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Interview with Regina Schiffman [01/14/2004]

Ruth Stuart:

We are interviewing today Jean Schiffman as a member of the Women Overseas Service League, San Antonio, Texas unit. This is January the 14th, 2004. Interviewer is Ruth Stuart, assisted by Carol Havegood. Jean, start in by telling us a little bit about your early life and what led you into nursing, and then the Army.

Regina Schiffman:

Well, well, I was born and raised in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, went through elementary, junior and high school there, and decided I wanted to become a nurse. And went into what we called in those days nurses' training at Hahnemann Hospital School of Nursing in Philadelphia and, by completion of a three year program, I was an RN and went to work in New York City at Columbia Presbyterian Medical Center. I worked in the operating room of the Neurological Institute. From there went into the Army in 1949, and went through basic at Fort Sam. You want all of my military?

Ruth Stuart:

Well, let's go back a little bit and tell me a little about what got you interested in nursing, and then why, when you wanted to join the military, why you chose the Army.

Regina Schiffman:

Is there anything else? My early years, we were essentially poor, and I had two brothers, mother and father. And, I don't know, just I couldn't tell you precisely why I decided to go into nursing, except that I always wanted to do that. And, incidentally, while I was in Hahnemann, I was in the Cadet Corp. It came into being during WW II, and I was a member of the cadet corp for my last two years, two of three years. Is that, is that enough about that?

Ruth Stuart:

It's okay, yeah.

Regina Schiffman:

And then I asked the question, you know, how much of my military history, I'll tell you about.

Ruth Stuart:

Okay.

Regina Schiffman:

I'll go, start with my education first. I was an RN from Hahnemann. In 1962, I received my BS from ____ college here in San Antonio, while I was on active duty. In '66 I received my masters from the University of California, San Francisco Medical Center, still on active duty, and I retired in September of '70. That was 33 years ago. During that time, I had seven years of overseas duty. I had -- in 1951 I spent a year in Korea. And, well, I'd never been camping before. It was quite an experience. But it was sort of interesting because, despite the fact that we had hot weather in the summer and cold weather in the winter, I was healthy the whole year. Many people got ill, particularly in the cold weather. I did bring some pictures showing the type of life we had. We lived in tents with potbellied stoves and in the OR. After six months I became OR supervisor the young first lieutenant. And so my last six months there I was OR supervisor and also in charge of central materiel. Let's see, my next overseas assignment was in Germany.

Ruth Stuart:

Before we leave Korea--

Regina Schiffman:

Yeah.

Ruth Stuart:

-- tell us a little bit about your work there as a nurse.

Regina Schiffman:

It was fantastic. I never knew as an operating room nurse, I never knew that technique could be carried out to the extent that it was in Korea -- you know, in the field. Our hospital was a tent, initially -- later they put it into a frame -- but it was a tent with just canvas over the dirt for the floor. We had a potbellied stove in there. The patients we had -- the stretchers were brought in, we put on horses; we didn't have operating room tables. Our enlisted personnel were really great and they devised an actual scrub sink. They had a big tank outside where they heated water and we could actually scrub with not ice cold water for surgery, and I did bring some pictures to show these things. Our living was really hard. In the winter time, you'd wake up in your sleeping bag and we slept on cots with sleeping bags and looked up and there were icicles because our potbellied stove line would be frozen and no heat. Then we didn't want to get out of the sleeping bags because then we had to go to the latrine -- and there's a picture of that, too. It's a tent where the seats would be frozen. That's a wild, bad awakening in the morning. Really got you going, though.

Ruth Stuart:

I guess.

Regina Schiffman:

And overall, our food was relatively okay. We ate out of mess kits, and I think -- one thing, like our shower broke down so that for six months we strictly were washing out of our helmet. And I think one thing that really strikes me is that you really learn to appreciate the very simple things in life, like being able to take a bath, being in a bed, being able to drink milk. We didn't get -- we got that powdered stuff or whatever it was over there. And there was a picture there where I went to Tokyo to meet a regular army board. I had TDY and that was like in heaven because I was able to do these things and realize that, you know what, these things are simple and yet I'd been missing them. We had wonderful -- we really had a wonderful group there, like one big family. We were out in the field, not near any town or anything like that. There were civilians not allowed, except we had some young boys cleaning for us and that was about it. Is that enough about Korea?

