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Myrtle Sherblom Ford, RN: A lifetime of caring for others
Imagine nursing without the high-tech tools of today while wearing nylon stockings and a starched white hat at the same time. Thank goodness that qualifications for caring for the ill or the injured no longer include uniforms. Yet the care and commitment of nurses to their calling remains just as fervent today as it was 70 years ago, when Islander Myrtle Sherblom Ford began nursing school in Seattle.
Ford, 96, was recently honored at a reception to introduce a new exhibit honoring a century of nursing in Washington state at the Washington State History Museum in Tacoma. She began her life’s work in nursing when she was 19, after graduating from Ballard High School in June of 1931.
In the 1930s, Seattle was in the midst of the Great Depression and undergoing a great deal of change. The huge Denny Regrade project had just been completed, Boeing Field had just opened and Prohibition was still enforced. Penicillin had just been discovered but was yet to be widely used. Ford had been encouraged by her mother, a licensed practical nurse, and a neighbor who was a graduate of the Seattle General Hospital Nursing School, which Ford attended on what is known as Pill Hill.
The rigorous training at Seattle General Hospital was in the Florence Nightingale system (also know as the English system) and the school was located at the First Methodist Church, which still stands at 5th Avenue and Marion Street in downtown Seattle. The nurses lived next door to the church and the hospital was across the street. The nursing school administrator was strict, Ford remembered, but the teaching was excellent. Ford graduated on May 1, 1934, in ceremonies at the First Methodist Church.
After graduation, she cared for TB patients in isolation at the Firland Sanatorium in the Richmond Highlands. In 1936, she worked as an assistant nursing supervisor at Seattle General Hospital. Later, she moved to Swedish Hospital and worked in the office of O.H. Christoffersen, MD, and did private duty nursing at Children’s Orthopedic Hospital, then located on Queen Anne Hill.
She took a few years off when her three children were born, but was called back into nursing to manage Sherblom’s Rest Home in Greenwood after the death of her mother, who had founded the facility. Her mother, Anna Rowley Sherblom, was a Washington pioneer. Born in 1888 in Burlington, Wash., Sherblom was also a member Daughter of the Union Veterans of the Civil War.
For Ford and her fellow nurses, the job was all about cleanliness. There were no antibiotics in those early days, she said.
“We had to keep everything clean. We scrubbed and scrubbed our hands and wore rubber gloves. We were just extra careful.”
The nurses were required to take ongoing classes, even on their days off, she said, and rotated to different hospitals, including Harborview, Children’s Orthopedic, a mental health facility and the University of Washington.
Being a nurse in those days also meant dressing the part. The dress code meant wearing a starched white cap, the emblem of nursing. Each nursing school had its own distinctive cap.
“We were proud to wear them,” Ford said of the caps.
When asked how nurses managed to keep the caps on their heads while making beds or lifting patients, she replied, “We used hair pins, a lot of them. They just stayed on.”
Ford did not have much trouble. Even now, she has thick, curly, enviable hair.
“Being a nurse was a great occupation,” she said. “I enjoyed it. And I had a lot of friends from my class and those in the classes before and after. They were great friends.”
Ford was born in 1912 in tiny Clearlake, Wash., a few miles northeast of Mt. Vernon. She was the third child and the first of two daughters born to her parents. Her two older brothers, one 10 months old and the other 22 months, both died of what Ford recalled was a flu that swept through the region in 1908.
After nursing school, Ford married Paul Ford, a Boeing executive, and they had three children in the 1940s: Sally Brown, who lives on Mercer Island; Jim Ford, who lives in California, and Kathy Ford of Hansville, Wash. The family moved to the Mercerwood neighborhood of Mercer Island in 1955. They were charter members of the Mercerwood Shore Club.
The biggest difference between nursing then and now is the use of antibiotics, Ford said. “We really just had aspirin.”
During the war, she said there were shortages of everything, including antiseptics such as Mercurochrome. Ford remembered being told about a new effective first aid solution called Gentian Violet, used by hospitals for the treatment of serious heat burns and other injuries to the skin. It was used to treat or prevent fungal infections.
“I poured it on everyone,” she said. “It didn’t sting.”
Brown remembers that her mother was the neighborhood’s “designated nurse,” helping children and neighbors who had cuts and scrapes with reassuring words and the purple antiseptic.
“We had purple -colored knees instead of having the usual red stinging solution dabbed on injuries,” she said, adding that her mother used the anti-fungal Gentian Violet on a neighborhood toddler who wandered into some hot coals. It saved his feet from scarring, she said.
Brown remembers her mother mending her dolls with adhesive tape and that she made a Red Cross apron for her when she was 5 years old.
Ford’s helping nature went beyond work and home. She was a nurse volunteer for a neighborhood 25-bed Civil Defense emergency hospital set up in the Maple Leaf neighborhood of Seattle during World War II. A story about the hospital with a photo of Ford ran on the front page of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. She was an active guild member for Children’s Hospital for many years.
Now living in a retirement community in Bellevue, Ford remains sharp and involved with the doings of her family. She laughs easily and gently corrects her daughter about the facts regarding her life and career. She tracks her grandchildren on her digital photo frame, where her extended family uploads photos and messages.
Ford’s daughter said that she always thought her mother could do anything.
And others did, too. When Ford moved from her home on Mercer Island to a retirement community, people found out that she was a nurse, and she would get many health care questions.
Brown remembered bringing her mother a bird with a broken wing, as a child, because “I thought she could fix anything! Usually she did!”
Her mother laughed, “Well, no, not everything!”
Nurses at Your Service: A Century of Caring is organized by the Washington State History Museum and the Washington State Nursing Centennial Consortium. The museum is located at 1911 Pacific Avenue in Tacoma. Call (253) 272-3500 for more information, or go to www.washingtonhistory.org.