Thursday, November 10, 2016

Ellis Hospital during World War II

This post was written by Grems-Doolittle Library Volunteer Gail Denisoff.

Aerial view of Ellis Hospital around 1944.
Courtesy of the Grems-Doolittle Library Photograph Collection.
In the early months of 1941, before the United States declared war on Japan, Ellis Hospital was already preparing for the possibility of war.  In The Hospital Courier, a newsletter Published by Ellis Hospital, more and more articles were being written about the role of the hospital in national defense.

The June 1941 issue described the problems hospitals were facing because of the National Defense Program.  Nurses and doctors were being called from hospital staffs to serve in Army and Navy camps and to fill positions in expanded industrial plants.  Defense industries were offering higher wages forcing hospitals to increase salaries to retain personnel.  Suppliers were increasing prices of medical supplies because of the demand by countries at war while delaying delivery of goods.  Ellis, like other hospitals, was feeling the pinch, especially since they weren’t fully recovered from the depression and needed community support.
Ellis Cadet Nurse Corps in 1944. From the Ellis Hospital Collection
at the Grems-Doolittle Library. 
By 1942 the problems intensified.  There was a shortage of nurses for both civilian and military hospitals. Nursing schools were increasing enrollment of students while giving more responsibility to nurses’ aides and other non-professional workers. Ellis began training their first group of 25 women for the Red Cross Volunteer Nurses’ Aide Corps which was to be ready for active service as of March 1, 1942.  By June, Ellis was training its third class although they were still short of the Schenectady quota for volunteer nurses’ aides.

The 38 students entering the Ellis Hospital School of Nursing in September 1942 was the largest in it's history.  These young women had “chosen a field of study where they can immediately meet the war time needs of the country."  At the same time, there were concerns.  Because of the increasing demands for doctors, nurses and hospital facilities there were suggestions to curtail hospitalization of maternity patients and eliminate courses in obstetrical and pediatric nursing from nursing school curriculum to prepare students more quickly for service with the Army and Navy.  Hospitals didn’t want to sacrifice gains made in lowering maternal and infant mortality rates and were actively fighting those proposals.
Ellis nurse being sworn in. From the Ellis Hospital Collection
at the Grems-Doolittle Library. 
By October 1942 forces serving overseas had their full quota of medical personnel according to the AMA but more physicians were needed for troops assigned to the US.  All able-bodied physicians under the age of 37 were being called for active duty and a high percentage of those under 45 were also being called.  The resulting shortage of doctors to care of the civilian population was hoped to be offset by redistribution of hospital doctors and the call for patients to visit doctors at their offices rather than having them make house calls, conserving time. 

On the home front, stepped up war production and the resulting rise in employment were factors in the sharp increase of accidents and deaths due to industrial accidents.  According to the National Safety Council, job related fatalities in the first year following Pearl Harbor totaled 46,500 while injuries topped 4 million putting a strain on hospitals.  Ellis was no exception to this trend.  With war production booming at the General Electric and American Locomotive plants, there were many work-related injuries resulting in hospital visits putting a strain on the reduced staff.

By mid-1943, food rationing greatly restricted the amount and variety of foods that could be purchased for patients.  Hospital menus became much less varied.  Fruits, vegetables and meats appeared on hospital menus less often.  Dietitians and Red Cross Canteen Corps workers tried to produce balanced diets for patients with what they had.  Patients in the hospital for more than seven days were required to surrender their ration books and the hospital was required to remove the proper number of stamps and turn them in to the local rationing board.  The hospital was not able to get extra food supplies for the stamps, however.  Hospital kitchens and individuals were also called upon to save waste fats when cooking.  When a pound or more was accumulated, they were to take it to a local meat dealer who would send it to a renderer as a material for glycerin, an essential ingredient not only in the manufacture of ammunition but also medicinal preparations such as surgical dressings, acid burn jellies, antiseptics and sulfa ointments.  New mothers were being instructed to breast feed their babies due to the shortage of milk.

Nursing professionals estimated that by the end of 1943, one in four graduate nurses would be needed by some branch of the armed forces both domestically and overseas.   Even more would be required to serve in industrial plants causing even more of a drain on hospitals.  Patients were encouraged not to request private duty nurses, which was common at the time. The School of Nursing enrollment was increased and a second class of students was set to begin in February of 1944.  Ellis was continuing to train Red Cross Volunteer Nurses’ Aides with over 85 in active service and 50 being trained by the fall of 1943. In addition, a new training program was being initiated for the US Cadet Nurse Corps.  It offered young women high school graduates an accelerated training course with all expenses paid and a monthly stipend.  In return, they would be available for essential nursing, civilian or military services for the duration of the war.

