The Ignored History of Nurse PTSD

This short article appeared in the September/October 2021 concern of Discover magazine as “Frontline Fatigue.” Grow to be a subscriber for unlimited access to our archive.


In February 1945, U.S. Navy nurse Dorothy Nevertheless was a prisoner of war in the Japanese-occupied Philippines. Alongside with eleven other Navy nurses, Nurse Nevertheless delivered treatment for civilian inmates in a jail camp the place food stuff was scarce and guards ended up brutal. Couple inmates weighed much more than one hundred kilos, and most ended up dying from malnutrition. 

On the night of Feb. 22, Nurse Nevertheless and the other inmates viewed as their captors established up guns around the perimeter of the camp and turned the barrels inward. Other guards dug shallow graves. The inmates experienced extensive suspected the camp commander prepared to massacre them all, and it appeared the rumors ended up coming correct. But Nurse Nevertheless and another Navy nurse described to the infirmary for the night shift. They experienced small medication or food stuff to give their individuals convenience and kindness ended up all they experienced still left to give. 

Nurse Nevertheless read gunfire the future early morning at dawn and assumed the massacre experienced started. She steeled herself to glance out the infirmary window and noticed parachutes gliding to the ground. Liberation experienced come just in time! U.S. and Filipino forces swiftly evacuated the 2,four hundred inmates to protection. 

But that was not the stop of Nurse Still’s journey. She was haunted by the horrors she witnessed in the jail camp, and the trauma trapped with her for the relaxation of her lifetime. Now nursing leaders and advocates are declaring the issue of not addressing nurses’ psychological wellness demands has all over again achieved a crucial place. Nurses have been on the entrance lines of the COVID-19 crisis, but most aren’t getting in depth psychological wellness screening or treatment. Nursing advocacy teams and scholars who examine PTSD in nursing alert that leaving nurses’ psychological wellness demands untreated could guide to a nursing lack, much as it did after Earth War II.

Taken as prisoners of war in 1942, Dorothy Nevertheless and eleven other Navy nurses delivered health-related treatment in the midst of brutal suffering at Los Baños Internment Camp. (Credit: Courtesy of Bureau of Drugs and Medical procedures)

Suffering in Silence 

Back again in the States, Nurse Nevertheless was tasked with speaking at war bond drives about the a few a long time she was a prisoner of war. She located the encounter troubling and requested a transfer to Panama, but her memories adopted her to her new post. At situations, she was depressed. Other situations, she couldn’t cease pondering about all she experienced endured. She from time to time cried with out provocation and struggled to cease crying the moment she experienced begun. On information of her fiancé, she booked an appointment with a naval health practitioner. 

In the course of her appointment, Nurse Nevertheless explained to the health practitioner she experienced been a prisoner of war for much more than a few a long time, and requested for a health-related discharge centered on the trauma she was encountering. The doctor requested when Nurse Nevertheless was liberated the date was the similar as the boosting of the flag at Iwo Jima. The health practitioner reported all those adult males ended up heroes, but Nurse Nevertheless was a female and a nurse, and thus, did not experience. Denied treatment, Nurse Nevertheless still left the appointment shaking. She vowed she would hold her pain to herself. 

The Navy nurses weren’t the only health-related treatment vendors taken prisoner during WWII. Sixty-6 U.S. Military nurses as very well as hundreds of physicians, pharmacists, and health-related assistants ended up also held captive in the South Pacific. But at the stop of the war, as the U.S. well prepared to welcome dwelling tens of millions of adult males and girls who served their place, psychological wellness treatment was minimal — and reserved for adult males. Nurses, it was assumed, did not experience. 

At the time, the U.S. armed forces was the premier employer of nurses, and it experienced recognized an predicted code of silence regarding how nurses responded to their possess trauma. In 1947, an short article in the American Journal of Psychiatry claimed a armed forces hospital was a managed setting that insulated nurses from the brutality of war. The study’s creator claimed that nurses’ psychological wellness demands ended up “less intricate,” and that nursing fulfilled girls by catering to their organic instinct to treatment for adult males: “They ended up giving a support which gratified the passive demands of adult males. And which identified these girls with the mother, the wife, or the sweetheart back dwelling.”

Many nurses, such as Nurse Nevertheless, responded to the lack of psychological wellness treatment by leaving both the armed forces and nursing. The late forties noticed a lack in nurses at time when hospital admissions rose by 26 percent. The lack persisted right up until the late nineteen sixties when wages commenced to boost.

