A Case of Scarlet Fever Makes 9-Year-Old Choose Nursing

Career choices. Are they conscious decisions or does a person scamper down a path carved out for them to a profession? For me, I clearly remember the moment I chose to pursue a degree in the male-dominated field of Computer Science. I've never questioned my path. But for 9-year-old Kate Selensky, was her career chosen because of a case of Scarlet Fever?

Aunt Kate 1896
Aunt Kate 1896

In 1897,  Dr. W. A. Rohlf treated my great Aunt Kate's Scarlet Fever  and gifted her a quarter. A startling large sum of money for a little girl at the time. It proved to be a real keepsake that had a pin soldered to the reverse side. Kate wore it often following her recovery. One hundred-twenty-five years later her keepsake is on display in our home.

Kate's Scarlet Fever Quarter
Kate's Scarlet Fever Quarter
Kate's Scarlett Fever Quarter note.

In an era when being a wife and mother were what defined a woman, Kate's life was far from that of an 'old maid.' She was a fiercely independent career woman, long before the suffragettes marched for the right to vote. Kate was also a great historian, keeping handwritten and typed accounts of her life. In an August 1970 paper entitled Memories of Nursing from 1907 to 1938, she describes her journey.

"In October 1907, I entered the Synodical Presbyterian Hospital in Waterloo, Iowa as a two-month probationer in preparation to take a three-year course in nursing. No educational requirements were necessary. I recall one student nurse had completed only fourth grade.

All doctors made calls with horses and buggies in summer and horses and cutters in winter. They were often called in the middle of the night and drove several miles in the country to see someone who was sick. There were no telephones so if a doctor was needed someone drove to town to ask him to t make a house cal.. By 1910 a few doctors had purchased automobiles and country telephones were common.

Dr. J. E. O'Keefe driving to visit a patient

My first assignment as a student nurse was washing all the windows in a nine-bed woman's ward.  The next task was to clean the one bathroom on my floor.  This included scouring the lavatory and stool; putting all bedpans, and urinals in the bathtub, thoroughly washing them, and finally scouring the bathtub.

Soon I began waiting on patients and was taught to give baths followed by complete alcohol rubs.  Ninety-eight percent grain alcohol diluted with 50% water was used following all baths and for back rubs each evening. On day duty we worked seven days a week from 7 AM to 7 PM with two hours off duty sometime in the afternoon. When on night duty we worked from 7 PM to 7 AM and if we were lucky, found time to get ourselves a lunch between midnight and 2 AM. After a month on duty, we were given a two-day vacation!

There were two floors of patients with one night nurse on each hospital floor. One night I had a father and four or five of his children with typhoid fever. If if a patient's temperature was above 102 degrees, we gave temperature baths every two to four hours. The task was nearly impossible, but no excuses were ever offered or expected.

During my first year in training, the hospital had no elevator. Two men from undertaking parlors brought patients to the hospital and carried them up or downstairs on stretchers. Finally, an elevator was installed and it was operated by pulling down on a one-inch diameter wire cable When we wished to go up and pushing it up if we wanted to go down.

As student nurses, we were paid $5.00 a month during our first year in training, $7.00 per month for our second year, and $10.00 per month for our third year. If patients were very ill, a student nurse was put on duty for 22 hours of the day to take complete care of that one patient. The hospital received pay for the special care.

In addition to caring for patients, we had classes in anatomy and physiology, materia medica (history of pharmacy), dietetics, bandaging, and Swedish massage. Local doctors taught most of these classes.

1910 Nursing School Graduation

I finished my training in October 1910. The following summer I went to Des Moines and took the State Board examinations, managed to pass, and became a registered nurse - # 1127. I believe that was the first time examinations had been given for nurses to become registered. Graduate nurses before that time had been registered simply by applying for registration.

Kate's Nursing Graduation photo
Kate's Nursing Graduation photo
Kate in 1918
Kate in 1918

For most of the years from 1911 to 1938, I did "private duty" nursing. This entailed a single patient, in private homes, usually on farms, often several miles in the country. In later years I "specialized" which meant many of my patients were in hospitals over a considerable territory.

