Entering the hospital barracks, Louisa’s heart ached. Although she had experience doctoring horses with her father, she had been unprepared for the emotions she experienced in connection with human suffering. Miss Nightingale had been reluctant to allow Louisa contact with the patients as she was only a volunteer, not one of her nun nurses. However, Louisa proved reliable and the burden of nursing was so great that Florence Nightingale allowed Louisa to expand her duties from wash maid to changing the bed linens and performing menial sanitation tasks. Eventually, she was entrusted with changing the dressings of less critical wounds. Louisa was confident she could do more; however, she was wise enough to wait for Miss Nightingale to make that determination. She felt it would come in time.
Louisa had been visiting the hospital barracks for several days now, but the empathy she felt for the suffering soldiers had not lessened. Often the odors of dried blood, fever sweats, vomit, and rotting flesh turned her stomach, but she was determined to serve and fulfill her duties. Her heart ached for them, and for their loved ones at home that had no inkling of the condition of these men.
The patients enjoyed Louisa’s company. She always introduced herself as Mrs. Webb, not only to maintain decorum with the lonely men and the orderlies that often behaved so poorly, but also to reinforce her own connection with Thomas.
Because she was an early riser and managed to stay with a task until it was completed, Louisa had some extra time in the afternoons before the volunteers went home for the day. She began to visit with those soldiers whose ailments were such that they had enough strength to converse. Louisa would read to them from her Holy Bible or from the works of Elizabeth Barrett Browning. Many were recovering from wounds that had claimed an arm or leg. Several wore bandages across their faces, having injured their eyes. They would likely lose their eyesight. She hurt for these young men and for their loved ones that would have to help them adapt to the changes in their identities and abilities. Would it help if they were to correspond with their families? Maybe it would lessen the anguish if they could be prepared before the soldiers arrived home.
“Excuse me, Miss Nightingale,” Louisa courageously sought out her overseer, “might you have a moment?” Florence Nightingale had few spare moments. However, she was beginning to realize that it was most efficient to give the tenacious Mrs. Webb her audience at the earliest opportunity, for Mrs. Webb would have her audience!
“Yes Mrs. Webb, I would have just a moment. What might be on your mind this time?”
Louisa got right to the point. “I would like your permission to assist the patients in corresponding with their loved ones. As word has most assuredly reached England of the recent battles at Balaclava and Inkerman, they must be wondering about their men. It might help to alleviate some concerns the soldiers have regarding their … uh, altered conditions. Just knowing they are alive ... “Louisa paused. She wondered about Thomas, “Of course, I would tend to my regular duties first.” She wanted to continue to list all her ideas in order to persuade Miss Nightingale, but Louisa felt it best to offer up the facts and wait for a response.
“And you are confident you can keep up?”
Did this woman never tire? Louisa was beginning to feel the strain of her own duties. She knew that Miss Nightingale spent long hours in the evenings documenting conditions of the hospital, writing letters to the War Office requesting additional supplies, and keeping notes of the efficacy of various treatments and procedures. All of this was done after making her evening rounds in the barracks.
“The women from the villages are becoming more skilled in the laundry. They are working hard and learning to be more organized. My duties as overseer are becoming less needed. As I dress the men’s wounds, some of them express concerns for their families. I believe it would … help them … heal.” Although she believed she was presenting a strong argument, Louisa was nervous, and her concern for the families of the soldiers was touching close to home. She was frustrated that her eyes were stinging. She could feel her face redden.
Florence looked at her steadily. “Are you certain you can keep up?” Why was she asking again?
“Certain.” Louisa was determined to show conviction.
“And you are feeling well? Has your stomach settled since we arrived?” Louisa was unaware that Miss Nightingale had noticed her seasickness. Now she was truly embarrassed. The truth was, Louisa had been on land for two weeks and her stomach still felt a bit queasy in the mornings. She attributed it to the empathy she had for the wounded and suffering men. The empathy and the stench …
To learn more about this intrepid young woman ...