Abbott Northwestern Hospital

Minneapolis, MN

April 1960

The hospital was busy that day. There had been a major fire at the local factory. Rumors of arson were floating around, but Margaret paid no attention to them. She had gone into Major Houlihan mode and nothing and no one would snap her out of it. The emergency room was overflowing with burn victims and the surgeons were working at record pace to keep up. "All hands on deck" had never been so literal. The waiting room was full of families frantically searching for information. Security guards covered the doors, blocking the crowds and stopping the press from harassing the people inside. Margaret was multitasking with the dexterity of an octopus, giving orders in every direction. She found herself doing triage, comforting families, and even answering phones over the course of the day.

"Nurse!" one of the doctors yelled, "help get this man into the room."

She got the boy a wheelchair and pushed him over to the bed. He was covered in burns and she could nearly see his bones where the flesh had peeled off. Margaret was sharply reminded of Korea and had to take a deep breath to regain her composure and her focus. She put a salve and a temporary bandage on the burn and gave the young man some painkillers.

"The doctor will be back in a minute."

She knew it would be much longer than a minute before the doctor would return.

She heard one of the younger nurses call out to her.

"Nurse Houlihan! I need help!"

The girl was standing beside a group of children that were obviously in shock. Their eyes were wide and their faces full of confusion.

"Near as I can figure it, they were on a tour of the factory, some kind of class field trip."

The children looked unharmed.

"Take them into the quiet room over there. See if you can find their parents."

Margaret's heart broke for them, but she just swallowed her pain and moved on to the next room. She hadn't been involved in an emergency like this in seven years. Not since Korea, she thought.

The next room was worse. A family sat crowded around the bed.

"Excuse me, but we can only have two visitors in the room at a time."

Five pairs of eyes turned to face her. The look on their faces scared her. Not because she felt threatened, but because of the hopelessness in their eyes. She hadn't seen that look in years. Not since Korea. She had to resist rolling her eyes. 'Not since Korea' seemed to be the recurring theme of the day.

Margaret turned her attention back to the family and walked over to the bed. She stopped short at the sight in front of her. A young woman lay there on the bed, tears in her eyes. She had scars all over her body and the worst burns Margaret had seen yet. Margaret quickly left the room to find the nearest doctor.

"Doctor, we need you in room 12. I don't think there's anything you can do, but someone needs to talk to the family."

The doctor followed Margaret into the room. Margaret's else welled up with tears when she saw the woman's young boys sitting beside her on the bed. The doctor pulled the husband aside and gave him news that the husband had surely realized already.

"The only thing we can do is make her more comfortable."

He turned to Margaret. "Nurse, can you get the morphine?"

Margaret left the room and returned a few minutes later. She showed the husband how to administer the painkiller and walked back into the chaos of the hallway.

She headed over to the nurses' station and looked at the paperwork for the day, checking on the status of the emergency. She was relieved to see that the ER was emptying out of burn patients.

"Nurse Houlihan, Dr. Jones said you should take a short break. We've all been worried since you've been working nonstop for the past 24 hours."

Margaret realized with a started that she also hadn't eaten in at least 12. "Ok Mary, I'll head over to the mess tent."

"The what, ma'am?"

Shit, Margaret thought. I really have been in Korea mode today.

"I meant the cafeteria. It's just an old habit I picked up in the army."

"The army?"

Margaret remembered that she had only told a few people about her past. She felt more comfortable letting her work ethic speak for itself.

"I used to be a Major. I was head nurse for a M*A*S*H unit in Korea."

"Why'd you leave the army?"

"Well, I realized it had become my whole life and I was basing my identity around the fact that I was a major. One of my old friends helped me discover there was more to life than that. Although I'm afraid not much has changed. I'm not a major anymore, but my career as a nurse is still the most important aspect of my life."

The younger nurse looked surprised.

"Sorry. I don't know why I told you all that," Margaret apologized, also surprised at her uncharacteristic honesty. She had never told that to anyone or even thought about her "old friend" in years, so what had possessed her to open up to a young girl she hardly knew? It must be the stress of this crazy day, she thought.

"Well, I think I'll go take that break now." Margaret excused herself and headed to the cafeteria.

On her way there, she stopped at her locker and picked up her journal. There was so much running through her mind that she needed to write and make sense of it all. She made her way through the lunch buffet that always reminded her of the mess tent, and sat down at a small table in the corner. She quickly ate her first meal in what felt like days. She pulled out her pen and journal and began to write:

I was scared today. Thinking about it now is too much to handle. Days like these are why I left the army. After Korea, I never thought I'd see such fear on children's faces or the desperation in these families' eyes. It all came back in waves and I need it to go away. I'm a different person now. Why did this have to happen today?

Margaret looked up from her writing and realized she had smudged a few tears on the page. The Major Houlihan from 1950 would be confused; so many things had changed in the past decade. Now, she was grateful for these small moments of emotion because they reminded her it was ok to be human.