Ruth Stuart:

If that's what you want to say, okay. Go on.

Regina Schiffman:

I think that's enough.

Ruth Stuart:

Okay.

Regina Schiffman:

Everybody, we'd work, depending on the patient load, if we worked 16 hours, 18 hours, until you were ready to flop, really, and then somebody else would take over until they were ready to flop.

Ruth Stuart:

Was there any recreation?

Regina Schiffman:

Well, we used to walk in the hills where they had seen that there were no land mines. I did get to go one trip to Seoul, Korea, which was -- I haven't been there since it's been rebuilt, but all -- I just have memories of how it was. And I did get to -- I boarded a Navy ship -- going up the old ladder, Jacob's ladder, which was quite an experience. But that, those were my recreations. Actually, towards the end we did have a club tent -- the end of my stay. But it was nothing, not much more than just all of us meeting.

Ruth Stuart:

Uh-huh.

Regina Schiffman:

Nothing very extravagant.

Ruth Stuart:

And then leaving Korea -- what were your feelings about leaving there?

Regina Schiffman:

Well, actually what happened was about several weeks before I was supposed to rotate, I received a message from my brother here in the States that my father had died, and the Red Cross had never notified me. I shouldn't say that I hate the Red Cross, I don't hate the Red Cross, but I've always had very ill feelings about the fact that I was never notified. And the chief nurse over there did make arrangements for me to leave a couple of weeks earlier than I was supposed to rotate. I think my overall feelings about my tour there was it was a, an awakening to things that I wasn't used to, certainly. And, of course, that was true when I was in basic training, too. I'd never lived in a community before, and at that time we did. We lived in just a big community, but because I was first lieutenant, I was in a room with just five people rather than 25 people. But, it -- as I said I went, I decided to go regular Army, and I did. So I guess I really liked it and wanted to stay in the Army. And after that, when I first came back -- Isn't that weird? I can't remember where I was assigned when I first came back -- I think it was to -- Yes, it was to Fort Knox. Their old hospital, old nursing home -- nurses quarters I should say -- nurses well -- nurses quarters. And I lived right above where they shovelled in the soft coal. It's a great experience. It was a good experience, being back in the States and not going to a big hospital at that time. I was ready for a small hospital, but I didn't stay there long. I did get transferred to Aberdeen Proving Grounds and that was an experience inasmuch as there were just two operating room nurses, and we also took care of OB, like delivery room and all this good stuff. Plus, they were shooting off all those guns. I felt like I was back in the old country. But that was short lived also. I then went to Valley Forge. This in all in a short period of time. Because in 1962, I had orders for Germany. And I went to Langstuhl, Germany. You hear about Langstuhl now, but patients going through there coming back to the States. I spent two years there in the operating room. And I could have rotated then, but I had the opportunity to go to become chief nurse to a field unit outside of Frankfurt so I lived in Frankfurt for a year and I was with the 31st Surgical Hospital. I came back in '58 and to Brook Army Medical Center. And I spent four years at Brook here only because I asked to be left here so that I could finish my BS program. And what I did was I worked light duty in the operating room and took classes during the day and carried mostly nine hours. So I was meeting myself coming and going. And I used to type, not type -- tape, excuse me, tape my lectures and reference work and then, while I was sleeping, I'd play them. My mother was with me then. It drove her sort of wild. But then in '60, I had to have surgery, and I'm still going to school and that's -- I just took one course that semester and it was a microbiology. Everyone says "microbiology, wow." So the night before my surgery, the day before my surgery, I went in for my mid-term and I had my surgery and I went on convalescent leave and my kid brother was stationed in Bermuda with ______ so I went over there for my convalescent leave, came back and got on A in microbiology. I graduated in, let's see -- I think I got the years messed up. Yeah, in '62 I graduated magna cum laude, despite working and going to school and all that.

Ruth Stuart:

That's terrific.

