Compassionate Nursing

June 22, 2009

I just had dinner with my mother-in-law. There’s nothing terribly unusual about this; we have dinner every night. But these days, with Ana in Singapore for a few weeks (one week left to go!), when Ana’s daughter isn’t around (as she isn’t tonight), it’s just Sylvia and me.

So we chat.

Tonight she told me a story about a time when she was a nursing student, at Franklin Hospital in Greenfield, Massachusetts, and about a paper she had to write. The students each had to pick a patient they had worked with, and do a detailed paper on the patient’s condition, treatment, progress, and so forth.

She chose a young woman who was pregnant, and had all sorts of complications. The pregnancy was not going well, and the woman had a really rough time of it.

To make matters worse, there was no husband in the picture: she was an unwed mother. This was the 1940s: the stigma of unmarried pregnancy loomed large, and unwed mothers had a much tougher time of things than they do today. Sylvia (then all of 18) sympathized with the woman, but decided that her marital status was not relevant, and made a point of leaving it out of her paper.

She did a pile of research, documented the woman’s condition and progress carefully, including the birth, which she attended. The birth went well, and the new mother named her baby “Treasure,” which no doubt was quite accurate.

When the papers came back, graded, Sylvia was nervous. She had worked on that sucker really hard, and hoped she’d gotten at least a passing grade. With her first glance she saw the big letter “A” written at the top.

She looked closer. Actually, it did not say “A”—it said “A+.”

Sylvia was flabbergasted. (Also thrilled.) She went to see the instructor and asked, what was so good about the paper that it had earned her an A+?

“You did an excellent job with your research,” the woman told her. “The case was documented well. It was clearly work that deserved an A.”

She paused.

“And I noticed that you left out any mention of the fact that the young woman was not married. That deserved an A-plus.”


  1. Ann Carter

    What an unusual post for you, John. It makes me think how much our perceptions have changed in the last 65 years. I was a child of divorce in the 40s – almost unheard of in my neighborhood. Today, unwed mothers are common, and accepted by most. Children of divorce, also common today, unfortunately; but still a cause of trauma for many children. I guess we need more changes for the good of all, and these tough economic times certainly aren’t helping much. Just a thought, and hooray for Sylvia!

  2. Chicke Fitzgerald

    John – thank you for sharing this. Bob is right, that the story here goes much deeper than just the nursing angle. We often feel it necessary to share irrelevant details, just to show that we are on the inside or “in the know”, but keeping them confidential is actually the move that shows valor.

    Great to catch up with you, even if just through your musings!!

  3. Dawn Nocera

    Wonderful story!

    It is amazing how much more power we give ourselves when we see others as whole and complete. Cheers to Sylvia for seeing it perfect!

    See it perfect!

  4. maureen

    John … no surprise here that Sylvia got an A+ for that paper … she gets another A+ for sharing that story.

  5. Kirsty Hogg

    Hi John, Forgive the long post.

    I really like that your story came naturally from casual conversation over dinner and yet it has a really strong message we can all learn from.

    I know times have really changed in the last 50-60 years. So for the younger folks, it’s important to understand how devastating it was to your character to be labeled an unwed mother carrying a “bastard” child. I use that ugly word that was so commonly used then to emphasize how deeply frowned upon a woman was to be caught in that predicament. And because of this, would make a big difference in how the woman was perceived and treated.

    It took a lot of maturity to do what the young nurse did here; it speaks volumes about her character. I took from this that portraying people in the best light possible is always the best policy in the end.

    Thanks for sharing your mother-in-law’s memory with us, John! I’m going to share this one.

  6. Carolyn DeBrusk

    John, Sylvia’s story speaks volumes not only about herself but about Ana. I, too, trained as a nurse a few years after Sylvia, and the sensitive treatment of the young, unwed mother says volumes about what a class act Sylvia is – and she has passed this on to Ana.

    And what a treat for you to be blessed with the presence of Sylvia in your home where she can share great memories with you! You both have enriched us in the telling of this story. Thank you.

  7. Gail Doby

    That reminds me of my mother’s stories as a nurse. She wrote about homosexual friends and marijuana in the 40s (she didn’t smoke, but knew people that did).

    Thank you for sharing…I love the A+. Good for her teacher.

  8. Jean Swanson

    oops … didn’t get a chance to finish before my little finger hit “send.” I was actually looking for another post, but was so delighted to read this treasure from Sylvia. ~warm regards,


  9. Natalie

    Oh John

    So beautiful. Bob’s right – it opens doors to our prescriptive judging that is dictated by society – without reverence and honour to the soul’s journey.

    You’re a gift!


  10. Pamela McBride

    Hi John,

    Being in the medical profession, working with nurses and doctors, day in and day out, for more years than I care to admit, I am always, always touched by stories of compassion.

    In the nursing profession, lately, I’ve heard a lot about “compassion fatigue”…I hope I never become tired of compassion.

    Thank you for your compassionate story,

    Pamela McBride
    Thank you so much!

  11. Marty Wallace

    It sounds like Sylvia is full of grace! We would all do well to implement this wonderful quality into our lives, daily.

  12. Kelly Wissink

    What touches me more than the story is your obvious love and respect for your mother in law. Sylvia sounds to be a mentor and a friend, something that doesn’t happen very often. She also appears to be a woman of integrity with possibly a glint of mischievousness in her eye. True?

    Thank you for touching my heart and reminding all of us that some details are just meant to be left out.


    Kelly Wissink

  13. Virginia Chung Kon

    Each time you write some words I feel so blessed that I get to read and share them – so never stop writing and sharing.



  1. Journal of John David Mann » Blog Archive » Sylvia - [...] The post was about a story Sylvia told me one evening, about one of her early experiences as a…
  2. Journal of John David Mann » Blog Archive » Being There - [...] blog for a while you might remember Sylvia. I wrote about an experience she shared with me once here,…

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