When I Decided – to Become a Nurse

I moved to Denver in December of 1972. One memory of our initial arrival in Denver has stuck with me for all of these years and I think of it every winter. I grew up in the Snow Belt of northwest Indiana and then at the age of 16 my family moved up north of Chicago so I was quite familiar with snowy winters. A scene we witnessed one snowing morning in Denver that December was a public works truck driving down the middle of Colfax avenue with two guys in the back shoveling I assumed a salt mixture out of the back of the truck onto the street. This seemed a very strange and funny way to address snow on the streets to us and we wondered if the city had any snowplows. This did not prove to be a deal breaker however and several of us close friends moved here anyway.

My first job was in the food service department at Craig Rehab Hospital in Englewood. That only lasted about six months and then I was soon employed, in the summer of 1973, on the inpatient psychiatric ward at what was then called Denver General Hospital. We were living at the time on Elati Street just behind the new Denver General Hospital building. I was hired as a Hospital Attendant, a bit of a fancier name for ‘Orderly’ I guess.  All of the attendants on the unit were male and, except for me, conscientious objectors to the Vietnam War doing their community service. We were all male I assume to provide muscle to back up the all female R.N. staff. Despite being hired as “muscle” I distinctly remember three instances of getting my lights punched out by belligerent patients, one episode involving the smashing of a glass IV bottle over my head. IV bottles did not become plastic until years later.

The lasting impact of that job was not however a fist coming my way but came from the several great women I worked with. The ones who made the most lasting impression on me were R.N.’s. All were very dynamic women and my eventual philosophy of nursing was greatly shaped by these dynamic women. Several of these nurses were actually involved in a lawsuit in the early 1970’s asking that women get equal pay for equal work. They unfortunately lost that suit with the Judge actually saying in his decision that to give women equal pay for equal work would be much to disruptive to the very fabric of society.

I went from inpatient psychiatry after two years to a street alcohol detox unit down at 17th and Blake, years before it became the high-end LoDo neighborhood it is today. This street facility was pre-Denver Cares.  We had ten detox beds and allowed a three-day stay to get sober with a more extended rehab-option of one month I think in our upstairs dorm. Most of the guys would leave for day labor and I suspect most often a little nip of this or that. Those who stayed behind were often subjected to lectures I pulled together on the health effects of too much alcohol with tobacco still getting a free ride back then.

This was frontier medicine at its best. No air conditioning, poor ventilation and only ten beds that really only filled up when the weather was bad. We usually did not call an ambulance until the third withdrawal seizure. Oh and we were right next-door to a liquor store. In the winter the predominately men on the streets were always hustling us for change to be able to buy a “wine-blanket” to make it through the night.

I converted my TB test in those days and ended up on meds for about a year. Relax; any cough today is not TB but just phlegm. This again was probably related to the lousy ventilation in the place. The back dorm room did have a window but to keep that open was to invite folks to crawl in or out. Also the window looked out on a vacant lot often the scene of raucous parties with small fires and occasionally the roasting of a stray dog over the fire for a late night meal. All the guys we took in had to be at least a few hours out from their last drink. We started with stripping off their most often very funky clothes and getting them to shower with Kwell lotion and then into hospital garb. The issuing of hospital pajamas often, but not always, slowed down the urge to escape after sobering up and the shakes started to set in. The relatively few women, on what was then called skid row, would be taken to the hospital for detox.

The nurse that I worked with in the evening shift, 1500-2300, was an old army nurse who drove up from Colorado Springs named Ruth. She sat at the desk facing the street with a bench on its side blocking the door to keep rowdy drunks out often trying to bum one of the endless cigarettes she chained smoked on the job – this was 1975 remember. One particularly warm summer night we had a drive by shooting. The bullet missed Ruth and the rest of us inside but I can still hear her yelling to hit the deck because of the incoming fire. The gunfire was most certainly meant for someone on the street and we were just unfortunately in the way of someone who was obviously a lousy shot.

These were also my peak coming out years and I was in no mood to take shit off straight assholes but guys still drunk did call me a fairy on more than one occasion. Our clients were often very polite and non-threatening when sober. Sweet guys lots of them really. So, despite the homophobia, having to dispose of lice infested smelly clothing, the positive TB test, getting my lights punched out on occasion, helping still often drunk men shower (nothing fun about that really!), Ruth’s endless chain smoking, another older male attendant who said he preferred taking a good shit any day to sex, and the crappy pay for nurses I decided to throw caution to the wind and enrolled in the University of Colorado School of Nursing in 1976. It only took two years to get my bachelor’s degree since I had already accumulated well over 120 hours of semester credit at the University of Illinois much of it in the sciences. No degree though to show for it, I simply could not fit that in with antiwar demonstrations, the support of Caesar Chavez’s United Farm Workers union, the occasion anti-war riot and endless picketing and leafleting. Oh and of course a fair amount of sex, drugs and rock and roll didn’t help either.

So with much encouragement from the several very strong female R.N.’s in my life I decided to become a nurse in the spring of 1976 and the rest is history. To this day I can be found on many a Tuesday or Thursday working a 12 hour shift in a local Urgent Care Unit with I might add a bunch of great nurses mostly still women.

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