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1862 / Washington, D.C.

Louisa May Alcott Clears for Action

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index.php.jpeg“They’ve come! They’ve come! Hurry up, ladies.You’re wanted.”

“Who have come? The rebels?”

This sudden summons in the gray dawn was somewhat startling to a three days’ nurse like myself, and as the thundering knock came at our door, I sprang up in my bed.

“Bless you, no, child; it’s the wounded from Fredericksburg. Forty ambulances are at the door, and we shall have our hands full in fifteen minutes.”

“What shall we have to do?”

“Wash, dress, feed, warm, and nurse them for the next three months, I dare say. Eighty beds are ready, and we were getting impatient for the men to come. Now you will begin to see hospital life in earnest, for you won’t probably find time to sit down all day, and may think yourself fortunate if you get to bed by midnight. Come to me in the ballroom when you are ready; the worst cases are always carried there, and I shall need your help.”

So saying, the energetic little woman twirled her hair into a button at the back of her head, in a cleared-for-action sort of style, and vanished, wrestling her way into a feminine kind of pea jacket as she went.

I am free to confess that I had a realizing sense of the fact that my hospital bed wasn’t a bed of roses just then—or the prospect before me one of unmingled rapture. My three days’ experiences had begun with a death, and owing to the defalcation of another nurse, a somewhat abrupt plunge into the superintendence of a ward containing forty beds, where I spent my shining hours washing faces, serving rations, giving medicine, and sitting in a very hard chair, with pneumonia on one side, diphtheria on the other, two typhoids opposite, and a dozen dilapidated patriots hopping, lying, and lounging about, all staring more or less at the new “nuss,” who suffered untold agonies but concealed them under as matronly an aspect as a spinster could assume, and blundered through her trying labors with a Spartan firmness, which I hope they appreciated, but am afraid they didn’t. Having a taste for ghastliness, I had rather longed for the wounded to arrive, for rheumatism wasn’t heroic, neither was liver complaint, or measles; even fever had lost its charms, since “bathing burning brows” had been used up in romances, real and ideal. But when I peeped into the dusky street, lined with what I at first had innocently called market carts, now unloading their sad freight at our door, I recalled sundry reminiscences I had heard from nurses of longer standing, my ardor experienced a sudden chill, and I indulged in a most unpatriotic wish that I was safe at home again.

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  • The whole debate has, apparently, been sparked off by the proposed erection of a statue commemorating Norman Collie and his local guide John Mackenzie on the island belstaff of Skye.

    Posted by belstaff on Tue 5 Oct 2010

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About the Text

From Hospital Sketches. Alcott tutored Ralph Waldo Emerson's daughter, often reading works of philosophy and literature in his library. After six weeks serving as a volunteer nurse during the Civil War, she contracted typhoid and was forced to return home to Concord. She wrote Little Women in a six-week period in 1868.

Physician, heal yourself: thus you help your patient too. Let his best help be to see with his own eyes the man who makes himself well.
Friedrich Nietzsche, c. 1884
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