Peter Baida’s “A Nurse’s Story” was published in the Gettysburg Review in 1998. The story met with critical acclaim, was awarded first place in the O. Henry Short Story Award competition in 1999, and was reprinted as part of the anthology affiliated with the award. It was reprinted again in 2001 as the title story of the posthumous collection A Nurse’s Story and Others. Within the complicated but delicately managed episodic structure of “A Nurse’s Story,” Baida tells the story of Mary McDonald, who is dying of cancer. Interwoven with Mary’s story is the story of the town, Booth’s Landing, in which collective histories and personal memories intermingle. There is the story of nurses and of the nursing profession, which is fraught with political and ethical frustrations. Finally, the story hints at the feminist movement of the 1960s, during which women came together to initiate social and professional changes. In telling “A Nurse’s Story,” Baida brings to the surface a series of philosophical questions, which resist easy answers or familiar platitudes, demanding instead that readers think about the world in which they live and the lives that they nurture.
“A Nurse’s Story” begins with the pain that sixty-nine-year-old Mary McDonald feels in her bones. A nurse for forty years, she is dying slowly from a cancer that first appeared in her colon and now has spread to her liver and bones. Confined to her room on the third floor of the Booth-Tiessler Geriatric Center, she is still very much in control of her faculties, which allows her to recognize where her pain “comes from and what it means.” Acutely aware of the pressures of nursing, she is determined to raise the issues of wages and working conditions with a new nurse at the center, Eunice Barnacle, whose reaction is to walk away from any conversation that even touches upon the question of her worth to the institution in which she works.
Sitting in her room, Mary reflects upon a patient from forty years earlier, Ida Peterson, who was admitted to Mary’s ward “with a tumor in her neck near the carotid artery.” When Mary was called into Ida’s room following a rupture of the artery that left the patient and the room covered in blood, she was forced to confront both the physical shock of the scene and the philosophic implications of Ida’s desire for a “good death,” which in Ida’s case meant a death that did not involve medical intervention and allowed her to die in the presence of her husband. In this single moment, Mary’s view of health, death, and the dignity of the individual all changed dramatically. This remembered episode also reveals that Mary respected Ida’s wish for a “good death,” allowing her to die as she wanted.
Now, Mary and Eunice continue their conversation about Mary’s past work in the Booth-Tiessler Community Hospital. Specifically, the younger nurse is interested in Mary’s role in bringing a nurses’ union into the hospital in the mid-1960s, and whether Mary feels that the struggles for certification helped the cause of the nurses.
Next, the narrator gives a brief history of the “unpretentious” and historically rich community of Booth’s Landing. Located “on the east side of the Hudson River, fifty miles north of New York City,” the town was shaped, both economically and politically, by the energies of its two most prominent families: the Booths and the Tiesslers. Paragraph after paragraph in this section of the story details the presence of these two families in the town, beginning with the recognition that “for as long as anyone can remember, one member of the Booth family has run the town’s bank, and one member of the Tiessler family has run the silverware factory.” In tracing civic and philanthropic endeavors of the two families, the narrator connects their presence in the town with the history of Mary, who not only lives in a geriatric care center that bears both their names but whose...
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