2014-10-17 / Front Page

Everyday Maine: Rachel Deans, part II

By Duke Harrington
Contributing Writer


Rachel Deans of South Portland, upon her graduation from nursing school. Just one year after this picture was taken, she would be the nurse in charge of the accident ward at Maine General Hospital on the night of the Long Creek Air Tragedy. (courtesy photo) Rachel Deans of South Portland, upon her graduation from nursing school. Just one year after this picture was taken, she would be the nurse in charge of the accident ward at Maine General Hospital on the night of the Long Creek Air Tragedy. (courtesy photo) SOUTH PORTLAND — Last week, the Sentry ran part I of an interview with Rachel Deans of South Portland. Now 94, she was a 24-year-old newly graduated nurse in charge of the accident ward at the old Maine General Hospital on the night of the 1944 Long Creek Air Tragedy.

That interview recounted Deans’ life from her 1920 birth in Waterford, where her ancestor Eber Rice was the seventh settler and the family homestead had been a working farm from 1785 to the start of World War II.

In this concluding chapter, Deans recounts her experience during Maine’s greatest aviation accident, as well as her subsequent years of retirement.

Q: What do you recall about the Long Creek Air tragedy?

A: It came around suppertime. I was on days and it was right at the end of my shift, I think around 4:30 or so, when we got the call that a plane had crashed into Redbank. We didn’t have any triage or anything. Nothing was planned for something like that. But the operators got busy trying to get people to come back into work from off duty. A lot of doctors came in and the girls that could be spared from the floors came down to the accident ward. Even the Navy dispensary sent a corpsman up with a case of liquid morphine. That helped a lot.

Q: Why was that?

A: Well, in those days, when you gave an injection of morphine or something like that for pain, you had to boil water in a little spoon over an alcohol lamp, then draw up into the syringe the amount of liquid that you were going to inject. Then you put it back into the spoon, put your pill in, and dissolved it. Then you would draw it up again. So, it took quite a long time. It was quite a process to give an injection. That’s one way that crash changed things. Before it, I had been pleading with the hospital director because I knew they had morphine in vials now and I thought we needed that to speed up care. But he didn’t agree with me. I guess he thought I got a little fresh with him. But then this plane crash came and after that it didn’t take very long and we had it on all the floors.

Q: As charge nurse, were you the one giving orders the night of the crash, even though you were only a year out of school?

A: Without a doubt. I guess I was a bit feisty, ordering the doctors around. But we had all these folks coming in from everywhere and that was my domain. I was in charge. And when you’re in charge, you’re in charge.

Q: Can you describe the scene that night?

A: It was just a terrific thing. It was horrible. We’d never had any accident like that before, to have that many people come in at once, or to have them so horribly burned and in so much pain, and with so much to do for them. But you do what you have to do.

This corpsman had his liquid morphine all drawn up into syringes ready to give and he went around with me. I think there were probably 35 or 36 people brought in. The people who were in the plane died. What we got was the people living in the trailer park. Of those, I think there were 15 or 17 fatalities and, of course, those went right to the morgue. The others went on stretchers and the ones that weren’t too bad, we could take care of.

Q: Were children among the victims?

A: Oh, yes. They were all different ages. It was young families that lived there. At least, I would consider them young now. Then, people in their 30s, they were old, to me.

Q: Was the scene one of total chaos, given more victims than beds?

A: It was and it wasn’t. We were the only accident ward there was, so they all came to us. But they sort of dribbled in because they couldn’t bring them all at once. There was only one ambulance bringing them, and then, of course, I have a strong feeling that the police did most of the transporting.

But there was no time to interview anybody. We had to give them emergency treatment. We had them on stretchers that came down from the different floors. We had them in the hallway. We were treating everywhere. We had mailing tags and we tied the tags to their toes and wrote down their vital signs and the medicines that we had given them on that tag. We hadn’t any idea what their names were and some of them weren’t recognizable anyway, they were burned so bad. They were horribly burned and the ones that were still breathing, we treated. It was burns mostly. I don’t recall there were that many fractures.

Q: How did you treat burns in those days?

A: The treatment for burns then was just Vaseline and stuff. We had to get the burns debrided and cleaned up after we got their clothes off.

I can smell it now when I think if it. I’m not sure whether some of them died once they got up onto the floor or not, but we saved a good bit. I guess that’s the most traumatic thing I’ve ever been through.

