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My new friends were waiting for me near the elevator. Last night we had been shown an underground tunnel that led directly to the hospital without stepping outdoors. We giggled nervously as we walked through the spooky, dimly lit underground hallway. Having graduated from high school just a month earlier, we were all there for the same reason, to take a nursing assistant class. We hoped to be hired by the hospital when we finished the class.

Three days earlier, during the weekend, I moved into the former nurse’s dorm at Saint Mary’s Hospital in Wausau. I loved the room that I shared with another girl. The large, south-facing windows, beds on opposite sides of the room, two desks in the center and plenty of closet space provided all we needed for sleep and study. Two floors below on the main floor, was a large kitchen for residents to share and a large lobby gathering room. During the weekend, girls who had moved in before us showed how to get to our classes by using the underground hallway and an easily accessible flat roof top to use for sunbathing.

The nurses teaching the nursing assistant classes introduced their young and very inexperienced students to bed baths, bedpans, urinals, and normal hospital routines. Early in the program, we learned bedside care by taking fresh water to the patients and emptying foley catheter bags. Our teachers reinforced their frequent reminders to wash our hands by showing a film about how contamination spreads.

The film was an animated story showing a nurse visiting a patient to change his surgical dressings. Until the dressing change, the pictures were just in black and white. To show that the dressing was soiled with infectious drainage, one color was added: red. The nurse didn’t wash her hands after the change. When she poured a cup of water for the patient, the cup and water pitcher handle turned red where she had touched them to show they had become contaminated. The curtain pullcord turned red when she opened the curtains for the patient. She left a red handprint on the door when she left the room. As other workers came into the room to do things for the patient, they touched the same things the first nurse had touched and many other things. By the end of the film, everything in that patient’s room was covered in red smudges, showing how they had unwittingly spread contamination.

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