The Journal of Continuing Education in Nursing

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Teaching Tips 

Nurses Built the Hospital: A Readers’ Theater Used in Nursing Orientation

Elizabeth Pestka, MS, APRN-BC, APNG

Abstract

The nursing profession has a long history of helping to advance health care. This column describes contributions of the first nurses associated with a major medical center in the Midwest and their vision to build and staff a hospital to support the medical practice of a local physician and his two sons. The story comes to life as a readers’ theater featured in department-wide orientation to the Department of Nursing.

Abstract

The nursing profession has a long history of helping to advance health care. This column describes contributions of the first nurses associated with a major medical center in the Midwest and their vision to build and staff a hospital to support the medical practice of a local physician and his two sons. The story comes to life as a readers’ theater featured in department-wide orientation to the Department of Nursing.

The readers’ theater, using dramatized experiences, offers an opportunity to go, in thoughts and ideas, beyond the limits of the dimension of time (Gustafson & Corcoran, 1978). It also conveys to participants the message that nursing orientation is intended to be interactive and enjoyable.

The Readers’ Theater

Nursing orientation begins with six individuals volunteering to be part of a readers’ theater. The script is based on historical publications and was written by the author. It focuses on the integral role that nurses played in the beginning of the medical center. Inclusion of this historical information in the nursing orientation emphasizes the commitment to meeting patients’ needs and the work that was involved in building the hospital and clinic. The historical presentation reinforces the importance of the nursing profession and allied health staff to the medical center. It also helps to identify the strong values of the organization’s founders, which are still vital today.

The orientation facilitator serves as narrator for the readers’ theater, which includes six characters who were important to the founding of the organization. Each volunteer cast member dons a costume and is given a printed script with his or her part. The reading of the script takes about 15 minutes and is followed by questions and discussion.

The Story

The orientee who plays the part of the leader of the religious order of Sisters states that their religious order is very busy. They have nearly 100 members and own academies and day programs in Minnesota, Ohio, Missouri, and Kentucky. Shortly before a devastating tornado struck in 1883, destroying much of the city where their convent was located, the Bishop suggested to her that the Sisters build a hospital. The idea did not initially appeal to her because her order was trained for teaching, not nursing. Following the death and destruction of the tornado, she decided that it would be a worthy enterprise (Richardson, 1959; Whelan, 2002).

The script describes how the leader of the Sisters visited the office of the town’s best doctor and proposed the idea of building a hospital. The physician responded that he didn’t think the city was big enough to support a hospital, it would be costly, and success was unlikely. Hospitals were mostly for the indigent, and were viewed as grim and gloomy places where care for the sick did not match the personal attention of home nursing. Most patients did not go to hospitals to get well, but rather to die. Besides, he did not have any money to invest in a hospital (Braasch, 1969; Clapesattle, 1969; Richardson, 1959; Whelan, 2002).

The Sister was determined. She convinced the doctor that a hospital was a good idea. He agreed that if the Sisters built a hospital, he and his physician sons would staff it. The Sisters began to accumulate funds by working diligently and living frugally. Each Sister saved much of her teaching salary, encouraged donations of food and clothing, and took in extra work for pay (e.g., giving music lessons, crocheting, and embroidering linens to be sold). The Sisters wore rough, $2 shoes and coarse cloth habits and ate plain, meager meals. In 4 years, the building fund had grown to nearly $40,000, a considerable sum in 1887 (Whelan, 2002).

The doctors were amazed at the fund-raising of the Sisters. They prepared to travel East to tour the finest hospitals. They would take the best ideas from each hospital and include them in the plans. It took almost 2 years to build the hospital. Four Sisters were assigned to duty in the hospital and the first formally trained nurse in town, a local girl who graduated from nursing school in Chicago, was temporarily put in charge of the nursing staff. She taught the Sisters the nursing skills she had learned. Then a Sister, selected because of her strong leadership skills, became the first hospital administrator and served in that capacity for 50 years (Braasch, 1969; Clapesattle, 1969; Richardson, 1959; Whelan, 2002).

Against many odds and physical and mental hardships, the Sisters worked diligently. Their day ordinarily began at 3 a.m. or 4 a.m. and continued until 11 p.m. or 12 a.m. They took over not only all the nursing, but also all the housekeeping tasks for the 45-bed hospital (Whelan, 2002). As one newspaper editor noted, “The dauntless Sisters deserve a goodly share of the credit; they helped to make a success of what might for all the surgeons’ skill have been a failure—by unceasing toil, by determination to make good, by willingness to offer whatever sacrifice the task demanded” (Whelan, p. 67).

The nurses were credited by the doctors as being equal partners in the success of the medical center. The doctors realized that without the hospital, staffed with trained nurses, they would still be performing surgical and medical procedures on their patients’ kitchen tables or in their outpatient office. Family members would have been responsible to care for patients as best they could. A strong partnership between the physicians and the nurses and other allied health staff has allowed the clinic and hospitals to grow and become a world famous medical center.

Key Messages

The readers’ theater emphasizes several key points:

  • The needs of the patient come first.
  • The collaboration between nurses and physicians was essential to success of the organization.
  • Hard work was required to build the hospital and expand medical services.
  • Being visionary and innovative allowed the medical center to be a leader in health care.

The readers’ theater has an impact on orientees in the Department of Nursing. It employs an educational strategy that makes the hospital’s history interesting. Questions and discussion from participants following the session reflect understanding and appreciation of the hard work and commitment to patients that built the hospital and clinic. Numerous positive comments about the readers’ theater have been written on orientation evaluation forms (e.g., “the first nurses really were important,” “enjoyed learning about the history,” and “amazing history”). Even months after participating in nursing orientation, many individuals make reference to the readers’ theater.

Key messages in the readers’ theater provide a foundation to build on during orientation. Throughout departmental orientation, presenters reference readers’ theater themes to support current nursing and organizational priority initiatives, including continuous quality improvement activities and multidisciplinary collaboration projects.

Conclusion

The nursing profession has contributed tremendously to health care over time. This article has described the story of the first nurses associated with a major medical center and their vision to build and staff a hospital. The story is featured as a readers’ theater during orientation to the Department of Nursing. The readers’ theater sets the stage for an interactive orientation that references the historical underpinnings of the organization.

Elizabeth Pestka, MS, APRN-BC, APNG
Mayo Clinic
Rochester, Minnesota

References

  • Braasch, WF. 1969. Early days in the Mayo Clinic. Springfield, IL: Charles C. Thomas.
  • Clapesattle, H. 1969. The doctors Mayo. Rochester, MN: Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research.
  • Gustafson, M & Corcoran, S. 1978. Dramatized experiences: Teachers’ desk reference. Oradell, NJ: Medical Economics.
  • Richardson, JP. 1959. Mother Alfred and the doctors Mayo. New York: Bensiger Brothers, Inc.
  • Whelan, E. 2002. The Sisters’ story: Saint Mary’s Hospital—Mayo Clinic 1889 to 1939. Rochester, MN: Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research.

10.3928/00220124-20090301-11

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