Sunday, October 31, 2010

Regina Barbara Werner Holst, my maternal grandmother

But to me, she will always be Gaga.  I was responsible for naming her because I couldn't say "Grandmother," when I was a toddler.  Gaga was as close as I could get, and it stuck with all nine of her grandchildren.

Regina was born January 20, 1896, either in Kewaskum or New London, Wisconsin.   The first picture below was when she turned 16, the second her New London, WI, high school graduation picture.

(the quotes below are her words, based on interviews I did with her over a week in January, 1973, for a journalism class during Interim at Macalester College)

Regina was the youngest of four and a much spoiled and cosseted baby of the family. The death of her father when she was 16 affected her deeply. It  meant there was no money for private college for her as there had been for her siblings--all the family's money now came solely from income from several properties owned by her father, Anton.  Anything left over went to pay for her older brother Matt's college tuition.  So the summer after graduating from high school in 1913,  Regina went to to a teacher's training school. However, she was unable to find a teaching job in her district because, according to her, "the Superintendent just didn't like Catholics."

Nursing School

She turned to nursing as a second choice and overrode her mother's objections that it was 'unladylike.'  St. Joseph's School of Nursing, affiliated with Marquette University, offered free tuition, room, and board, so she made the 150 mile trip from New London to Milwaukee and enrolled. 

Her initial determination to go to nursing school gave way to a severe bout of homesickness in her first term.  Although the Director of the nursing school, Sister Mary Alberta, forbade her from going home, my grandmother ignored her just as she had her mother, and in the end the Director took the extraordinary step at the time, of allowing  this very stubborn, probationary nursing student leave to return to New London to see her mother.  But all it took was one weekend, and my grandmother was more than ready to come back to St. Joseph's. "By the third day at home, I even found myself wanting to be back at school.  I missed my friends there almost as much as I had my mother before."  Homesickness cured, she became an earnest if occasionally scattered student.

"One day when I was a probationer, I was helping Miss Wilson do the rounds in the obstetric ward.  I could do everything but give medications then.  Miss Wilson had red hair and she liked to talk to the doctors so she pulled me aside and asked, 'Werner, can you take the temps?'  I nodded and she went off and flirted with several of the doctors who were on that day.  I knew the whole procedure for taking a patient's temperature:  stick the thermometer in carbolic acid, then water, then wipe off with a cotton swab and stick it in the patient's mouth. We had only one thermometer then so I had to repeat the procedure on every one of the patients.

"As I started recording the temperatures, I kept noticing the women's temperatures kept climbing higher and higher.  When I brought the results back to Miss Wilson, she got very excited and started calling all the doctors, saying 'Your patient's very sick and we don't know what's the matter.  You'd better come at once!'  So all the doctors and Sister Chlotilda, the floor supervisor, rushed over to obstetrics.  In the middle of the confusion, Sister Chlotilda asked Miss Wilson if she'd taken the temperatures and she had to admit that she hadn't--she'd asked me to instead.  Then Sister Chlotilda turned to me and asked me if I knew how to take temps.  I nodded yes and then she asked if I'd shaken down the thermometers after each one.  I felt as if the ground could just swallow me up.  I'd forgotten that part.  But I never forgot to shake down a thermometer after that.  Poor Miss Wilson with the red hair probably never forgot either."

Nursing school may have been free, but the student nurses more than paid for it.  "We started at seven every morning if we were on day shift and worked until seven that night.  After that came studying.  And we not only had to care for the patient but we had to clean up every room as well."

Her third, or last year, Regina was selected to go with a staff doctor to a private home and attend an operation.  "House calls were pretty common in those days but a house operation was relatively rare...It was so exciting to be going to someplace outside the school, but I was nervous.  The reason we were doing this operation was that the man lived far away and was quite rich, so he could afford the expense.

