Tooele Transcript Bulletin – News in Tooele, Utah

February 21, 2013
Pioneer nurses, doctors did best with what they had

Come take a walk back in time with me along a trail less traveled to pioneer times when doctors were few.

Most large communities supported a doctor, although he sometimes had to consider his pay in eggs, a chicken or a quarter of venison. Most doctors didn’t have a private office, nor did they have a hospital when the territory was being settled.

A doctor rented rooms or used the back bedrooms of his own home for patient care. He would set it up to accommodate at least two beds per room with a chamber pot beneath the bed and windows that could be opened to freshen up the room.

If a doctor was fortunate enough to have a nurse helping, he could get some rest and take time off. If not, he was on a 24-hour-a-day schedule to care for and tend to the needs of his patients. Frequently the backyard held a small corral and shed where he kept a cow for milk and some chickens that he could use for food. If he could afford to, he would hire a washwoman and a cook to help.

The “black box” he carried with him contained equipment to attend to emergencies. Items found inside his box include a stethoscope (to listen to the heart and lungs), forceps (for bone grasping and extraction) and a bone saw (to cut through bone). No anesthetics were used in those days and all surgery was done without modern drugs.

Much was expected of nurses. They not only cleaned the patient up, but also did laundry. One pioneer lady whose baby was in the care of the doctor found herself washing bed linens, diapers and anything else needed in the home.

When the doctor was called away on an emergency, the nurse was left to handle all issues that might arise. Minor surgeries became major when the doctor was not present and a nurse discovered that she could deal with the delivery of a baby, a broken arm or leg, and dental issues. Fortunately, exposure to contagious diseases such as measles and pox didn’t happen often to the pioneers because of their isolated circumstances, but when such a disease occurred, it was devastating.

Nurses and midwives were often educated women, but sometimes circumstances called for immediate action and pioneer women responded with adept ability to set bones, pull teeth, deliver a baby and save its mother. They kept files and charts on each patient for the doctor in the area to review when he visited a few times a month.

Often just finishing seventh or eighth grade led to attending nurse’s training for some, while others met the rigors of nursing equipped with little experience. Many had large families of their own and leaving them to attend to the sick required courage and energy. One nurse asked for a blessing to have the strength to continue and when she received it she was promised her family would be kept safe in her absences, which gave her peace of mind.

Nurses rode sidesaddle horse back, in a horse-drawn buggy or walked to visit their patients twice a day.

Some nurses kept verses, thoughts and humorous sayings to cheer up troubled patients. Most were loved and appreciated by those whom they cared for. Nurses were exposed to disease yet they continued their endeavors to help throughout the settlements. No medication was known in the early 1800s to battle pneumonia, diphtheria and other diseases that took the lives of many young and elderly until the 1930s when sulfa drugs were put on the market. Common bacterial infections took the lives of many before then, as did gall bladder issues, appendicitis and tonsillitis. The mortality rate was 80 percent.

The dead were taken care of in the best possible manner, often with the help of a nurse, and had to be buried soon after death because of lack of embalming.

Pioneer City Hall, built in 1867 at 39 E. Vine Street, now houses the Tooele County Daughters of Utah Pioneers Museum. Within the walls of the museum are displayed instruments and medical information of the early 1800s used in pioneer times. Medicine bottles boasting cure-alls for ailments from a sore toe to a sore throat can be seen on the shelves there.

Patricia Holden is the publicist for the Tooele County Company of the Daughters of Utah Pioneers. She is also a member of the DUP SheepRock Camp. She can be reached at v4bar@wirelessbeehive. com.

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