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Nurse cadets ... Caring to the corps

July 19, 1998

photo: KEVIN G. GILBERT / staff photographer

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Nurse CadetsBy LAURA ERNDE / Staff Writer

Growing up on Tri-State area farms, Louise Statler, Mary Arnold and Martha Leatherman thought they knew the meaning of hard work and strict living.

Then, in 1945, the three joined the Cadet Nurses Corps at Washington County Hospital.

The standards were high and the work wore down their leather nursing heels. About half of their class dropped out before graduation.

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Still, they were proud to belong to the corps, created to fill a vacuum in the nursing profession created by World War II. Statler, Arnold and Leatherman were among the 20 who went on to become the last class of cadets to graduate from the hospital 50 years ago this year.

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When the students arrived for the corps at age 17, Director of Nurses Margaret G. Mullen kept them on a rigid schedule. The rules called for lights out at 10:30 p.m.

Dorm rooms were to be locked at all times, even when leaving to go to the bathroom. A "tax" was imposed on anyone who violated this rule.

Like a military boot camp, they were allowed few personal belongings in their rooms. No curling irons, fans, heaters or extension cords.

They had two uniforms, one for summer and one for winter, that they had to keep in pristine condition. Their heeled shoes had to be polished.

The students received instructions for everything, from answering the telephone on their dorm floor to using the bathtub.

Even when they weren't at the school, the women had to be on their best behavior. They could not wear earrings, paint their nails or go to places that served alcohol.

"You're wrong if your make-up gives you a Technicolor look," a U.S. Public Health Service brochure told them.

All the students got a fitness manual, which admonished the cadets to: "Look to your silhouettes! Your uniform is trim and straight. Your figure must do it justice."

They weren't even allowed to chew gum, a rule that Martha Leatherman, now Martha Spangler, was fond of breaking just for spite, she said.

Despite the conditions, the women were grateful for the opportunity to serve their country and get an education.

Especially Louise Statler Horst, whose family in Williamson, Pa., could not have afforded the cost of tuition and books, which was about $100 a year.

"It was a godsend for us," she said.

The Cadet Nurses Corps was created in 1943. Nationwide, more than 179,000 young women enrolled.

Although World War II was coming to an end in 1945, there was still a critical need for nurses stateside to make up for those serving overseas.

Mary Arnold, now Mary Mowen, joined because she thought it was a glamorous profession, after seeing a nurse come to her church wearing a uniform. She soon learned the truth.

The first three months, the cadets at Washington County Hospital were known as "probies" because they were still on probation, the women remember.

All students started with a stipend of $15 a month, which was a decent amount at the time.

After six weeks of schooling, they began working on the floor sterilizing bedpans, changing sheets, giving baths and back rubs and cleaning rooms.

"I can remember those big mops that were bigger than we were," Horst said.

The women had to pay a "breakage fee" of $5 to cover the costs of their mistakes.

Horst is sure her deposit went toward replacing the countless thermometers that slipped out of her hands.

The smell of burnt rubber meant that a cadet had been sterilizing the baby bottle nipples and accidentally let the water burn dry.

No one got back their deposits.

"Then there was the night of true confession," Horst said.

When the students arrived for three months of training at Shepherd-Pratt mental hospital in Baltimore, they found themselves among some of the most seriously psychologically ill patients.

Before long, they were convinced that they, themselves, had symptoms.

"We all thought we were nuts," said Horst, now able to laugh about the scare.

In those days, nurses got to know their patients pretty well because a typical hospital stay was much longer than it is today. A hernia operation, for instance, led to a three-week stay.

Martha Spangler met her husband, Richard, while he was a patient and she a senior cadet.

She took care of him for a month after he was given too much sodium pentathol, a new kind of anesthesia, during an appendix removal operation.

She raised three children and returned to nursing in 1959, first at Washington County Hospital and later at Western Maryland Hospital.

The couple, now retired, lives in Wolfsville, Md.

Mary Mowen worked at Washington County Hospital for 42 years, retiring in 1990. She lives on Howell Road in Hagerstown with her husband, E. Everett Mowen.

She pointed out the thinning hair on each side of her head where her bobby pins used to hold onto her nursing cap.

Louise Horst also worked in nursing for more than 40 years, at Washington County Hospital, Washington County Health Department and King's Daughters Hospital in Martinsburg, W.Va.

Horst and her husband, Ray, live on Greentree Lane in Hagerstown.

Although the cadet program ended in 1948, the hospital's nursing school continued until the early 1970s.

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