Unidentified serviceman at Ellis looking at a baby.
From the Ellis Hospital Collection at the Grems-Doolittle Library. 
The number of births recorded in 1943 was an all-time high for the United States.  As a result, Congress appropriated $20,000,000 in the 1944 fiscal year for the Maternal Care Program.  The program was intended to provide maternal and infant care for wives of servicemen who were earning below their civilian pay levels and couldn’t otherwise afford hospital care.  Ellis Hospital and their doctors cooperated with the Federal government in the local implementation of the program and care was equal to that given to non-military patients. 

Staffing concerns continued to be a critical issue.  The demand for 10,000 more graduate nurses in the armed services by July 1, 1944 was causing a strain on hospitals throughout the country.  Local and state authorities were pushing for an equitable distribution of civilian and military nurses to keep home front hospitals above the danger level in staffing.  All nurses between the ages of 21 and 45 who were physically fit and had no children under the age of 14 were classified as available for military service unless filling what was considered an essential nursing position in a hospital or public health agency. Even those nurses in essential positions, who were older, had families or not considered physically fit were classified as “essential for limited duration”.   The fall 1944 class of the nursing school was the largest in its history at 47, 42 of which were members of the Cadet Nurse Corps.  Ellis relied more and more on volunteers.  By early 1944, eleven classes of Red Cross Volunteer Aides had finished training programs and a new class had begun.  A new group, the Red Cross Dietitian’s Aides, were being trained to assist hospital dietitians with preparation of well-balanced patient meals, an ongoing challenge due to food rationing and limitations.  Civilians were being asked to find ways they could help their local hospitals function. Each Hospital Courier Newsletter ran banners asking readers to buy war bonds, volunteer with the Red Cross, conserve paper for war needs and enlist recruits for the Cadet Nurse Corps.

Volunteers from the Schenectady County Chapter of the
 American Red Cross setting up a food table from the
World War II photo collection of Hershel Graubart. 
Ellis joined the Red Cross and other hospitals around the country in collecting blood and plasma for use by the armed forces.  By the end of 1943 close to 6 million units had been collected with another 5 million units requested for 1944.  Civilians were encouraged to regularly give blood for both military and local use. In 1940, Ellis had opened the first blood bank east of Chicago and was essential in this endeavor.  Locally, there was a noticeable increase in accidents causing severe injury or death to children under the age of 14.  This was attributed to fathers being away and mothers not at home, working in war industries.  Traffic fatalities were down due to gas rationing but household and industrial accidents continued to rise.  Care for accident victims took a toll on hospitals in the form of unpaid bills and putting more of a strain on limited staffs and supplies.

The heavy influx of injured workers from GE and ALCO overtaxed the facilities of the hospital.  In 1944 alone, 14,657 patients were admitted to Ellis.  With the staffing shortages, it was sometimes necessary to close some floors and limit surgery to emergency cases.  The Red Cross volunteers proved invaluable during this time.

As the war continued to rage on in Europe, hospitals on the home front began to prepare for the post war challenges to come. Hospital services would need to be expanded to meet the needs of injured veterans.  It was expected that many hospitals would be building additions and updating facilities in the post war years.  Adequate care of wounded veterans and their families would be a major national concern and hospitals would need to work with the government to ensure veterans receive care in their local communities for both service and non-service related disabilities.  Even though mortality rates were dramatically down from previous wars due to the care received on the front, civilian hospitals were expected to receive an influx of war veterans with a wide range of injuries and special needs.  The Rehabilitation Act proposed using all existing hospital facilities for the treatment of returning military as well as civilians disabled by injury.  Federal and state funds were to be used for this program and civilian hospitals were expected to make every possible bed available when asked to do so by the Veterans Bureau. Cadet nurses were still being recruited to begin training so that they would be ready to serve in veteran’s hospitals and for postwar duties in civilian hospitals.  In total, 104 Cadet nurses were trained at Ellis Hospital.

Even with the war winding down in mid-1945, the increase in returning veterans and the depleted hospital staffs was causing some hospitals to curtail admissions.  By this time. Over 60,000 doctors, 54,000 graduate nurses and thousands of technicians were serving the military while civilian hospitals were treating more patients than any time in their histories.  Ellis was meeting the need of the community through the dedication of their staff and volunteers. 

At the end of the war, returning doctors and nurses were welcomed with open arms.  Hospitals slowly began rebuilding their staffs and changing to meet the needs of veterans.  Veteran nurses returned home with valuable skills and experiences, increasing their professional status. The Army had trained many nurses in specialties such as anesthesia and psychiatric care, and nurses who had served overseas had acquired practical experience otherwise unobtainable.  These new skills proved invaluable for Ellis and other hospitals as they continued to meet the challenges of post war America.