Lydia is Maggie’s oldest daughter. She is a sensible, composed young woman. When we first meet her in Saint Maggie, she is serving as a nurse to Grandpa O’Reilly, who is in bed with a cold. Throughout the novel, though, Lydia’s nursing skills become more evident so that by the end of the story, after a seeing her in action after a traumatic event, Blaineton’s Dr. Lightner has this to say:
“You should be very proud of your daughter, Maggie. She is quite a nurse. And that Patrick – he has a natural gift. When things settle down, I am thinking of asking both of them to apprentice with me. The town is growing. I need help.”
In the 1860s, there were two routes to become a doctor and either way would teach prospective physicians what they needed to know: 1) attend medical school, or 2) apprentice with a working doctor. Most medical schools were closed to women, though. The first woman to push past the barricades was Elizabeth Blackwell, who earned a medical degree in 1849. Being accepted by a medical college was so daunting that in 1868 Dr. Blackwell, her sister Dr. Emily Blackwell, and Dr. Marie Zakrzewska established Women’s Medical College of the New York Infirmity.
But the opportunity to attend medical school is still five years in the future for Lydia. She is fortunate that Dr. Lightner is astute enough to see a gifted prospective physician regardless of sex. As Blaineton’s only doctor, Lightner is feeling the strain of seeing to the well-being of the growing town and is happy to have found a apprentices in Patrick and Lydia.
Under Lightner’s guidance, Lydia blossoms as a physician. Patrick enlists in the army in 1862, while Lydia continues to learn from Dr. Lightner. By Walk by Faith (set in 1863), she has become his his assistant.
Later, when the family relocates to Gettysburg, Lydia searches for a job in medicine. She locates Adela Edler, a German immigrant and midwife, who happens to be looking for an assistant. Once again, Lydia has had some experience in the field, and does well. But midwifery is put abruptly aside when Confederate and Union forces clash around Gettysburg.
As wounded men find their way to the old Smith home (as they did in many homes and public buildings in the town), Lydia finds herself in the middle of a field hospital. Despite having little in the way of supplies and help, Lydia remains practical and focused, as we can see in this bit of dialog:
Once they were out of the room, Maggie whispered. “They are terribly injured! We aren’t able to care for them.”
“Yes, we can,” Lydia said. “I am able to treat most of their wounds. The man with the leg injury needs a surgeon, though. I’ll try to find one after we take care of the others. If I cannot locate a surgeon,” she took a breath, “well, then I shall have to operate on him myself. Fortunately, I have some ether in my supplies.”
So, the resourceful Lydia hurries to the Union School, another ad hoc hospital where she has been told there is a doctor. She hopes she can watch him do a few surgeries and possibly assist before she has to go back to the house.
Eventually, she spotted him. He was one of the town’s physicians. A man with an impressive beard, he had his sleeves rolled up to his elbows and wore an apron smeared with blood. Catching up with him, Lydia said, “Sir, at our home we have a man who may need surgery.”
Using a bloodied hand, he gestured at the wounded strewn around him. “So may more than a few of these, my dear.”
“I understand. May I observe a few surgeries and perhaps assist once or twice?”
The doctor raised a bushy eyebrow.
“I trained with the doctor in my old hometown. I am well-versed in many types of care for the injured and have observed one leg amputation. But if I need to do one—”
“You? Perform an amputation? You’re but a girl.”
Lydia straightened her shoulders. “Sir, I am a widow. I have cared for the ill in my family since I was ten years old. I have assisted Dr. Lightner for two years and I am also a midwife. I also am no stranger to surgery.”
“Surgery, eh? Such as?”
“Six caesarean sections, an appendectomy, an excision of a cancerous tumor from a woman’s bosom, and numerous items lodged in the fingers, hands and feet.”
The surgeon was impressed. “Well! I’ve never met a lady doctor before, but you sound as if you’ll do in a pinch. Come along with me.”
Her matter-of-fact manner and refusal to take “no” for an answer allows Lydia to push through the barricades during the crisis in Gettysburg. She support from her family, who now takes it for granted that she is a doctor and are quick to tell those they meet.
In A Time to Heal, when Capt. Philip Frost, from Letterman General Hospital arrives at their door to evaluate the Smith home’s patients, he is greeted by Frankie, who says:
“I’ll fetch my sister, Dr. Lydia Lape. She is in charge of our hospital and should be the one to accompany you.”
There was a surprised pause. “Your sister is a doctor?”
“Oh, yes,” Frankie said breezily. “She studied with our town doctor in New Jersey and has also worked as a midwife here in Gettysburg. She is quite a good doctor.”
Don’t argue, Frost. She is Dr. Lape and she is breaking new ground!
Speaking of breaking new ground, when Lydia’s long skirts get in the way when she operates, she decides to wear men’s clothing instead while in surgery. Yes, our Lydia is a revolutionary, but eminently practical, as well.
I’m going to leave Lydia here, with some telling dialog from the scene in which she first puts on a pair of trousers:
Once Lydia had on the pants and a shirt, she turned so her mother could check the fit. Maggie raised her eyebrows, for her daughter had a round, shapely bottom. She cleared her throat. “Well, if anything our men will be exceedingly glad to see you going.”
“What?” Lydia looked around, trying to see her behind. “Is it very bad?”
“It is quite revealing, Liddy.”
To her surprise, her daughter shrugged. “Oh, well, they’ll just have to put up with it.”
Tomorrow: Lydia’s younger sister, Frankie. This little nineteenth-century revolutionary wants to be a minister!
Janet Stafford, Squeaking Pips Founder