All though high school I was a volunteer at Fairfax Hospital. They used to call them candy stripers, and yes I wore a goofy red and white striped jumper, but technically I was a member of the hospital auxiliary. The volunteers–both teenagers and adults–would sit in a room and wait for calls to come in from various wards and labs in the hospital. The day chairman–Lynn, a really great woman–would announce the job and whoever wanted it would grab the slip of paper on which she’d written down the task. Blood bank to 9 west, or 24-urine from 6 east to lab, or wheel someone from outpatient surgery to the lobby to be picked up by his family, etc.
I loved doing this. I never had the slightest interest in becoming a nurse or a doctor or anything else medical, but I really enjoyed helping people at the hospital. From that experience and from my own experience in hospitals, I have come to recognize that nurses are HEROES. During the labor and delivery of both my children, it was the nurses who did the lionesses’ share of the work. And when my kids have had surgeries, the doctors seemed to breeze in and out in a flash while the nurses helped us prepare and recover from the procedures. If you’ve ever been in a hospital, you know what I’m talking about.
So one of my favorite parts of my work for the Navy-Marine Corps Relief Society has always been interviewing the Society’s phenomenal visiting nurses. NMCRS has a cadre of several dozen nurses working around the country with combat-injured veterans, new moms and their babies, and retired service members and their spouses. The nurses visit whenever needed and for as long as they are needed, at absolutely no cost to the patient. They provide equal parts empathy, compassion, and education in addition to any actual medical assistance. They are counselors, cheerleaders, job coaches, social workers, surrogate moms and grandmas. They are there 24/7 for their patients.
Today is the last day of National Nurses Week, which began last Friday on Florence Nightingale’s birthday.
Here are excerpts from and links to the five profiles I wrote of NMCRS nurses. They are heroes, not only to all of their patients, but to me.
In New Orleans, Louisiana in the late 80s, next to Tulane Medical Center, was the Veterans Administration hospital and Charity Hospital. While in junior high and high school, Greta Ellison would take the bus after school to Tulane, where her mother worked. Walking to the Medical Center, she would see patients and would-be patients with an array of injuries and ailments who were seeking medical care and other kinds of help as well. The need was vast, she observed. “It was utter chaos,” she said. “I had this extreme sadness and empathy at the same time, and I didn’t know what to do.”
When she was a senior in high school, a friend of Ellison’s was in an accident and was admitted to the intensive care unit at the charity hospital. She went to visit and was appalled by the patients lining the halls, and the hospital overrun with sick people. When she buzzed for admittance to the ICU, she was stunned by the angelic appearance, the poise, and the confidence of the nurse who welcomed her, gently but frankly explained the condition of her friend who she had come to visit, and guided her to his room. “I knew right then that I wanted to be a nurse,” Ellison recalled.
(I really related to what she had to say about those early days of motherhood)
If you’ve never given birth, it’s easy to underestimate the intensity of the physical and emotional transition to parenthood. “It’s just a dark path and nobody shines a light on it,” explained NMCRS traditional visiting nurse Sandy Thompson. “I tell moms, ‘you’re not crazy. Your body will heal and you’ll return to yourself.’”
Thompson knows that those first days, weeks, and months of parenting a newborn can be beautiful but grueling. “The moms can’t tell day from night and they feel like they don’t have choices,” she said. “You empower them with personal choices. You show them that they do have skills. You’re cheerleading and building confidence. You’re pulling out people’s gifts.”
At 107 years old, Mary lives alone in her family home and walks out to the mailbox every day. She doesn’t drive anymore and someone comes in to clean, but she still pays her own bills. Mary’s independence is possible thanks to the Society’s visiting nurse, Peggy Walker, who checks in on Mary once a week, just as she does for dozens of other Navy and Marine Corps retirees or their spouses. “It’s so rewarding to be able to help people live safely at home, if that’s what they want,” Walker said. “Mary inspires me.”
No stranger to the services of the Navy-Marine Corps Relief Society, at 27 Mary had a high-risk pregnancy and had to deliver at a civilian hospital instead of the Navy hospital. Her baby girl weighed only three pounds. “She didn’t have the money for a civilian hospital,” Walker explained. “She asked her husband, ‘how are we going to pay for this?’ and he said, ‘don’t worry about it. I went to Navy Relief and they’re going to pay for it.’” Mary’s daughter is now 80 and lives across the street from Mary.
(I wondered if she became a nurse hoping she would work with a doctor who looked like George Clooney one day. I didn’t ask that question.)
As a high school student, Diana Patterson discovered nursing through the television screen. “I used to watch ER and that got me hooked,” she laughed. But after earning her bachelor’s degree in public health—thinking she would go into medical administration—she went to nursing school and realized she loved both direct patient care and mentoring other nurses. She returned to school once again to pursue a master’s degree so she could teach nursing.
Meanwhile, Patterson’s professional interests merged with her personal life when her brother deployed to Iraq in 2004 with the Army. “When I was in nursing school I had the opportunity to meet an admiral,” Patterson recalled. “He asked me if I could have any job, what would it be. I told him I would love to work with returning soldiers with PTSD. When my brother came back from Iraq I started hearing about the things he and his friends had gone through, and I was hoping there was something to help them.”
Trusting her own instincts and her body’s ability to do what it was meant to do, Esther Valier gave birth to her daughter Leala (her second child) at home in rural Arizona in 1980, even after her physician fired her as a patient, refusing to provide prenatal care after she told him her birth plan. Unbeknownst to Valier, her daughter had an unusual congenital defect in which a small section of blood vessels in her intestines had atrophied, causing the baby to become extremely sick when she was only a few days old, jaundiced with a high bilirubin count. The local hospital rushed mother and child by ambulance to Tucson, more than three hours away, where they were better equipped to care for Leala, who required abdominal surgery a few days later. Valier and Leala stayed in Tucson for three-and-a-half weeks, which changed Valier’s life.
“My experience in the hospital with the nursing staff motivated me to become a nurse,” Valier explained. “The care we received, the role modeling from the nurses who were taking care of Leala launched my devotion to nursing.”