Backwards in High Heels

Have you ever found yourself in a place that seemed totally foreign to you? If you have, you know how unsettling it is. I found myself in this situation while attending nursing school. Although I was from Massachusetts, I followed a boyfriend to attend a university in Greenville, South Carolina. Aside from wanting to be with him, I was impressed with the school’s high NTE (National Teacher’s Exam) scores and at 17, I wanted to get away from home. After graduation, I got married, (not to the same guy), taught for a year and decided to go to nursing school. While universities tend to be eclectic, nursing schools tend to be regional. This may not be true if the school is in Boston or New York City, but in Greenville, it was very true.

From the moment I started my nurses training I knew it was going to be a challenge. The language was different. The culture was different. The food was different. Even the dirt was different. It was a clay ochre color that clung to my white clinic shoes turning them pink. I was called “The Yankee Nurse” from day one to the day I graduated. This was in the 60’s, in the middle of the civil rights movement when they were digging Yankees out of the dump. I learned that when they called me Sweetie Pie, or Honey, it wasn’t necessarily a complement. They said I talked too fast, walked too fast and was too abrupt. They identified with Scarlet O’Hara. I identified with Carol Burnett. The images were hardly compatible.

I had to get used to eating blobs of a tasteless colorless substance called grits, leafy green bitter collards, hominy, slimy green okra, and chitlins which were chicken innards lumped under a thick white sauce. I never knew exactly what I was eating. I felt like a foreigner in a strange land.

But worse of all was that was that I learned my medical terms with a southern accent. I came home talking about FEE-moral (femoral) arteries, UM-brellas (umbrellas) that were inserted to contain clots and ambulance SI-reens (sirens). It took me a year to talk medically like a New Englander again.

Then I thought of Edith Cavell. Back in the early 1900’s, she went to a foreign country, Belgium, and had to speak in a foreign language, French. When she tried to establish the first nurses’ training school, none of the Belgian women would enroll believing if they did bedside nursing, they would lose their status in society. In addition, Edith was an Anglican in a country very much under the influence of the Catholic Church. The Mother Superior ruled the bedside with her untrained nuns. The Catholic Church was put off seeing a foreign Anglican come in and disrupt their order of things by introducing a whole new profession outside their control. But Edith never waivered. Funded by a committee of Belgian business women, she turned four apartment houses into a school, clinic, classroom, and lab.

She created the curriculum, lined up the instructors, ordered the textbooks and even designed and created the uniforms – all in four weeks. It took seven long years for the school to be totally successful but during that time, Edith was also teaching medical students, a task unheard of in those days. Women didn’t even have the vote yet in America, and only a few women had dared attend medical school, never mind teach in one. She also managed a public health service and supplied nurses to many of the hospitals previously staffed by nuns. She became known in the international nursing arena as establishing one of the finest nursing schools in the world and was dubbed, “The Florence Nightingale of Belgium.”

But Florence Nightingale never had to deal with all of these obstacles when she began her first nurses’ training school. In addition, her parents were Unitarian, a group that was very active in helping the sick. Her family was wealthy and supported her financially. Plus she had the support of her friends, country, and environment whereas Edith had very little of that.

I have experienced what it is like to be totally immersed in an environment foreign to you. I always felt a bit off my game. But Edith succeeded in everything Florence did, only in a foreign environment. It reminds me of the comment once made about Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. It was said that Ginger did everything that Fred did, only backwards in high heels.


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