Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Over There

I'm abnormally attracted to medical history despite no interest in actual practice.

I have an inability to watch as blood is taken from my arm. Once offered the opportunity to watch surgery live, I declined. Even in a film, if someone is shooting drugs, I look away.

Ah, but I was also that nerd who loved going to the Chimborazo Medical Museum back when they had an exhibit of photographs of injured Civil War soldiers and amputees. I've toured the former wards of the old Sheltering Arms hospital. I was even sucked in by MCV's exhibit on vintage bedpans.

So when I saw that there was a lecture for the opening of "We Made Do: Caring for the Sick and Wounded in the Great War" at Tompkins-McCaw Library this afternoon, I rearranged my schedule to make it over there.

At some point I'd seen a photograph of what was MCV's Base Hospital 45 and been fascinated to learn that Richmond's medical school had had a presence in France during WWI. But I needed to know more.

I was one of the early arrivals, taking a seat in a creaky wooden chair that probably dated back to before I was born. It was gratifying to see that I wasn't the only one who'd chosen to spend Veteran's Day looking at a military exhibit.

Archivist Jodi Koste greeted the crowd and let us know that Dr. Hunter McGuire was the older gentleman in the front section. She proceeded to use old photographs to set the scene for how MCV began the advanced training to prepare medical students to participate in the war effort.

Since it was the largest mobilization in U.S. history, the thinking was that by training medical personnel together, procedures would already be in place and the staff would be familiar with each other once they were overseas.

Recruitment for Base Hospital 45 began in 1917 with the help of the newly formed Richmond Red Cross. One of the first orders of business was assuring that the personnel who made it through training got additional screenings for venereal disease, apparently far too common among men at the time.

Koste showed a picture of dogs and horses in gas masks as part of the testing of the devices. We saw the massive French barracks that the MCV staff was tasked with turning into a functioning hospital despite no electricity, heat or elevators in the four-story building.

Naturally, given the cultural climate of the time, nurses did not immediately go overseas with the staff. First they were sent to NYC for uniform fittings and (wait for it) singing lessons. I only wish she'd known why such instruction was deemed necessary.

To entertain an injured soldier far from home? Now that's some bedside manner.

One of the women in the unit got to dance with the Prince of Wales when he came through and a dance was held. For the record, she told the papers that he wasn't a very good dancer.

After the talk ended, a cake decorated like the American flag was cut and the group began milling around. I made a bee line for the exhibit space where I saw WWI male and female uniforms which had to be paid for out of the person's own budget, not the army's.

The woman's uniforms were very different with dress blues for the field (and dances!) and grey jersey with white cuffs for on duty.

In that way that some things never change, next to a small foot locker was a sign explaining that a solider had to fit all his possessions in that one trunk. Unless he was a she because nurses were allowed to have the foot locker plus a suitcase or large satchel.

You see, as a gender, we've just always packed heavier, even in times of war.

The exhibit gave an idea of the scope of what the MCV crew had accomplished, including providing care for 17,426 sick and wounded soldiers during their time in Toul, France. After one battle, 8,000 wounded passed through Base Hospital 45 in four days. And the occasional dance with royalty.

That's an amazing story with the exhibit providing a look at a little known slice of Richmond history. Blood was conspicuously absent, the red icing on my slice of cake the closest looking thing.

My kind of medical experience.


  1. yep..you're a true geek...no doubt 'bout it.


  2. Tell me something I don't know.