During my first years, I received $25.00 per week for 24 hour days, 7 days per week, plus fare if my case required a railway trip. While waiting for someone to call me, I packed suitcases with things I would need. Standard equipment included three long-sleeve starched white poplin uniforms, a robe, bedroom slippers, and other necessary clothing in one suitcase.

Other things I always took were: a bedpan, an enema can, an emesis basin, a hot water bottle, a hypodermic syringe, a thermometer, and a supply of drugs. The drugs included morphine, heroin, codeine, "HMC" tablets, strychnine, and digitaline. With these drugs, we often called the doctor and he could order them over the telephone and save himself a drive of several miles."

Kate recalled one of her first practical nursing experiences, "My first call came in January 1911 from Marble Rock, Iowa. I took the train and arrived at noon. No one met me so I walked two blocks to Dr. C.J. O'Keefe's office. His office man said that Dr. O'Keefe must have gone to the hotel for dinner. I walked to the hotel and met the doctor. He told me to sit down and eat a good meal as it would be the last decent food I would get until I returned to town. How well he knew!

Dr. O'Keefe took me to a farm home three miles in the country. The first thing I noticed was a white oilcloth under a soft coal heating stove in the living room and evidence that the floor had not been swept in weeks or months. My critically ill patient, Mrs. Louis Schroder, was in a small bedroom off the living room. She was suffering from a punctured uterus and general peritonitis. Her condition was such that she required being rolled in hot wet blankets frequently both day and night as well as other treatments requiring hot water.

The kitchen range was hot 24 hours a day to keep the supply of hot water I needed. I cannot remember any meal I ate as  I was too busy to pay much attention. But I remember early the day before I left that my patient's sister brought a young goose to the house. The goose was picked and looked very good, I supposed it had been dressed or would be at once. Of course, they stored it in an open pantry off the kitchen where I kept the range red hot all day and night.

I came to the kitchen the next day at noon and found the girl's mother dressing the goose. You may use your imagination as to the aroma! My patient died an hour or two later and I left almost immediately. I was paid $16.25 for my services.

A few weeks later Dr. C. J. O'Keefe came and took me to a farm home six miles from Marble Rock to prepare for surgery the following day. I cleaned the kitchen and dining room. On the stove, I put a wash boiler of water and boiled it briskly until I was sure it was sterile and left it to cool. I found pans and cooking utensils and boiled them until they were sterile to be used for the water and other solutions during surgery. After wrapping sheets and towels in packages and then they were put in the oven, hot enough to sterilize them but not burn them.

The doctor and his brother Dr. J. E. O'Keefe arrived on the ten o'clock train to operate. I had water boiling ready to put the surgical instruments on the stove to be sterilized and the patient prepared for surgery. The doctors brought surgical instruments, sterile dressing, the necessary sterile sponges, and a registered nurse to care for the patient following surgery.

One half-hour later Mrs. Boom was placed on the dining room table and the operation was performed. The local doctor gave the anesthetic. The double herniotomy was a success. The patient came through the operation in very good condition and the two doctors caught a two o'clock train to return to Waterloo, with $7.50 in hand for my assistance. 

Further memorable tales were related in Kate's writings. She recalled a particularly amusing experience while caring for a farm wife. Daisy, the "hired girl", was well known for her cooking. Cleanliness however was not a priority on this dairy farm. The dairy barn was never swept and the milk strainers were simply turned upside down, the cow hair and straw were shaken out onto the floor, which was already littered with dead flies. This is where Daisy churned butter for their meals. When the butter formed, she took the lid off the churn, came to the house for cold water to add to the butter so the bits of butter would collect.

While Daisy was in the house the churn overturned and all the butter and milk spilled onto the floor. Daisy did not hesitate, she scooped it all up into a dishpan, took it to the house, melted it on the stove, and strained the hair, straw, and dead flies out of it. Fortunately, the threshing machine broke down and the threshers didn't come for several days.

Kate kept meticulous case records of her 458 patients, in two black leather address books, starting in January 1911 to May 1938. She cared for those afflicted with common ailments such as ear infections or tonsillitis to surgical recovery to diseases that are unheard of today - typhoid and scarlet fever.

