Peter Baida

A Nurse’s Story

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A Nurse’s Story Summary

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Peter Baida’s short story “A Nurse’s Story” (1999) won the O. Henry Award. Baida spent most of his life working for the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York City, where he handled a variety of administrative duties over the course of his career. He wrote business self-help books and articles in addition to short stories. Most of the latter were collected in Baida’s 2001 book, A Nurse’s Story and Others, published two years after Baida’s death.

Mary McDonald, an elderly nurse who is dying from cancer, is staying in a room at the Booth-Tiessler Geriatric Center. Though her body is in terrible shape, she is alert and aware mentally, ensuring that she is well-aware of the pain she is feeling and what it means for her. Though she knows she is dying, Mary is determined to speak to Eunice Barnacle, the nurse in charge of her care, about working conditions and unionization for the staff. Mary helped establish a nurses union in New York in the 1960s, and she wants to stress its importance to new nurses like Eunice who are reluctant to unionize.

When Eunice comes to her room, Mary tells her about a case she had when she was a nurse forty years ago. The patient, Ida Peterson, suffered a ruptured artery from a tumor in her neck. Though Mary was shocked by the blood, she remembered Ida’s desire to have a death free of medical intervention and with her husband on hand. Rather than rush to treat the artery, Mary allowed Ida to have the death she wanted, an incident which helped shape Mary’s views on dying and the dignity of individual patients.

After telling this story, Mary and Eunice continue their conversation about working conditions. Eunice asks about the union Mary helped found, though she has not shown any interest in the topic before. Here, Mary considers the history of the area in which she lives and how two prominent families, after whom Mary’s nursing college, as well as the hospital in which she is staying, are named, have shaped its history.

Mary remembers Clarice Hunter, an old colleague of hers who inspired her to start the union. Clarice encouraged Mary to value her work and demand that others value her as well. After a back-breaking shift, the two decide to organize for higher pay and more job security. Well-respected by the other nurses, Mary quickly helps build the movement at the hospital. She becomes a spokesperson for the nurses and leads them to strike.

The strike lasts for six months, fought by the hospital, but some of the people in town support the nurses. Mary notes that Richard Dill, the newspaper reporter who covered the strikes, now lives in the same geriatric center that she does.

Sister Rose, the hospital administrator, does not want to give in to the striker’s demands as she thinks it will be detrimental to the hospital as a whole and its ability to give care. Mary appeals to the Catholic board of directors of the hospital chain, who send someone to help the nurses negotiate. Eventually, some of their demands are met and the nurses agree to return to work.

Moved by Mary’s story, Eunice is still skeptical. Her family problems prevent her from wanting to start a labor dispute. In fact, she has moved to the area to be closer to her mother, who is currently serving a jail sentence for murdering her abusive boyfriend. She also doesn’t think the strike had value in the long run since Mary is dying now.

Before she dies, Mary asks to return to the hospital where she worked. She visits her old workplace three days before her death, after which many people in town, including the embalmer who works on her body, have stories about the wonderful care Mary gave their loved ones. Local businessmen also praise Mary but are obviously glad she is gone since her union threatened their ability to maximize profits. Roger Dill, the son of the reporter who covered the strikes, writes Mary’s obituary.

Eunice is now inspired to pick up where Mary left off and continue working for fair treatment for the nurses. She talks with the younger nurses and the hospital about forming a union.

As Mary lies dying, Sister Rosa visits, assuring her that she did the right thing fighting for fair working conditions. She concedes that the system depends on everyone being treated fairly and according to their worth. Mary’s children come to see her one last time. She dies and is finally reunited with her husband in the afterlife.