"The doctor I was going with, Dr. Levings, was one of the big staff men and I was so scared about the operation was that  all I could think of on the train was what steps I should do first, second, and third in an operation.  I thought about it so much I got everything scrambled and then I had to start again.  Dr. Levings gave me a newspaper to read on the train and all I could do was just look at it, the words made no sense.  All I could do was think about the operation.  I was so afraid I was going to make a mistake somewhere.

"When we go to the house, Dr. Levings looked at the man before operating and decided not to because his fingernails were turning blue and it was clear he was going to die.  I hate to say this, but I was relieved that we weren't going to operate because I was so afraid of making a mistake.

"We stayed until the man died and his relatives asked me to remain and take care of the funeral arrangements.  Dr. Levings thought it would be all right so he left me there.  but her forgot to tell the school so they spent several anxious hours before they found out where I was.  The school agreed to my staying there for a week but told me to get right back as soon as I could .  They needed me pretty badly and it felt nice to be needed.  But it was kind of a holiday being away from st. Joseph's and I enjoyed it."

Another fond memory at St. Joseph's was when one of her teachers congratulated her on a paper she wrote on the digestive system. "The doctor told me my paper was even better than the medical students.'  And it was.  But it really surprised me.  Compliments were rare and I was always surprised to receive them."

In the spring of 1916, Regina graduated from St. Joseph's School of Nursing.  She was named valedictorian of her class of around 30 students.

St. Joseph's School of Nursing graduation, 1916
Regina is center front

St. Joseph's School of Nursing graduation, 1916
Grace Bogenberger, Regina Werner, Mildred Ryan, Mildred Hehne

Director of St. Gabriel's School of Nursing, Little Falls, MN

In 1916, a state law was passed in Minnnesota that required that a registered nurse to be in attendance at all obstetrical and surgical cases.  This created a problem for St. Gabriel's Hospital in Little Falls, Minnesota because, although St. Gabriel's had been established in 1892 by the Franciscan Sisters of the Immaculate Conception, (an order that by 1962 had founded 4 hospitals in Wisconsin, 7 in Minnesota, 9 grade schools, 4 homes for the aged, 2 nursing schools, 1 high school, a junior college, and several other educational institutions), there were no registered nurses at St. Gabriel's.  And a new very modern 50 bed hospital had just been built.  So Sister Mary Rose Ethier, Mother Superior of the Franciscan sisters travelled to Milwaukee and attended the 1916 St. Joseph's graduation where she askedSister Mary Alberta, St. Joseph's Director, to recommend the best new graduate of  St. Joseph's, one who could undertake the task of creating a nursing school at St. Gabriel's.  Sister Mary Alberta  recommended my grandmother.

Grandmother accepted the position but had one immediate hurdle to surmount.  She had to pass a  state Board nursing examination, and Wisconsin required that applicants be 21 years of age.  Regina was only 20.  Sister Regina (not to be confused with my grandmother), a Sister of St. Agnes, was on the St. Joseph's faculty and she advised my grandmother to fake her age.  Regina took the advice and aged a year, something she assured me when I interviewed her in 1973, she did not take lightly and never did anything like it again. 

Even at her artificially advanced age of 21, when Regina arrived in Little Falls on October 2, 1916, many of her students were older than she was.  "I was really afraid," she admitted, "I'd never been quite this far away and alone."  And because she was the only registered nurse at St. Gabriel's she was quite busy with just nursing duties at first.

In addition to overcoming  bureaucratic red tape, my grandmother had another unexpected battle after arriving in Little Falls, this one with a tapeworm.  "In the summer, right before I left for Minnesota, I had this creeping feeling...I went to see a doctor in Milwaukee and he gave me some pills but they didn't work because the creeping feeling would return right before a meal and go away right after I ate.  I always had to be sure to eat on time or I would become nauseous.

"Well the feeling didn't go away, so I consulted another doctor and he told me, 'You've got some type of worms,' gave me some medicine and it still didn't help.  So I waited until I got to Little Falls and saw another doctor there.  He told me that I had a tapeworm which was causing the creeping sensation, and had to get rid of it before I really got sick.

