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Cal Poly Memories - Captain Bob Olds

Cal Poly Health Center 1950-1953

A couple of years ago, I put together some of my family history for our kids and grandkids, and it included a section on college life and my days at the health center. I've modified it a bit, added some more specific detail, and offer the following recollections of an engineering student who was one of several "night corpsman" providing night and weekend service in the Cal Poly Health Center in 1950-1953.

Don Morris and I went to Cal Poly on a "track scholarship" - the promise of a campus job - which in my case turned out to be that of a corpsman in the college Health Center. I don't know how the coach picked this job for me, and the head nurse was very displeased that someone without past medical training was supposed to be a corpsman. The other two corpsmen, and the one I was replacing, all had been military corpsmen in WWII. She clearly told me that I wasn't getting the job. I don't know what the campus politics were, but the Athletic Department won.

Apparently there were no more military experienced corpsman available. I had paid attention to first aid in Boy Scouts, and it benefited me now. Although the head nurse had understandably been very negative at the start, eventually I fit in and did well, and it became a friendly and professional relationship. I did not include names in the write-up I did for my family, so here are the names I remember: Head nurse Imogene Gow, R.N.; Kathryn Westcamp, R.N.; Dr. Maxon (daily sick call and on-call 1950-51); Dr. Lovett (1951+); and live-in corpsman Bob Levy, Otto Ambiel, George Murphy, Charles Griffin, and myself, Bob Olds. Levy and Murphy were former Navy corpsmen, and Ambiel had been an Army corpsman. I believe the nurse that replaced Westcamp when her husband graduated was Cathryn Rogalla, but I don't recall the names of the corpsmen that did not live in the center.

The Health Center was one of the dozen or so WWII Navy pre-flight school barracks buildings that became college dormitories, except for one that had been modified into a medical facility for the students. Initially, the building contained a 10-bed ward, two isolation rooms, two-three treatment rooms, a shower/bathroom area, two night corpsmen rooms, and the head nurse's apartment. Three corpsmen were employed. Initially I think all three of us lived in the Health Center, however it soon became two. Our "regular" work every third day was from about 4 p.m. until 9p.m. or so (when we locked the door), all day on weekends, and about 6-7 a.m. for in-patient care until a nurse came on duty weekdays. With the third corpsman residing elsewhere, we two "live-ins" alternated being on duty every other night, available for emergencies (who rang the night bell) and for necessary care of the in-patients. The head nurse was technically on for emergency calls, which we very rarely received.

In my second year, we gained a full time doctor, and many improvements were made to the health center and the services we provided, including provisions for an X-ray room, waiting room, pharmacy and diet kitchen. To make this expansion one corpsman room was given up, so now two of us lived in an approximately 100- square- foot room with two tables, one closet, some built in cabinets, and a bunk bed. The job provided me the room at no cost, which was very helpful, and I believe I was paid for "regular" hours worked, but not for the nighttime on-call duty. I learned a great deal, and as I gained experience, did a wide cross section of medical things over the three years. In addition to the nighttime care of in-patients, and responding to evening and weekend "walk-in's," I routinely gave shots, took and developed X-rays, patched up cuts and abrasions, and independently provided medications for aches, colds, etc. I also assisted the doctor in a couple of tonsillectomies and other minor surgeries (sewing up wounds, etc.), and under his direction, administered treatment to the players at football games, boxing matches, etc. For the football games we would get a station wagon from the motor pool, remove the rear seats, add a Stokes litter, and park it in the stadium. Working in the Health Center gave me knowledge and experience that proved to be of considerable benefit to me in my Navy career.

A couple of Health Center stories:
One night the emergency bell rang with such intensity, along with banging on the door, that I expected to see some guy standing there with his bloody head in his hand. I opened the door to a very agitated student, who yelled at me, "You've got to help me. I can't sleep. I've got a final tomorrow, and without sleep, I'll flunk. I need a sleeping pill." Well, I couldn't give out the few narcotics we had without the doctor's OK, and this clearly wasn't an emergency, no matter what the student thought. He obviously needed to calm down, so I talked very calmly to him while gathering patient information, etc. Then told him that I could help, even though I wasn't really supposed to give out "the strong stuff," because I really understood that he needed to get some sleep. I got two APC's (aspirin, penafalene (sp?), and caffeine - one of the all-time favorite military pills for fever, aches, etc., of which we had three colors - normally using white), and put two green ones in an envelope, which I labeled "For sleep only." I then calmly, but emphatically, stressed to him that he must not take these until in his dorm, ready for bed. I also made sure that he wasn't driving, told him that if he took them before getting to his dorm he might go to sleep wherever he was, etc., and insisted he check in with the nurse In the morning, as a follow up to using "the strong stuff."

By the time he left the Health Center he was very calm, thanked me profusely and was a little drowsy. I gave the nurse a "heads up" on the night's events, and we wondered if he'd come in. Well, he did - very displeased that the corpsman had given him too much of "the strong stuff," causing him to miss his final. He'd overslept! The nurse "sympathized" with him and gave him a medical excuse for missing the exam. I learned from this that a little psychology could go a long way toward solving a problem. Calm, understanding, quiet, etc. really worked.

Penicillin shots
. Another of the medications coming out of WWII, penicillin shots were given often for infections, etc., using a fairly large diameter one-and-one-eighth inch-long needle that put the medication deep into the buttocks. I gave a lot of these and was told that I did them "with the least 'ouch." Once we had an in-patient, ill but not overly, that just gave the nurses and corpsman a big hassle, particularly about shots. So one night, when it came time for his penicillin shot, I decided to get even. I came to his bedside carrying the usual syringe, but I'd put a spinal tap needle on it - some 3 inches long. I made sure he saw it, and told him that we had decided that the medication wasn't giving full benefit, otherwise he'd have been out of here by now, thus to improve it's effect we were going to start injecting it deeper. I then told him to roll over, and get ready for the shot. He very unhappily did, and when he couldn't see, I put on the regular needle, gave the shot, and quickly put the long needle back on while he still had his head buried in the pillow. I don't recall if this really caused him to get better, but there was less hassle, and he was released the next day (or two).

Food service. My first year, we had to go next door to the mess hall (the term "cafeteria" would come later) and get a tray (old metal Navy compartmented trays) of food for each in-patient. Pretty time consuming if we had many in the ward, and the patient got only warm food at best. Once we had the diet kitchen, we were able to tell the mess hall staff how many patients we had. They would then fill up suitable pots or other containers with enough food for our patients and load it on a cart, which we pushed back to the diet kitchen. We'd tell the patients what the menu was, then give them what they wanted (if OK for their illness). We could also store food, reheat it, etc., which made the service to the patients considerably nicer. And - the mess hall guys occasionally gave us far too much food, and the patients didn't have big appetites. So, some of my meals came from "leftovers" - which sure helped financially.

On several occasions when fellow students or teachers learned that I lived in the Health Center, rather than a dorm, they would ease back a bit, pause, and then suspiciously ask if I was sick/diseased and had to be under regular medical care. So I just had to tell them, "I'm fine, it's my job." -- Bob Olds


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