the mainstay of most informally trained wartime nurse aides

Tea Addict

Senior Member
Republic of Korea Korean
Hello everyone. I would like to know what "the mainstay of most informally trained wartime nurse aides" means in the following sentences:

I opted to pursue service as a wartime nurse, feeling that I might make the most impact tending to the injured soldiers than in knitting scarves and mittens for them on the front. I was assigned to a detachment near Torquay, and at first, we passed the time furiously making bandages and swabs and setting up the wards in the makeshift hospital we’d converted from the town hall. Once the wounded soldiers began pouring through the doors, thinking itself became a luxury. As I wheeled the bloodied boys through the halls, I heard mention of their battles—Marne, Antwerp, among others—but my days passed by in a blur of cleaning bedpans and urinals, scrubbing vomit, preparing hygienic towels for doctors as they passed from patient to patient, and changing dressings on suppurating wounds—the mainstay of most informally trained wartime nurse aides.

- Marie Benedict, The Mystery of Mrs. Christie, Part One, Chapter Eleven

This is a mystery novel published in the United States in 2020. The story is mainly set at the present time in 1926, when Agatha Christie suddenly went missing for eleven days, but also goes back to the past time in the 1910's. In this scene, set in 1913 to 1914, the narrator Agatha is serving as a wartime nurse during the war.

In this part, I wonder what the "mainstay" would mean in particular.
I learned in the dictionary that it means "a chief support," so I guess it would be like an assuring existence one can rely on, but I cannot understand its meaning here.

Would it be perhaps, changing dressings and cleaning bedpans were "the main tasks/the majority of the work" of many of informally trained wartime nurse...? But here, I am just guessing. :D


I would very much appreciate your help. :)
 
  • Packard

    Senior Member
    USA, English
    Mainstay is defined in the dictionary. This is Collin's definition:
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    They were trained to do the most menial tasks normally assigned to fully trained nurses. They were not sufficiently trained to perform more advanced work, like cleaning wounds, etc.
     

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    Tea Addict

    Senior Member
    Republic of Korea Korean
    Dear Packard,

    Thank you very much for the detailed explanation.
    So "mainstay" would mean the most basic part of something!

    In that case, would it be okay to think that those tasks (cleaning the bedpans, preparing hygienic towels...) were the most basic part (the simplest/non-complicated part) of the nurse aides' work? Or would it mean that those tasks took up a majority of the nurse aides' work...?

    Perhaps I am imagining it, but I guess I am confused because there is "main" in this word, as if it is the thickest and biggest branch and there might be some other twigs around it, as if it is the most central thing upon which all other things rely. :p
     

    Packard

    Senior Member
    USA, English
    It was the mainstay of the nurses aide's work, but not the mainstay of the real nurses' work.

    What they did was take up a lot of the labor and that allowed the actual nurses to treat more patients.
     

    AutumnOwl

    Senior Member
    Swedish, Finnish
    but my days passed by in a blur of cleaning bedpans and urinals, scrubbing vomit, preparing hygienic towels for doctors as they passed from patient to patient, and changing dressings on suppurating wounds—the mainstay of most informally trained wartime nurse aides.
    These tasks are the most basic/easiest duties at a hospital (it was then, and still is), you don't need much introduction to do these things. It was also duties that took a lot of time, and was perhaps also physically demanding (for example carrying hot water, scrubbing bedpans and floors), remember there were not all those electric appliances we have today to do the cleaning and scrubbing. So it was the mainstay, both in being the simplest jobs, but also the jobs that took up most of the time of the nurse aides.
     

    Packard

    Senior Member
    USA, English
    I would modify what Autumn wrote.

    I agree that they are the most basic/easiest duties to teach.

    Autumn clearly points out that they were not necessarily the easiest to perform.
     

    Tea Addict

    Senior Member
    Republic of Korea Korean
    Dear Packard and AutumnOwl,

    Thank you very much for the explanations.
    So "mainstay" means that they were the easiest/simplest/most basic duties, in that they were not easy to perform (they were time-consuming and required labour) but they were easily taught without requiring much skill, being uncomplicated jobs.
    Probably "mainstay" tasks could be performed even by the novices, so it is described as the most basic duties.

    Now I think I am grasping why "mainstay" is used here all thanks to you! I sincerely appreciate your help. :)

    Edit: This is my smallest question, but would it be okay to think that "most" means "many" here, rather than modifying "informally" (meaning that they were very informally trained)...?
     

    Packard

    Senior Member
    USA, English
    Mainstay means those tasks that make up the most of your time in this situation. It represents the main things you do.

    The mainstay of nurses aides are simple tasks.

    The mainstay of firemen is putting out fires.

    The mainstay of fishermen is casting nets and retrieving them filled with fish.

    The mainstay of carpenters is building homes.

    Etc.
     

    Tea Addict

    Senior Member
    Republic of Korea Korean
    Dear Packard,

    Thank you very much for the explanation.
    So "mainstay" means "main things one does," "major tasks that make up most of the working time"!

    Wait... then I think I misunderstood the dictionary definition; I thought that "basic part" would mean "the simplest/easiest part which does not require skills," but building homes is not simple... o_O
    Would that meaning close to being "fundamental part", perhaps...?

    And, would it be okay to think that "most" in "most informally trained wartime nurse aides" would mean "many informally trained wartime nurse aides" rather than "very informally trained wartime nurse aides"...?
     

    Hermione Golightly

    Senior Member
    British English
    'Most' qualifies 'nurses', not 'informally trained'. I must say, after all this talk of 'mainstay', that I would not have used this word as it is used here. My choice would have been 'bulk'.

    The bulk of a nurse assistant's work requires little training, although it is essential for the patient's well-being.
     

    Tea Addict

    Senior Member
    Republic of Korea Korean
    Dear Hermione Golightly,

    Thank you very much for the explanation.
    So "most" modifies "nurses" meaning "a majority of nurses" rather than "informally trained"!

    And "mainstay" could be replaced with "bulk", in that it does not necessarily mean "basic/simple jobs" but means "a majority of jobs." I had been confused whether "mainstay" would in itself mean simple jobs, but it would just mean "a majority of" in this context!

    I truly appreciate your help. :)
     
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