Post by Christina Mantey

This post is the second in a series of five blog posts written by Christina Mantey, a research assistant on the Conceptualizing Recordkeeping as  Grief Work (CRAGW) project.  Christina has an interesting perspective on the emotional (and sometimes trauma-related) dimensions of archival work, having come to the field from a career in nursing. This series of blog posts is a personal account of her work as a research assistant with the CRAGW project and of her journey as a second-career archival graduate student. 

Part 1:  “Archiving Hurts”: How to Succeed and Fail in School

Part 2: Hospital Adventures


The hospital ward in which I found myself working in my early twenties was frightening and overwhelming, but was at least controlled. The deceptively charming managers and staff maintained order with a cool determination reminiscent of a Crimean War nurse. We all acquired a similar hardening eventually. They didn’t teach me this in nursing school, but nurses are ruthless. We see and experience things that break little pieces of our soul until we have built a slick veneer of “Don’t Mess With Me” armour to put on over our scrubs.

We also build an arsenal of abilities to wield throughout the day. Nurses have to be firm and caring, fast and precise, and completely knowledgeable on any health-related topic a patient or family member might lob at you. You can almost hear them thinking, “You don’t know what this random mole-looking thing on my back might be? Well, then. What do you know?”

You must be broadly conversant on a range of medical topics and not back down from any fight because you’re it. Nobody is going to step into the ring for you. Every day we would convince tiny elderly ladies with giant surgical scars that getting out of bed and walking was in their best interest, clean and re-bandage wounds that showed off internal organs, impale patients with needles of various sizes, and clean-up unspeakable messes while hopefully avoiding getting any “specimens” on our scrubs. You are at once a babysitter, a drug dealer, a maid, a waitress, and a fitness trainer. Oh yes, and their main medical caretaker. Throw in a few incontinent patients, a few immobile patients, and one that doesn’t-know-who-they-are-but-knows-you’re-trying-to-kill-them and you have the makings of a pretty normal day.

Safe to say, if nurses aren’t born tough, they become so quickly. My colleagues were not the sweet and doe-eyed nurses portrayed in the media, they were fighters who didn’t take the feces dished to them and wouldn’t let patients get in the way of their care. I was proud to work with such strong women and men, but I was troubled by the workplace atmosphere. Management didn’t shy away from assigning us heavy workloads if it meant revenue for our floor. Colleagues bragged about how few breaks they managed to take or how long it had been since they were able to sneak away to use the washroom. And just as we didn’t coddle patients, we refused to coddle ourselves. We may have just pinned an elderly man with dementia to the bed so he wouldn’t pull at his surgical wound, but we never talked about his eerily placid eyes. We may have just been verbally abused by a patient for not giving them every the pain medication they demanded, but we never confessed how sorely each word hit. We sucked it up and shoved it down and tried desperately to forget about it so that we could go home and do it all again the next day.

I didn’t feel supported by my superiors on the bad days, and there were many. On multiple occasions, I would hide in a supply closet to cry because I had just seen something awful, or had been yelled at, or had felt helpless to assist a dying patient.

I wanted something different. I didn’t like feeling pressured to work as hard and as fast as I could just so that the hospital could cycle through more patients to receive more money. I didn’t feel supported in the way I wanted to prioritize my time. I wanted to focus on the well-being of the patient, even if it took a few minutes longer. Every day I was forced to choose between the health of my patients and my personal health, and was punished for either choice: “You’ve taken your lunch break? Here’s a fifth patient.” Or, “You haven’t taken any breaks? What are you thinking? You’re supposed to get three every shift. You need to work on your time management.”

Predictably, after four years of this, I was done. I was ready for a career where people didn’t lose their lives regularly and where I wasn’t routinely scolded for doing my job. Archival studies seemed as far away from nursing as I could get: minimal people interaction and the subjects on which I would work were already dead. I was actually a little disappointed to discover how many similarities there were between nursing and archival studies. I had not left behind grieving families, or protocols for how to appropriately tend to subjects or too-specific questions beyond my pay grade.

Though some of my nursing skills followed me to my new career, I really enjoyed the atmosphere of thoughtful discourse and open-mindedness in the archival master’s program. It was a safe space to question the status quo and be realistic about what the job would entail. However, one particular class discussion caught me off guard and I reacted in a way I would never have foreseen and didn’t understand until I started working with Professor Douglas on this research.


P.S. As of this writing, our world is still in the grip of COVID-19 though vaccinations continue to be stalwartly injected. When it’s your turn (congrats!), I’d be obliged if you took a moment to mentally, if not verbally, appreciate the medical staff that are helping you. Not everyone is nice to them, and they’re just looking after you. Also, they could probably take you down if necessary. Best to be on their good side.