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'I wouldn’t trade it for anything'

Krystle Wagner • Jun 14, 2019 at 12:00 PM

Mary Nelson continues to lead an active life.

From walking her dog twice a day and doing her own yard work, the 93-year-old lifelong Grand Haven resident said she’s always worked and been active. She has a sharp memory of growing up in Grand Haven and her career as a registered nurse working at the local hospital.

As the North Ottawa Community Health System celebrates its 100 years, Nelson looked back at her career that spanned more than 40 years — from her early 20s until she retired in her 60s.

“It was an experience, but I wouldn’t trade it for anything,” she said.

Growing up, Nelson remembered the Elizabeth Hatton Memorial Hospital being a Victorian home. She said her family didn’t have a phone when she was young, and doctors made house calls.

Nelson, who was born in 1926 at a maternity home in Grand Haven, said her career options at the time were to become a teacher, nurse or office worker. She took a nurse’s aide class in high school in 1942 because she was “lousy at office work.” She dropped shorthand because she didn’t understand it, and she ended up with ink everywhere when she tried bookkeeping.

“I found that was my niche,” she said of entering the nursing field.

One month after graduating from high school, Nelson went into nursing at St. Mary’s in Grand Rapids, graduating in 1947. She then went into the government’s Cadet Nursing Corps, which offered training in order to combat a shortage of nurses.

After that, the registered nurse married and started a family.

Nelson recalls receiving a phone call from the director of nursing, who lived at the hospital at the time, asking if she would work her first shift from 3-11 p.m. the same day. On such short notice, Nelson said she wore the director’s uniform, which consisted of a white uniform dress, socks, shoes and nurse’s cap.

The former nurse’s caps have a special place in Nelson’s heart.

“It defines your position,” she said.

On her first day, she didn’t receive any orientation. She just set to work as part of a three-person team — herself, an aide and a licensed practical nurse — to care for patients and help wash them, rub their backs and make them comfortable.

Through the years, Nelson worked on the hospital’s medical/surgical and obstetrics floors. She recalls the staff working well together. The medications were kept in a room in the basement, and they filled their own bottles.

The emergency department was a single room staffed by any nurse who wasn’t too busy to answer the room’s bell. Nelson said it was either herself or another nurse who answered the call.

“It was archaic at the time, but you did the best you could,” she said.

Nelson said she also used patient care — freshening them up, rubbing their back, putting a pillow behind them and helping patients feel comfortable.

“You can do a lot just by talking to your patient,” she said.

For several years, Nelson taught the nurse’s aide class for the local school system. After that, she worked in North Ottawa Community Hospital’s recovery room for 23 years, followed by working a few years part time for anesthesia and completing patient assessments.

As Nelson walked the third-floor hallway of the current building, she recalled one corner office as the former surgery room. She noted that her son had his tonsils removed in that room when he was 3.

When the community voted to move the hospital to its current location on Sheldon Road, Nelson remembered wondering why it was selected so far out of town.

Over the years, Nelson said she watched NOCH grow to include specialists.

“I have a soft spot for our hospital,” she said.

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