistants are not ‘ Just an aide or just a SCA” but a proud and important person in the health care field. I wanted to place equal value on us all – male or female, doctor or nurse, aide or technician. For that to happen, we all had to believe it.
When I hear the story of Justice Ginsberg, and the changes she made for women, it wasn’t the reproductive or abortion rights that I focus on. That was such a small part of it. She paved the way for our daughters and granddaughters to choose a career, be paid equally for it, to stand up to tyranny and misogyny and the right to speak up as a person.
When I see the picture of her and her fellow Justices, one of three woman on the Supreme Court, and a little osteoporotic one at that, I think of the battles she must have faced, for us, against the band of men making rules for all. I think that she might have said – “call her by name”, or “think of me the same as him”, to object at dehumanizing comments or jokes, or even had to leave the room when a band of men wouldn’t see her as an equal. I can see her rising, like that tiny Head Nurse of mine, and setting her clerks and fellow Justices straight on how to treat people with respect and dignity no matter who they are.
It’s a battle we face as women, to be counted as equal, yet be respected as women as well. It’s a battle we take on every day, proud to be the gentler gender, but also wanting to be treated as an equal. To me, it is not about an occasional hand on my back to lead me in a room, or a hand offered to help me scale a rock, but the acknowledgement, that there is no obstacle for women for equal pay or equal opportunity. We are not often equal in size or muscle strength or even hormonal bend, but we are equal in value.