OLD GHOSTS

The Stuart Circle Hospital and Laurel Hill House buildings have been closed forever as a hospital and nurses' home. However, they still exist as newly renovated luxury apartments.The outer shells of the buildings look the same, but the insides have been completely revised, hopefully keeping some of their more lovely architectural features.

 

Those walls and halls, and ceilings and floors bore witness over the years to births, deaths, patients having surgery, and patients getting well and going home. They watched silently while 62 classes of student nurses matured from girls to young women and carried more responsibility in their three year education than many people carry in a lifetime. They oversaw many transitions in patient care which kept Stuart Circle one of the most respected hospitals in Richmond. 

 

Laurel Hill House was home in its time as a dormitory, to hundreds of aspiring nurses. They lived there for their 3 years of school and each had many new experiences there. The walls of LHH oversaw them as they grew from silly young girls to mature young women. The dorm was also home to several different women who served as housemothers. It welcomed its own crew of housekeepers, instructors in the school, and many visitors of its inhabitants. Some of those inhabitants left a strong influence in the memories of former students, and perhaps even a lasting memory in the halls of the home itself.

 

There may still be ghosts of former house mothers making their rounds and making sure that the date parlor doors are cracked at least one inch! Echos of the buzzers used by the housemother to summon a student for a phone call or to go to the hospital while she was on call may still be heard on a quiet evening somewhere in LHH. Whispers of the cry "Not 2nd floor night duty again!" might sometimes be heard in the hallway where the phone/mail room used to be.

 

The Fundamentals of Nursing instructor had a permanent home in the back wing of the first floor. She was a small woman who exerted a huge influence on many classes of Stuart Circle students. In her own gentle and humorous way, she made her high standards clear, and set an example that lives within all those who attended her classes. Her frequent words "We as nurses must....." echo loudly in the memories of those she taught, and perhaps even occasionally may still be heard whispering in Laurel Hill House or in the hospital.

 

To this day, there are probably ghosts in the LHH building yelling "FLUSH!!" When one of the students was in the shower, and someone flushed, all the cold water was taken from the shower to flush the commode, causing a bad scalding for the student in the shower if the one flushing didn't yell a warning.

 

There are sure to be lots of rubber-shod footsteps, rustlings of starched skirts, and girlish giggles still to be heard in LHH. There may be the smell of coffee being made in contraband coffee pots, and popcorn being popped in prohibited poppers. There may be occasional noises at the windows where once someone's boyfriend climbed the trees on West Ave. to get in a student's room without anyone knowing it. There may be female voices reciting drug names, human anatomy parts, names of surgical instruments, etc., etc. There may be crying and there may be laughter.

 

If those old walls could talk, they could tell many tales. They would tell of girls so tired from working long hours on call in OB that all they could do was cry. They would tell of girls whose boyfriends went off to war and came back missing important parts of their bodies. They would tell of girls who came there full of high hopes of becoming nurses one day who were sent home because they couldn't pass Chemistry. They would tell of the anguish and guilt felt by girls who were "campused" because of making medication administration errors. They could speak volumes on the despair felt by students through the years, wondering if they could ever learn it all.

 

Those walls would tell how the girls with windows looking across to the southern end of the hospital (across the alley) watched the labor room windows when they were on call, hoping against hope that the lights would stay off, meaning they could get some sleep that night. They would tell of early curfews and late nights spent cramming for tests or working on class projects.

 

The LHH walls would also speak of joy. They would tell of girls watching from their windows across the courtyard as one of their classmates received a proposal of marriage in the date parlor. They would remember the exuberance of girls who had just seen their first baby born, or their first operation. They would whisper about the quiet pleasure felt when a student was able to make someone feel better. They would talk of care packages and mail from home, and long phone calls to Mom. They would remember girlish giggles and talk of dates, romantic firsts, and yearnings for that special guy.

 

Sounds of china and glass clinking together would remind those old walls of the many meals served in the hospital across the alley. Sounds of car exhausts would echo down the years when so many different doctors came to the hospital to see their patients. The sound of male voices would bring to mind earlier days when boyfriends or fathers visited, or the porter came upstairs to make some repair, to the refrain of "Man on the Hall!"

 

The walls in the basement of LHH stood witness as many girls learned to make beds, take temperatures and blood pressures, and many other skills in the fundamentals classroom in the back of the building. The front classroom was the scene of many Medical-Surgical lectures, as well as parties, receptions, and capping ceremonies.

 

Laurel Hill House was where students lived. The hospital building was where they worked, and practiced what they learned. The alley between the two was often filled with figures in white bounding from one building to the other. In Winter, those white-clad figures often wore navy capes lined with crimson, or some other overcoat, and they scurried as fast as possible. When viewed from above from the 3rd floor of LHH, their caps looked like white wings. If an occasional vision in white still appears in this alley, it may be a composite of all those former students who raced back and forth for all those years.

