Truth be told, I became a nurse so that I could wear THE CAP! Oh, how I wanted that cap. I would make one out of paper and pin it to my head, posing in front of the bathroom mirror with a towel around my shoulders for my cape. I never did have a cape, but I definitely wore that little piece of starched white fabric. Our caps had green and gold ribbons arching across the top. I may have been your average Jane, but I felt like Miss America when it was on my head.
Of course, I graduated in 1978 (at the ripe old age of 20!), and with the expansion of nursing care came the end of the cap-wearing tradition. I wore mine for about 6 months. Years of nursing fantasies, based in the 1940s world of Cherry Ames, were quickly supplanted by the reality of the profession. My cap was the first casualty.
Fast forward to 2000. I was working night shift in an emergency department when my colleagues and I decided to celebrate National Nurses' Day by wearing classic white uniforms with our caps! Yeah, baby! Now, the last time I had actually seen my cap had been in 1979, carefully preserved in a halo of dust under the front seat of an old green Volkswagon bug I no longer owned. Where on earth would I find another one - specifically one that looked like my nursing school cap. I mean, you can't just wear any cap, you have to wear your school cap! I was determined to find it.
I found it. At a uniform shop located in a tiny trailer in a small parking lot in the next town sat an exact replica of my cap. I carefully glued the forest green and gold grograin ribbons to the top, pinned the cap to my head and posed in front of the bathroom mirror. Only this time I didn't wear a towel for a cape; it was the 21st century, after all, and I was more like a middle-aged Mrs. America. The old thrill was still there. The next night we faced the patients in traditional white uniforms with caps carefully anchored.
One younger doctor commented that I looked like his mother did when she was a nurse (uh....thanks?) and another revealed that he always had a fetish for women in white (o......kay).
The older docs loved it. The PM shift made fun of us (Nancy Nurse? Excuse me, my name is Ames.....Cherry Ames.....).
But, the patients! The patients respected us! Their behavior was astounding. They spoke to us in lower tones. They spoke to us respectfully. They addressed us as "Nurse" and not "hey you" or "uh...where's the doc?" The age of the patient didn't matter, even teenagers who probably never even knew that RNs wore caps mentioned them. The change in demeanor was so dramatic from our normal experience that I thought perhaps the nursing staff was acting differently while wearing the caps. I decided to try an experiment and perhaps write a column on our experiences.
While my colleagues went back to their normal scrub uniforms, I worked in white, with my cap for a week. We noticed that I was the go-to person if the patients had a question because I was easily identifiable as a nurse. The deferential attitude of the patients persisted. I then went back to wearing whatever color scrubs I wanted, but always with the cap. In fact, I got so used to having it on that I would forget I was wearing it, so there was no impact on my behavior by this time. The patient behavior did not change! I was treated differently when I wore the cap; the patients respected what the cap stood for. I was floored.
Patients are bombarded with so many different personnel when they are in the ER, it's often hard to keep track of who is a nurse vs. a lab tech vs. a housekeeper vs. the doctor. Wearing a nursing cap gave my patients an anchor, a visual reminder of who I was and what my responsibilities were. However increasing number of male nurses entering the profession render nursing caps inappropriate. They say caps were a magnet for infection. They would get pulled off in the ICU. Caps weren't practical. Of course, all that is true. But I sure loved wearing them.
(Addendum: I continued to wear the cap until I changed jobs soon after the experiment. The cap again found its way under the front seat, this time of my Saturn. And the column I never wrote? It turned into a blog!)