"He gave me a bottle of some vile medicine, told me to take half of it, then watch to make sure I passed the tapeworm--especially its head.  If I didn't get rid of the head, which is about as large as the end of a pin, the tapeworm could grow back and it would take me as long as six years to find out if it was still there.

"I went back to St. Gabriel's.  Told Sister Mary Theresa (superintendent of the hospital) that I couldn't be disturbed for the day, went to my room which was in the basement of the new hospital, shut the door and drank half the bottle.  I pulled up a large glass jar but nothing happened.  I had to go back and tell the druggist I needed a larger dose.  The second time I drank the whole bottle.  I was sitting on the jar next to my bed and I got sick to my stomach, threw up green all over my bed, and passed out on the floor.

"When I came to, the tapeworm was inside the jar, so with a tissue forceps, I lifted it out and placed a newspaper on my bed and spread the thing on it, back and forth and back and forth.  It was at least 20 feet long.  But what scared me was I couldn't find its head and I didn't want to wait another six years for the same thing to happen all over again.  I can tell you they were an anxious six years, when I had time to think about it.  I was so relieved, you just can't imagine how relieved, when the six years were up and there was no sign of the tape."

Regarding the lack of registered nurses at St. Gabriel's, Mother Mary Rose asked Regina to teach a class of Franciscan sisters who had been nurses in the old hospital, and prepare them to take the state board examination.  "Although most of them did not have a high school education, they did have a valuable foundation of the principles of nursing.  Under a temporary waiver of the strict nursing laws in Minnesota (which my grandmother engineered) all of the Sisters were allowed to take the state board examination and readily passed.  They all were excellent nurses, and now could fill responsible positions at the hospital."  In addition until the Sisters had passed the State Board, the Bishop of the diocese did not allow the nuns to witness or care for O.B. cases.  Their admission as RNs freed more of my grandmother's time for teaching  and administrative duties.

Sister Mary Theresa was the Hospital administrator, and part time anesthetist.  In those days chloroform or ether, or a combination of both were the only anesthetics used.  Sister Mary Coletta was the first and second floor supervisor and Sister Mary Bernard ws in charge of the laboratory and third floor.  Sister Loyola was the Operating Room supervisor. "Our janitor was a very able man, but at times would go off on a binge, just as steam was needed for sterilizers in the O.R.  Fortunately Sister [Mary] Theresa also knew how to operate the boiler."

The nursing students had no uniforms to begin with, so Regina designed them.  They were striped blue gingham with white collars, detachable cuffs, stiffly starched white aprons, and black stockings.  The caps were patterned after those of St. Joseph's School of Nursing, and were awarded in a capping ceremony after successful completion of a three month probationary period.  They were also awarded stiff white duffs and a bib for their aprons in the capping ceremony.

Red Cross Day at St. Gabriel's Hospital.
Dr. J.B. Holst with the nurses
Loretta Kujawa is the patient

Regina used the nursing program at St. Joseph's as the model for St. Gabriel's. The nurses' education consisted of three years of study and practice.  Nurses and probationers put on 12 hour shifts at the hospital.  "[The] duties of the students included, besides ordinary bedside care, the administration of hypodermics, hypodermolysis,  irrigation of the bladder and stomach, enteroclysis, rectal feedings, enemas, douches, hot and cold packs, poultices and plasters.  A treatment they liked to side step was the 'prolonged douche' which had to be continued for at least a half hour and required gallons and gallons of hot water.  .[note to my readers:  these words are taken verbatim are from my 37 year old transcription, when I was not as knowledgeable about medical terms]

"Besides the daily bath and oral hygiene, it was expected that the nurse also clean the patient's room.  Students were taught that the comfort of the patient was of greatest importance." Many of the student lectures were given in the evenings by the 12 doctors who had privileges at St. Gabriel's, each of whom selected a speciality and in addition to a series of lectures, tested the students on the subject matter. 
In addition to instructing her nursing students, Grandmother provided classes in elementary hygiene and nursing to the residents of Little Falls.  And, she had duty in the operating room, which sometimes went beyond  normal requirements.