Regina Schiffman:

And immediately I got orders for Japan. So I took my mother and our cocker spaniel and went to Japan. And it was great. You know, we were in the housing area, had a full-time maid. I was in charge of the operating room and central supply and I learned how to play duplicate bridge and learned to golf while I was there. That was my country club assignment. And put in for graduate school and came back and went to graduate school for just one year and got my MS. From there I went to South Carolina -- can't even think of the name of the place. At any rate, from there I went to Fort Benning, and I taught operating room nursing until I retired in '70. That's the end of my military career.

Ruth Stuart:

In teaching operating room nursing, you were working with graduate nurses that were already in the Army?

Regina Schiffman:

I was working with lieutenants and captains, yes. And, actually, that was when Vietnam was going on, and they'd finish my program and they'd go over but I never went over. It was an interesting program, and nice, young, eager students. It was very nice.

Ruth Stuart:

Did you like the teaching?

Regina Schiffman:

Yes, I did. I was ready for it, I think, and with my years of operating room experience plus my education I think I was pretty well qualified. What else can I tell you? My afterlife?

Ruth Stuart:

Well, before we get to that, what are your major memories of your career?

Regina Schiffman:

Oh, I don't know, I didn't mention, I don't believe, that in basic I had gone to Letterman out in San Francisco and that was my first time out on the West Coast. And a group of four of us drove out-- it was sort of interesting, in this clinky old Ford that was about ready to fall apart. But we were going from basic to Letterman. We got to Letterman, and the car looked around and said, "that's all." It saw the hills and said, "that's all." That was a great experience, and I've loved that area ever since, actually. Because I was there just for about a year, and then I went to graduate school there, and then, after I retired, I lived in the hills of Oakland for three years.

Ruth Stuart:

So you had a little experience in that area then?

Regina Schiffman:

Yeah. And I -- you know, Korea was a certainly a highlight that taught me an awful lot -- of a young person, a young nurse. I think that was my greatest learning experience in the Army. The rest was fine. I mean, I really did enjoy my Army career.

Ruth Stuart:

And do you have any -- do you, your experience as caring for combatants and working in the military through a war, did that affect your view of war in any way?

Regina Schiffman:

Well, if I, you don't mind my saying so, war is hell, no matter how you look at. And, you know, very little is said about what happened in Korea. We hear about Vietnam, Vietnam and, of course, now Iraq. Korea was a hard time and, actually, it's something that never ended. We still have troops there. There's still, I don't know, do I feel about war time in general? I think it's, I don't know, there has to be a better way. But war has always been in our history, and I guess it always will be.

Ruth Stuart:

Since your retirement, have you joined veterans organizations aside from --

Regina Schiffman:

I belong to the American Legion, yeah. Other organizations I've joined have to do with my loss of vision.

Ruth Stuart:

Tell us a little bit about that.

Regina Schiffman:

About my loss of vision?

Ruth Stuart:

Uh-huh.

Regina Schiffman:

Well, I guess they call it macular degeneration. And it's where the macula is the most acute vision spot in the retina. I don't want to get too technical, but there are two types. There's wet and dry and I have -- I'm unfortunate enough to have the wet type, which 10 percent are wet and 90 percent are dry. The wet you actually hemorrhage in the back of your eye, and it obscures your central vision and the macula. And so I have peripheral vision. I can see around the sides, top and bottom, but if I look at something I can't read it. If I looked at you, your face isn't clear.

Ruth Stuart:

You've done some major adaptation though, to improve your living with this?

Regina Schiffman:

Up to a talking computer, and my closed-circuit TVs, and talking books. And what else? I don't know, I have all kinds of things. I never go without. This is a 9-power magnifier so that I can read this if I try to.

Ruth Stuart:

That didn't have anything to do with your military career, did it?

Regina Schiffman:

No, it was genetic. It had to do with my age and genetics. Yeah, I think, you know -- my mother was never diagnosed with macular degeneration, but when I think back -- she died in '79 -- and she had an eye problem and it got to the point where she didn't read. She'd watch TV, but she still played cards. She taught me how to play bridge when I was this big. And, but I think that she probably had macular degeneration. So I think maybe it was a genetic thing.

Ruth Stuart:

Well, you certainly had a notable career as an Army nurse. And we appreciate you sharing this information with us.

Regina Schiffman:

Well, I hope it was adequate. And that's, that's my life.

Ruth Stuart:

Thank you very much.

 
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