Nursing Clio Blogs

During the week of May 10, Nursing Clio launches “The Deathbed.” This new series aims to bring the history of medicine and death studies together, and explores this history in a global context. These essays reconsider how death has been regulated, staged, and experienced across time and cultures and will complicate traditional histories of death, the experience of dying, and the handling of human remains. Check back for new entries every week through the summer of 2020.

This past fall, when we began work on a Nursing Clio series about death, we never imagined the world would look the way it does today. Early reports of illness in China were limited and, as they often are, written in the confident language of exceptionalism: epidemics happen over there, to other people, in other places. Not here, not to us.

But things changed quickly…

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I can hear some of you say, “Can’t we talk about something more pleasant?” That’s the same question American cartoonist Roz Chast’s parents asked her when she wanted to talk to them about their deaths. Her title represents the general attitude towards death in American society today. Even in the midst of a global pandemic, we are still not talking about it…

Hundreds of people we know, dozens of people we call friends and family, will get infected. It’s only a matter of time until someone we love will die from it… We’ve passed the point of calling this “unpleasant.” It is heartbreaking, upsetting, and very necessary to talk about death right at this moment…

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On October 12, 1622, a 26-year-old English woman named Elizabeth Jocelin gave birth to her first child, a baby girl. Nine days later, she died of puerperal fever, an infection of the genital tract — most likely from bacteria accidentally introduced by a birthing attendant during labor — that can cause fatal sepsis in postpartum women… Jocelin is noteworthy, not because her situation was unusual, but because of what we know about how she prepared for it. When she learned she was pregnant, she secretly bought herself a sheet that she could be buried in and began writing a document full of maternal advice for her unborn child, in case she did not survive to raise him or her…

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The rituals we use to honor someone in death often reflect the way that they lived, from their religion to their favorite color. People have strong preferences for what will happen to their body after they die and what kind of funeral they want. Twenty-four percent of UK adults have already chosen which songs they want to be played at their funeral and nearly 16% of Americans ages 18–39 think people should plan the individual touches for their funerals before the age of 40.

. . . . In modern-day Britain, people may be buried in any clothes they wish, but the Wool Acts of 1667 and 1677 decreed that all who died during the 17th and 18th centuries were legally required to be buried in wool…

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I arrived home ready to relax and watch The Crown after an intense work day, which included debriefing the family of a person in hospice who had died that night. Although we’d advised the family about the often brutal nature of dying from throat cancer, it can be difficult to imagine for anyone who hasn’t previously witnessed the choking, suffocating death that often accompanies a ruptured neck or head tumor… I turned on The Crown. Ironically, the next episode in my queue showed the death of the Duke of Windsor… the duke’s esophageal cancer and eventual death sat in stark contrast to my day… 

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…Without denying Dr. Caralps’s merit, this is a carefully curated version of the truth. Almost 20 years earlier, in 1968, Dr. Cristóbal Martínez-Bordiú – dictator Francisco Franco’s (1939–1975) son-in-law – transplanted the heart of Aurelia Isidro Moreno into the chest of Juan Alfonso Rodríguez Grille, who survived for a little over 24 hours. The Spanish Society of Cardiology, the ONT, and Spain’s national media have good reasons to draw a thick veil over this surgery. However, nothing justifies turning our backs on its casualties…

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Sister Alberta Marie Hanley felt like Christ on her deathbed. Blood seeping into her eyes from a low platelet count, the twenty-six-year-old told Sister Mary Mercy that her head felt tight, like the crown of thorns must have made Jesus’ head feel. Hanley took her last moments to wonder if she had done enough for the people of war-torn Korea. Mary Mercy, the head of the Maryknoll Clinic in Pusan, South Korea, assured Hanley that she’d done all she was called to do…

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pregnancy loss is a site of tension, situated between waiting for the baby, the unanticipated loss, and the often complicated grieving that follows. Although still often a taboo subject, pregnancy loss has been gradually attracting more recognition as a life event that does not benefit from being silenced. Support for people going through a pregnancy loss tends to center on the emotional experiences of the parents; the lost pregnancy, on the other hand, changes from a tangible baby in utero into a memory of the baby that never got to breathe…

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In the spring of 1813, Abigail Adams wrote to her friend Julia Rush inquiring after the death of Julia’s husband physician Benjamin Rush. . . . Although separated by a considerable distance—Quincy, MA to Philadelphia, PA—the Adams and Rush families were close, and they expressed their mutual grief through letters after Benjamin’s demise from typhoid, typhus, or some other “low fever” on April 13, 1813. The raw emotion in Abigail’s first letter to Julia is full of sentiment and empathy for a friend…

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