"A Mrs. Corbin was scheduled for an appendectomy one afternoon, but when the two doctors who were to perform it arrived, I discovered, or rather one told me, he was unable to perform the operation and I had to do it.  Mrs. Corbin was already under anesthetic and all opened up.  You see, these doctors had taken an overdose of opium and that's why they couldn't operate.  One of them said, 'You take the scalpel, Miss Werner.  You can do a better job than I could anyhow.'

"I tell you, I never worried so much about one patient as I did Mrs. Corbin after that operation.  I used to come up and visit her two, three times a day."  It was my first and last appendectomy!"

Life at St. Gabriel's was not all work and no play.   "We had many happy hours together.  Picnics at the Sisters' farm, Halloween and Thanksgiving parties--and best of all the Christmas party.  Sharing gifts and a beautiful dinner helped to banish the nostalgia that creeps in on these special family days."

Nurses having a picnic on the Farm

"After two years, the hospital received the highest praise from the [Minnesota] State Board.  Many of our innovations were recommended to other hospitals."

Red Cross and St. Francis Nursing School, Breckenridge

In 1918, after war was declared, Regina decided it respond to the urgent call that went out to nurses in the United States, and signed up to join the Red Cross and go overseas.  The nursing school was running well and she felt comfortable leaving it in the hands of the Franciscans.  She returned to Milwaukee, where her mother was now living, and prepared to join the war effort, but by the time she was ready to go,  peace was declared on November 11.  Then the Great Flu Epidemic of 1918 swept through Milwaukee and she was ill and then convalescent for several weeks. However, her brother Matt wanted to go to law school, and money was needed to help pay for this.  So Regina found a job as a health inspector in  the Milwaukee public schools.  She worked there for three months.  During this time she began receiving letter after letter  from the St. Francis School of Nursing in Breckenridge, MN.  They desperately needed a director of nursing and their Franciscan counterparts in Little Falls had been effusive in their praise for Miss Werner's administrative and teaching skills.  Although she was not eager to leave her family again, St. Francis made her an offer that she could not refuse.

"I asked for the phenomenal fee of $110 a month and they accepted.  That was with room, board and laundry too, so it was quite a lot of money in those days.  And of course anything I could give to Matt would help, so I accepted the position."

The St. Francis School of Nursing had been in operation since 1908, so Regina readily assumed the position as director and took up teaching again.  Things went smoothly except in one instance involving one of the doctors there.

"[Dr. Cross] and I became very good friends at Breckenridge.  He was always coming  and asking my advice. 'What do you think, Miss Werner?' he'd always ask.  But then something went wrong and he became mentally wrong.  He was a big huge man, a surgeon before this happened and one of my dearest friends.

"One day two doctors came to me and asked if they could keep Dr. Cross in the hospital overnight.  Mental patients aren't usually kept in ordinary hospitals but he was too uncontrollable at home and they needed a safe place for him temporarily and the doctors promised that they'd always have someone there watching him. I agreed, rather hesitantly, and they put him in a room several doors down the hall from mine.

"In the middle of the night, I was awakened by a terrific yell coming from that room.  I got up, put on my bathrobe, and went down the hall to investigate.  I opened the door and he was standing there stark naked with the moon shining on him.  He screamed, 'There she is!  There's Miss Werner!  I'll get her!' and started coming towards me.  I really was frightened half to death and started running down the hall with Dr. Cross right behind me.  I turned to go down the stairs and he was directly behind me.  I had my keys with me, remembered the night nurses' room was next door, unlocked the door and pulled it shut behind me.  He was trying to kill me because I had helped lance a boil on his finger that afternoon.  The two doctors finally showed up and put him in a straightjacket and they took him to a mental institution in North Dakota.  I was shaking that night, uncontrollably, and the next day."

