During the Second World War doctors were a prime target for the Draft Boards. Into the breech of medical care stepped the Nurse. She expanded her duties beyond thermometers and bed pans and began practicing medicine all over the country. She (and yes, in the 1940's and 50's, it was a "she") took on increasing responsibilities for primary care, administrative duties, and decision making in hospitals and clinics to fill the void left as the doctors were sent to the European and Pacific theaters.
Then the war was over and the doctors returned. Quickly reasserting their authority and reclaiming their high status position, nurses were shoved aside. Relegated, once more, to the most menial and demeaning task in caring for the very ill. It was, after all "woman's work" - a cultural hold over from the extraordinary repression of the Victorian era.
But the nurses did not step aside cheerfully.
A long battle for responsibility and authority ensued. It is not yet ended but one immediate outcome was the designation of a new class of nurses, the Practical Nurse (PN). It was to be their task to take over the duties long performed by nurses who now organized and established a licensing mechanism to stabilize and control the new hierarchy.
The Practical Nurse was to empty the bed pans, clean up the vomit, dispose of the festering dressings from wounds, and generally do the scut work formerly left the the nurses who now "registered". Nurses could dispense medications. Practical Nurses could change the bed linens - with the patient still in bed. Nurses could change wound dressings. The PN could gather the debris and cart it out of sight. Nurses could assist in the surgery, keep charts and records, and advise physicians of the patients condition. PN's could mop the floors, empty the trash, and carry the breakfast trays.
This was the state of medicine in the late 1940's and 50's when Judge Sotomayor's mother entered the PN field.
PN's were frequently hired from the lower working classes, or those for whom English was not a 1st language. They were not supposed to talk to anyone, anyway, so it didn't matter if they were educated or fluent. Just that they could follow orders and do the dirty work.
Now, pause for a moment and consider a woman who would accept such a job. Her husband is dead, her children are young, and in this land of promise, if she can just hang on, she can give them a whole new life arc.
I watch as those old white men sit and issue platitudes about "single parents" and "Practical Nursing", and I want to scream. They have no idea what this woman endured to send her daughter to Princeton - the place where Einstein hung out!!
My heart is with Mrs Sotomayor this day. To sit in the Senate Chamber and listen to those stupid men, to know that her daughter will win out, to hold the quiet knowledge that without her sacrifice, and back breaking efforts, her willingness to do the most disgusting tasks in medicine, it might never have happened. This is her day.
Congratulations, Mama. You done real good.