Q: How long did the incident last?

A: Because I was in charge of the place, I stayed until they were all taken care off. I think I went back to my room at 4 in the morning. So, 12 hours of nonstop trauma after working a full eight-hour shift. I was then back on duty at 7 that morning. There was no calling in sick in those days. But you didn’t think about it, you just did what you had to do.

Q: What did you do after the incident?

A: Not long afterward the director or nurses asked if I would consider being an instructor in the school of nursing. I never had any training to do that, but I did all right. I did that until 1945.

Q: Where did you live once you were married?

A: We lived at the corner of Brackett and Bramhall Streets. It was a private home and we had two rooms, with one bathroom for the whole house, including three other apartments. A lot of people in Portland rented out their rooms at that time. Anyway, I think it’s a medical building now. Then in 1949 we moved to the house I’m in now. I’d had two children by then, and then had three more.

Q: Your neighborhood was originally built to house shipyard workers during the war, is that right?

A: Yes. It was built in 1943. This whole community here was nothing but a big field then. It was called Stanwood Farms. Broadview Park also was a shipyard development. That was barracks and duplex houses. They’ve since been torn down and there are all big, new houses in there. Where the high school is now they had Quonset huts. Those were gone too soon after the war. Where I am remained because it was built as individual houses.

Q: What did you and your husband do after the war?

A: I did private duty nursing through the ‘50s. It was being one-on-one with a very sick patient for a few days or several weeks, whatever the case might be. You’d be on call until someone was sick enough. Then, I had one case at Mercy that lasted from March until June. Well, from being there for three months I somehow wove myself into a job and worked there nights, 11 to 7, for the next 22 years until I retired in 1985. I started out as a float nurse and then ended up as a night supervisor.

My husband came out of the Navy and thought he was going to be a civilian. But times were rough for us and he wasn’t happy doing civilian work. He didn’t feel we were secure, so he went back into the Navy soon enough that he didn’t lose his time. He served another 30 years and retired as a chief petty officer, having traveled all over.

Q: So, he went on duty and the family stayed in South Portland?

A: Yes, because I had my work and family nearby and we knew that if we’d have gone with him, we’d have been alone in port a lot of the time anyway while he was out on a ship. He thought it was better for the children to be in a stable home and he’d do the traveling. But he wanted us to be secure, so he bought this place in May of 1949 and was back on board ship in June.

Q: Was it hard raising your family with your husband away so often?

A: It was no problem. I worked nights all while the children were little. So, I had someone come and stay with them at night. When I came home that person went home and I got the children off to school. I was here for lunchtime and when they came home from school. I slept in between time and got a nap in before I went back to work. And my husband was always home for Christmas and holidays and such. Yes, there were a lot of times he wasn’t home, but he was home enough — I had five children [laughs].

Q: Other than the Long Creek Air Tragedy, did you ever have any other brushes with history?

A: When President Johnson came to Portland — he was campaigning or something — we went to city hall. All the kids wanted to see him. I said, “Oh, we’ll see him some other time, I’m not going to try and beat that traffic tonight.” Well, John, the baby, said, “But he’s alive tonight!” and so we went. We were right up by the rope barrier and when he walked by the children could have reached out and touched him. You could almost smell his perfume as he walked by. We were surprised to get so close so soon after President Kennedy was killed. I think about it now.

Q: Do you remember what you were doing when JFK was shot?

A: I was sleeping. My kids who were in high school and then burst into the home and told me the president had been shot. There was no more going to sleep after that. We were glued to the television.

Q: Television was still fairly new then. Do you remember your family’s first set?

A: It was in 1953. Ed, my husband, had been taking the

kids out to Thornton Heights. They had a big television in the window of an appliance store. They’d go up and watch through the window. But he said the children got too fidgety there on the street, so eventually he decided we had to have our own. The picture was pretty snowy at first, but it got better after a while. In those days you had to have a big antennae on top of the house. I mean, the house sure looked top heavy with that thing on it.

Q: You’ve lived in South Portland for 65 years. What do you like about it?

A: It’s just a nice, comfortable community. And we have a nice police force. Do you realize I’m on a cop card? The police department had trading cards made up about 10 years ago and I was on one representing the elderly of South Portland, pictured with the chief of police. I was elated. I thought that was quite an honor.