Grandmother was being pursued by another man at this time, but this was in a romantic vein.  Dr. Claude Frederick Holst from Little Falls, started paying social calls on her when she moved to back to Minnesota, although Breckenridge was 140 miles distant. "Dr. Fred was 22 year older than I was and I suppose I looked upon him as a father figure.  But we had the best marriage you could ask for.  He never tried to order me around and was so patient and kind to me.  Everything worked out for the best."

However, their wedding was postponed by a natural disaster--a tornado.  "It was at suppertime.  We were all sitting down to dinner when word came that there had been a tornado near Fox Home (15 miles east of Breckenridge).  It had knocked a train off the tracks and there were a lot of people who had been hurt.  I grabbed a pillowcase and stuffed it full of a much medicine as I could and we left for Fox Home.

"When we got there we found the train lying sideways in a big pool of water and many, many people who needed medical assistance.  The railroad dispatched a special, I think they called it a 'Y' train, to get us out there and we brought the injured back in it.

"The next day after we'd brought the people back from the train, others from the surrounding countryside where the tornado had hit, began pouring in (to St. Francis).  All the sisters had to give up their beds and many of the injured were just lying on straw mattresses on the floor.  Things were so hectic.  Sister Mary Elizabeth, who was head of the hospital, begged me to stay until the crisis was over.  She told me, 'If you stay, we'll give you the nicest wedding breakfast.'  So I stayed and helped.

"At first we gave first aid, which was just hit and miss, to those who needed it most then we settled down to giving nursing care.  We had two little boys who came in with pieces of straw blown straight into their calves.  They said when the tornado struck, they got scared and crawled into a cold oven to hide.

"I worked for two straight days without changing my clothes and lost 20 pounds.  Dr. Fred came for the wedding, saw me, and said, 'You look terrible.'  He was all for taking me away right then but I'd promised Sister Mary Elizabeth so we waited until the crisis passed and then got married (June 19, 1920).  The wedding breakfast was, like she said, the nicest."

As Mrs. C.F. Holst, my grandmother gave up her nursing practice and became a full time mother with many outside interests.  She helped form the St. Gabriel's Hospital Women's Auxiliary which raised money for the hospital.  The nursing school continued until 1934 when the Depression shut it down, graduating 75 nurses.  It reopened in 1942 and stayed open until the late 1960's when it closed for good.  More than 600 nurses graduated from the school.

When Dr. Fred died in 1953, Regina moved to Salt Lake City and worked for the Latter Day Saints' Hospital from 1953-54 while my father was doing an internship there.  She then returned to Minnesota and worked for the Home for the Blind in Minneapolis until she came down with hepatitis and retired to Little Falls. 

Gaga died on December 31, 1981, after suffering a series of strokes over a period of several years.  Her life demonstrated to me that women could have careers and be successful, and I credit her example with propelling me through law school and beyond.  Her favorite motto, was "to teach is to learn twice."  She had high standards for her grandchildren, but only because she had them for herself.


Madeleine Conway said...

I love stories of other people's families - nosy parker writer person, I guess. What made me smile was that my husband's grandmother was also Gaga, for exactly the same reason - my husband couldn't do more than say that when he started talking, and it just stuck.

Winifred was a formidable lady, dying in 1989, aged 91.

I love your Gaga's motto. so true.

Hugs and great news about the CT scan.


Dan Matyola said...

Another very interesting and well written family history. Your "gaga" was quite a women! You should keep her memory alive.


odp said...

What a fabulous story of an amazing woman! Can you imagine a doctor saying today, "I had too much opium last night, nurse; you'll have to do the cutting." Wow! Your Gaga certainly triumphed over all sorts of adversity. It shows in her granddaughter!

Eliza Divine said...

I really enjoyed reading this piece of history. It's not often that women's stories are told in so much depth, and I love seeing how hard work in those times paid off, and how it helped shape the possibilities for women today.

Anonymous said...

forget all the doctors in the family. This women is the genesis of your daughter's talent for standing out in medicine!