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Meet Mary Nelson, A Retired NOCHS Nurse of 46 Years

“Figure it out.  Get it done.”  That has been Mary Nelson’s approach to life and to her career.  And at 93 years young, she has lived through some pretty amazing “figure it out” challenges, especially in her medical career at NOCHS.  Want to experience some of her hair-raising (and hilarious) stories?

Mary Nelson is a testament to hard work.  “I was born here in 1926, at the Wallace Maternity House,” she says.  “And yes, there are some good genes at work.  My dad lived to 100 and my mom to 97.  But I also stay active.  I do my own lawn work.  Of course I still drive.  I haul gravel.  I don’t have time to sit still!”

Mary’s childhood memories include Hatton Memorial Hospital.  “I remember going there with my parents to visit,” she recalls.  “There was a sitting room right by the door.  The nurses would come in their long starched dresses and bring you upstairs to see patients.”  Mary doesn’t remember receiving care there, but she knows her husband was a patient.  “He needed his tonsils out when he was young.  There was no other way to get to the hospital, so his mom loaded him up in the wagon and pulled him over there.  The tonsils came out, and he went back home the same way…in his little red wagon.”  No popsicles back then!

Mary says that becoming a nurse was really not much of a choice.  “My dad said I could be a teacher, a nurse or an office worker,” she remembers.  “I tried shorthand but dropped it right away.  I just couldn’t figure out all the squiggles. So then I went to nursing, and that was my thing.”  She took her Nursing Aid class in high school, then went on to receive a nursing education at St. Mary’s in 1947.

Medicine was nothing if not an adventure back then!  Here are some of the fascinating experiences Mary remembers…

  • “When my first child was three months old, the Director of Nurses called asking if I could please come in and work. They needed an RN for the 3-11 shift.  She loaned me a uniform, my mother-in-law came to babysit, and in I went.  My total orientation consisted of receiving report from Betty, the RN on shift before me.  That was it.  Then I was in charge for the night.”
  • “Everything was labor-intensive. When we needed oxygen tents or more medicine, we nurses had to trek down to the basement to get them, and then set it up ourselves.  There was no one to ‘send’ to do these things for us.”
  • “The Emergency Room was just a room, and it was unstaffed. If someone came in, they rang the bell.  Whoever wasn’t busy would answer it.”
  • “Penicillin was thick stuff back in the day. We had to use a 16- or 18-gauge needle and give a shot every three to six hours.  Those things hurt!  (For point of reference, the smaller the number, the larger the needle diameter.  Today’s flu shots, example, are delivered using a 22-25 gauge needle.)
  • “We didn’t have air conditioning back then, and it got really hot in the third floor operating room. So we opened the windows during surgeries when the surgeons couldn’t take the heat any more!”
  • “We also didn’t have a defibrillator. I finally had one built.  (The Museum has it now.)

Mary started working as a nurse at age 21, and retired at age 67.  “My nurse’s hat is precious because it’s symbolic of the care we provided,” she says firmly.  “We didn’t have as much knowledge as today’s nurses have, but we took good care of our patients.  We talked to them, washed them, rubbed their backs…we focused on comfort care as much as medicine.  Since there were only three of us on the floor at any given time, we knew what was going on with every patient.  I used to tell my trainees to look at the patient.  Talk to him or her.  Don’t just rely on charts and tests.”

“It was certainly an adventure to work in healthcare,” Mary concludes.  “We didn’t have backup.  We didn’t have technology.  We held on by the skin of our teeth some days.  But what we had was cooperation, and a burning desire to help patients.  It was an experience, but I wouldn’t have traded it for anything.  I love this hospital!”

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