In every war there are those who choose to help heal the wounded, some performing acts of heroism equal to those on the battlefield. During World War I, treatment was primarily provided in field hospitals, which were staffed by female nurses. This treatment delivery system led to new challenges and advancements in physical medicine, sanitary practices and gender equality.
Field Hospital Characteristics
Field hospitals in WWI were situated close to major battles, within sound of weaponry and sometimes prone to enemy action, according to the U.S. Army Nurses website. Wounded would typically be transported to the hospital from the front by volunteer ambulance drivers. Hospitals were typically staffed by army medics, surgeons, nurse aides and trained nurses. Nurse Ellen N. La Motte described the operating rooms as crowded and hot, with the ward beds always full of dirty, groaning men.
The United States entered WWI on April 6, 1917 and by 1918, there were more than 12,000 nurses on active duty, according to the U.S. Army Women Nurses website. Nurses were responsible for the day-to-day care of the patients, often when there was nothing medically that could be done to help them. In 1918, the Army School of Nursing opened, and after that point trained nurses took over the duties of nurse aides. There were issues with sexism: some medics refused to take orders from nurses, since they did not have rank. The army responded by giving nurses office status, but still they received less pay than their male counterparts.
Medical and Sanitation Needs
In addition to the injuries caused by enemy fire such as bullet wounds, medics and nurses in field hospitals were constantly faced with the issue of communicable diseases. According to the Army Medical History 1917 - 1941, lack of warm clothing, hard training and unsanitary toilet and washing facilities greatly spread digestive and respiratory illnesses. Medics and nurses encouraged soldiers to keep their hands away from their mouths, wash their hands and wash their utensils. The army also developed sewage disposal plans that reduced the spread of insects.
Even with the advances in sanitation, the Influenza pandemic of 1918 could not be controlled. Still the deadliest pandemic in history, this highly contagious disease spread easily through crowded army barracks and port towns, according to the U.S. Army nurses website. Unfortunately, doctors and nurses were powerless to stop the disease once it began to spread. More than 200 army nurses died from influenza.
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