 

Upon entering the hospital from the back entrance, a student usually went to the back elevator. It was an old creaky service elevator with an accorion like grate that opened inside it, and sliding doors on the outside. It could operate automatically, but it also had a handle that could be used to start and stop it when there was an operator in it. . An occasional clunking noise, if still heard, could be an echo of that old elevator when the operator tried to level it on a floor.

 

Across from the back elevator was a marble stair case with beautiful ironwork banisters. On each floor, doors opened to this staircase. Its opening on the first floor was near the office of the Director of Nurses. At night, if one particular night supervisor was working, one could open a door to this stairwell on any floor, take a sniff, and be able to smell her cologne. It was an early warning of an impending visit to each floor by that supervisor. Many former students remember her and her growl if she found someone dozing off on duty, or sitting down when call lights were on. Strict, but ever supportive, she guided many students through their experiences with Night Duty. An occasional whiff of her cologne may still waft up the stairwells of the hospital

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The supervisors on evening and night shifts were the nurses on whom the students depended. Theirs was a difficult job made up of rounds, supervising students when they gave certain more dangerous meds, bringing drugs to the floors for STAT (immediate!) orders, answering the millions of questions asked by novice students, and doing it all for the most part with smiles and words of encouragement. Often there would be one supervisor, who was the only RN in the hospital, with the possible exception of a couple of private duty nurses. Some of those supervisors may still restlessly make rounds in the building, checking to be sure all is well.

 

A student would know where she was in the hospital by smell. Second floor, being the men's floor, smelled of tobacco, smoke and urine. Fourth floor had the smell of babies and formula. Fifth floor near the O.R. smelled of scorched linen from the sterilizer room. Inside the O.R., were the odors of soap and ether. On the sixth floor, one could smell food because that was where the kitchen and students' dining rooms were located. At the front end of the building (north end) was a pediatric unit. On days when there were a lot of post-op kids in the ward, it smelled of a mix of ether, liquid Tylenol and popsicles. Some of these areas may still have a reminiscent odor of earlier times.

 

To go to meals, a student rode the creaky old service elevator up to the 6th floor. As soon as the door opened, she could tell what was for dinner.. On Sundays, it was either fried chicken or steak. If it was steak, the students called it B.F. Goodrich Steak Sunday. Sunday meals were nice, because students could get ice cream for dessert. Stuart Circle was renouned in Richmond for its good patient meals, and students ate the same food as the patients. The 6th floor may still be redolent of meals gone by.

 

Also on the 6th floor, was the area reserved for house doctors, many of whom were residents from MCV or U.Va. This area was supposed to be off limits to students, but.....more than one ended up married to a Stuart Circle nurse. These guys were for the most part very supportive of students, and put up with lots of dumb questions! The smart ones made sleeping pill, pain pill and laxative rounds before they went to bed at night! Many evenings, they were dealing with a hospital staffed with very green first and second year students, with only the one supervisor to run interference. In their former haunts might be heard male voices (and occasional illicit female ones), creaking bedsprings and yawns as they prepare to sleep late at night, and their groans when the phone rings.

 

Anywhere in the hospital may be an occasional echo of overhead pagers "Dr. ____, Dr. ____", the cluncking of addressograph stamps, double jingles of the phone as the operator tries to locate an evening or night supervisor after the overhead pager is turned off, dinging of call bells at the old nurses' station locations, and the padding of rubber-soled feet on the floors. If at night, the beam from a flashlight can occasionally be seen, it's only a night nurse on perpetual rounds, making sure everything is ok.

 

Be assured if any ghosts exist in Laurel Hill House or the former Stuart Circle Hospital, they are friendly ones, who still follow their credo of service to others. They will rest when they are assured that the memory of the hospital and all who came there is not lost and that their work there is done. They will watch over the old buildings with pride in what they once represented, and hope for their future as private homes.

Stuart Circle Hospital had a rich tradition of service to others, embodied in its school motto: " Deo Per Homines Servire" which translates to: "To serve God through Man." The buildings in which this tradition was played out stand proud and tall in memory of all that went on inside them. Now they have been turned into private homes, and the neighborhood, in its wisdom, insisted that the buildings not be lost.

 

As a graduate of this respected school of nursing, and a former nurse in the hospital, I am glad that the buildings have been saved and will live on. I hope each of those living in them will give an occasional thought to all they meant to all of us former students in the Stuart Circle Hospital School for Nurses, the doctors and others who practiced there, and the patients who came trustingly to the hospital for their care.