Just after a few a long time as POWs, the Navy nurses ended up liberated in 1945. Listed here, they communicate with Admiral Thomas C. Kinkaid after their release, and are proven future to the aircraft that introduced them from the South Pacific to Hawaii. (Credit: U.S. Navy Bureau of Drugs and Medical procedures)

A Looming Crisis 

The COVID-19 pandemic has intended that for the 1st time considering the fact that WWII, the extensive majority of U.S. nurses are embroiled in combating a popular enemy. It is a demanding and emotional battle that advocates say provides a deeper tension to an previously taxing work.

Across the place, nurses have been caring for individuals dying from COVID-19 who do not have the assist of family members at their bedside owing to visitor constraints. “The nurses are generally the kinds who are serving as the loved just one and aiding the individual navigate the stop-of-lifetime journey,” states Holly Carpenter, a senior policy advisor with the American Nurses Association. 

In addition to caring for dying COVID-19 individuals, Carpenter states, lots of nurses ended up not adequately geared up at the peak of the pandemic with the particular safety devices desired to avoid an infection. These nurses lived in worry of being contaminated or transmitting the virus to loved kinds at dwelling. 

And on top of these stressors, nurses are also nevertheless coping with the common calls for of the work. “There are the matters that have generally been there — extensive shifts, from time to time mandatory extra time, a workload that’s heavier than you’re at ease with, acquiring to operate by breaks or lunchtime, acquiring to come in early and keep late,” Carpenter states. 

Prior to the pandemic, reports approximated that as lots of as half of crucial-treatment nurses seasoned put up-traumatic tension dysfunction (PTSD). Considering the fact that the pandemic commenced, researchers have located the crisis has amplified signs and symptoms of psychological wellness problems. A 2020 examine in Normal Healthcare facility Psychiatry located that sixty four percent of nurses in a New York Metropolis health-related center described encountering acute tension. 

“Acute tension involved signs and symptoms like nightmares, incapability to cease pondering about COVID-19, and sensation numb, detached, and on guard,” states examine chief Marwah Abdalla, a clinical cardiologist and assistant professor of medication at Columbia College Health care Center. “This is about. We know that if these signs and symptoms persist for much more than a month, it can guide to PTSD.” 

Some nurses seasoned PTSD before COVID-19, but the ailments of the pandemic have amplified psychological wellness problems. (Credit: Eldar Nurkovic/Shutterstock)

A person is diagnosed with PTSD if they fulfill standards outlined by the DSM-five, the psychiatric profession’s formal manual. Criteria involve encountering, witnessing or understanding about a traumatic function (these kinds of as dying, significant personal injury, or sexual violence) intrusive signs and symptoms like goals and flashbacks avoidance of reminders of the function negative adjustments in thoughts and moods and behavioral adjustments. A person can also build PTSD if they are consistently uncovered to specifics of a traumatic function. 

Suffering from undiagnosed or untreated PTSD is a lifetime-altering affliction with numerous ramifications, and might guide a nurse to depart wellness treatment. “We’re potentially setting up an occupational wellness treatment crisis,” Abdalla states. “This has extensive-term implications for the wellness treatment industry and our potential to deliver enough wellness treatment for our individuals.” 

Carpenter states wellness treatment businesses must be proactive with screening nurses for signs and symptoms related to anxiousness, despair, and PTSD. This sort of screenings must be confidential and come with the assurance that a nurse’s license or work will not be compromised. Companies also need to operate to destigmatize psychological wellness prognosis and treatment. 

“Historically, nurses are generally appeared upon as the healers and the helpers,” Carpenter states. “They really feel they need to be powerful for other people today. What do you do when the hero demands assistance?”

For Nurse Nevertheless, assistance hardly ever arrived. She still left the Navy and nursing, married, and experienced a few kids. She returned to nursing in the late fifties after her partner died instantly and she desired to assist her family members.

Only in the 1990s did she get started speaking about her ordeals in interviews with oral historians and documentary producers. She also wrote a memoir, but stored the tale gentle and did not disclose her intensive suffering.

The career has state-of-the-art considering the fact that Nurse Still’s forties enchantment for psychological wellness assist was rejected. “We do understand the whole PTSD, compassion tiredness, and burnout of nurses. It is been chronicled now and we realize it,” Carpenter states. 

Now the obstacle is encouraging every single nurse to seek out and receive assistance. If not, advocates alert, their wellness and wellbeing will keep on to decrease, and background might repeat as stressed nurses depart a strained career. 


Emilie Le Beau Lucchesi is a journalist in the Chicago region and the creator of This is Truly War: The Remarkable Legitimate Tale of a Navy Nurse POW in the Occupied Philippines.

Rosa G. Rose

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