Kate with her niece and nephew
Kate with her niece and nephew.

Case numbers 266 and 319 must have held particularly precious to her. These cases marked the care of her sister-in-law, Alyce, and the birth of her niece and nephew, Shirley and Charles Selensky.

Sylvia Ranes' name appears in a 1935 case record with a notation that she was suffering from meningitis and encephalitis. Although either of these conditions could have been fatal, Kate's cousin recovered and lived to celebrate her 60th wedding anniversary in 1956.

Not all nursing experiences with family members were happy ones. Orma Selensky, Kate's 14-year-old cousin, died March 25, 1919, from flu and pneumonia. Seventeen years later, on February 23, 1936, Kate was at the bedside when Orma's father, John Selensky died from leukemia and complications including secondary anemia, heart failure, and pneumonia.

Waverly Republican's account of Floyd Selensky's Accident
April 7, 1910, Waverly Republican's account of Floyd Selensky's Accident

Kate's case log does not include the most important patient to our family's history, as it occurred just before her graduation. On Saturday, April 2, 1910, with Kate away at nursing school, her 12-year-old brother (my grandfather) Floyd hitched a team of horses to a disc harrow and headed to the waiting field.  As he was harrowing, his parents and cousin drove by in a car, frightening the team and causing  Floyd to fall into the path of the turning discs. His injuries were numerous and severe including the slicing off of a large portion of his scalp.

With two doctors still attending to Floyd's injuries, Kate arrived home. She was tasked with finding the missing scalp, bringing it to the house, scrubbing off the dirt, and having the doctor sew it back in place. Floyd recovered and grew a full head of hair that covered the evidence of his near-fatal accident.

Kate & August Selensky Auto Accident
Kate & August Selensky Auto Accident

Kate's nursing career ended suddenly and tragically on June 7, 1938. She, her father August, and Coe College student, Yu Pin Wang, were involved in a two-car crash near Atkinson, Illinois. August was killed and Kate's injuries resulted in her left side being paralyzed. It didn't stop her. She changed careers, learned to drive a car with hand controls and walk with a cane.

Kate celebrating Christmas with her niece Shirley, great niece Cindy & great nephew Brian
Kate celebrating Christmas with her niece Shirley, great-niece Cindy & great-nephew Brian

So how did your ancestors find their career path? Were they born to be farmers? Did they live where coal mining was the only option? Did they immigrate and need to find a new way of making a living? Or did, through some life experience like Kate's, lead them to choose a field they may have never imagined? Feel free to share in the comments. I love hearing family stories.

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  1. León on February 22, 2022 at 11:05 AM

    What an amazing and harrowing tale of a career and a life! I know that nursing is still a challenging and demanding career, but wow! I don’t know how the nurses survived it back then, never mind the patients. I admire Kate very much! I am also extremely grateful for the improvements in health care and medicine since her time.

    • Cindy Foster on February 22, 2022 at 11:52 AM

      It amazes me the mortality rate wasn’t higher. Can you imagine being tasked with going out to the field to find your baby brother’s scalp, scrubbing it then watching the doctors sew it back on? According to the newspaper article, Dr. Rohlf did the honors. He’s the same doctor who tended Kate when she had Scarlet Fever. I imagine my great grandparents felt quite indebted to him for his skills.

  2. Doug Foster on February 22, 2022 at 12:20 PM

    Years from now, if your grandkids had the quarter but not your story – would the pin just get tossed into a jewelry box and forgotten about? Would it be a curiosity – but nothing more? Even Kate’s own handwritten note doesn’t tell the rest of the story. But you did.

    You started with the pin, added Kate’s writings, then included both family lore (I can still hear Floyd recalling the accident) and your research. The result is a wonderful gift that only you could make. I hope you tell more stories like this one. Well done Cin!

  3. Robin Pendergraft on February 22, 2022 at 4:09 PM

    How did you acquire her journals, pin and other assets? What an interesting woman!

    • Cindy Foster on February 23, 2022 at 8:36 AM

      …I have this other Aunt…and my first career choice was journalism! 🙂

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