Q: What sort of place was South Portland to raise children?

A: This was a lovely neighborhood for the children. So many of the kids who grew up here have come hack to see me over the years and they all echo the same thing. They say every home they were welcome in and every mother was their mother.

Q: How did nursing change over the years?

A: Oh, my goodness, nursing has changed so much. The war changed nursing. What it did was, it brought the men into it. Nursing had been a female thing, but after the war the corpsmen came back and they had been in the medical field. When they started working, that’s when the pay raises came into it for the nurses. As I said, my first paycheck in 1943 was $18.90 for 48 hours. But by 1949 I was bringing home $35 a week. Then, when I was doing private duty in the 1950s, the pay went up to $1 an hour. I remember every hour that’d go by I’d think, hey, I just earned another dollar. That was a lot of money back then, when milk was 10 cents a quart, bread was 8 cents a loaf. When I retired in 1985, I was working nights as a supervisor responsible for the whole hospital and I was getting $12 an hour. A couple of years after I retired the woman who worked with me was getting double that. Today, nurses get very well paid.

The technology also has made nursing different. They don’t have personal nursing care like they did. But then, they don’t need it. People aren’t in the hospital for as long. Take, for instance, having a baby. Time was, you’d be in the hospital 10 or 12 days when you had a baby back in the ‘40s. Then in the ‘50s you’d be in for about a week. Now, it’s kind of drive-by. They’re in and out. For a hernia operation or to have an appendix out, you’d be in for several days. Now, it’s day surgery. There was more to do for people then because they were in longer. They had to be taken care of. Some would be in for months at a time. You got to know them, got to know their families.

Q: Why did you retire?

A: My husband had Parkinson’s disease, and when I was 62 I cut down to three days a week so I could care for him. But it had been catching up with him and eventually I had a full-time job taking care of him, so he didn’t have to be institutionalized. He lasted another 10 years and they were good years. It was just the last five years that he really needed custodial care.

Q: When you look back on your life, what do you see as the highlights?

A: My nursing career is very important to me. My family is foremost and I wouldn’t have been able to do for my children if I had not had an opportunity to work. In my day, if you went to high school, you had really accomplished something. Anyone who was a high school graduate, they had really done well. It was men who needed the jobs and it was the women who maintained the homelife, but I always maintained that a woman needed a profession. That was my drive, to have a profession that I could support myself and, if needed, support my children. And I did. Because if anything had happened that I had been widowed, I could still take care of my children.

And my working didn’t slow me up any. I was a Campfire (Girl) leader for 10 years and involved in Boy Scouts and the PTA. At one time I had four PTAs to attend to every month, with children at Dyer School, Reynolds School, the junior high and the high school. And I tell you, I attended them. We attended basketball games faithfully, along with football and field hockey. I do miss not being on the bleachers any more now that I don’t have anyone still in school.

Q: What do you do these days?

A: I keep busy. My daughter Miriam is a teacher in Scarborough and I do odd jobs for any teacher, whatever they bring home for me. I do a lot of cutting and pasting, making up booklets for the children and what not.

Q: Do you get out and about much?

A: I went to my Mercy alumni banquet this past Sunday. I am an honorary member of the Mercy Hospital School of Nursing. That’s quite an honor, to be made a member of a school you didn’t even attend. I remember going to the opening of Mercy Hospital on State Street and thinking how wonderful it would be to work in such a state-of-theart facility. It was such a nice place. Maine General at the time still had 24 people or so in big, open wards. I thought it would be just heaven to work there, but never thought I would. Now, Maine General is gone and I consider myself a Mercy nurse.

Q: Based on your life experience, what advice would you have for a young person?

A: You’ve got to have a good work ethic or you’re going to be lost. You’ve got to be healthy and you’ve got to be positive. You’ve got to have a good, cheery attitude, and don’t have a chip on your shoulder. And, when you go to school, you’ve got to come out with something you can get a job at. You’ve got to be able to make a living. You’ve got to be able to pay that rent. You’ve got to be able to buy that baby new shoes.

Q: You said last week that you got into nursing because you wanted to help people. Do you feel like you met that goal?

A: I feel that I accomplished it. I feel that I’ve made a difference. I really do. I’d do it all over again. There isn’t anything else I’d do differently. I’ve just had a very good life.

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