N4L 150: "Nightingale Tales" by Lynn Dow


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Nightingale Tales: Stories from My Life as Nurse, by Lynn Dow, spans 50 years of one nurse's career experiences–some funny, some sad, and all true. A registered nurse, Dow began her medical career reluctantly but eventually worked as a staff nurse, head nurse, teacher, and mentor at large medical centers on both the east and west coasts.

As handmaidens to physicians in the 1950s, nurses evolved into admired independent practitioners by the start of the new millennium. Nightingale Tales is a peek into that transition, as told by a nurse who lived it. Each chapter is a stand-alone story depicting the changes in the profession, brought about by time, the feminist movement, and advances in technology.


  • Recovery time: from weeks to days
  • Smoking: allowed inside hospitals around machines and in breakrooms
  • “Cracking the chest”: preceded CPR
  • Hospital beds: manual cranks replaced with electric beds and remote controls
  • Pharmaceuticals: borrowed from other patients or units; dispensed by nurses after 5 pm and weekends
  • Uniforms: highly starched dresses and caps replaced with comfortable scrubs
  • Gloves: rarely worn except in surgery; physician’s order required
  • Leadership styles: dictatorial approach became more human and lenient
  • Litigation: rarely used as an option for malpractice cases


  • “We had to do it all without ever losing sight of the fact that our primary concern was to nurture our patients. We did not have the high-tech equipment so common today when I first became a nurse; back then, we relied on our powers of observation. We looked at the patient instead of the computer readouts.
  • “If aspirin were discovered today, it would most likely be banned by the Federal Drug Administration.”
  • “I appreciate the advantages of technology, and no way do I wish nurses would go back to practicing the way I did—but I must admit, I long for a little more of the personal touch, a better understanding of what it is to be a patient. Machine-watching is important—but it would be nice if modern nursing involved a little more patient-watching as well.”

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