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Thursday, 24 June 2010

The Penguins are Gone

By Richard J. Klade of Gabby Geezer

I lived for nearly three-quarters of a century without spending a single day as a patient in a hospital.


On June 9, my health winning streak was snapped. A breathing problem led to a three-day stay at Borgess Medical Center in Kalamazoo, Michigan. The experience provided many revelations about how modern hospitals compare to my recollections of one in the 1950s.


As a younger man, I became very familiar with how things were done at Sacred Heart Hospital in Tomahawk, Wisconsin, my hometown. Sacred Heart and Borgess have a common heritage. Both were founded by nuns.


As irreverent youths, we referred to nuns as “penguins,” but only at a discrete distance.  The Tomahawk variety wore uniform, cumbersome, black habits. The more portly sisters tended to waddle a bit and the net effect indeed was a certain resemblance to the Antarctic birds.


At Sacred Heart in the 1950s, nuns handled almost all the nursing and administrative duties. They wore their habits at all times on the job and everywhere else in public. A few “civilians” staffed kitchen and maintenance positions and performed some aspects of patient care. The latter, as I recall, all wore white uniforms. The nuns were in full command of hospital activities. That was very clear.


The hospital nuns mirrored what my Catholic friends said nuns as a group were like in the 50s. A few were cheerful and jolly. More tended to be reserved and severe, especially in dealing with youths.

Discipline had high priority. Hospital rules were rigidly enforced for patients and visitors alike. Borgess in 2010 has similar rules, but nurses were willing to arrange all sorts of exceptions and nobody seemed a bit concerned about minor rules violations, unless they interfered with patient care.


Like television over the past 60 years, hospital uniforms progressed from black-and-white to full color. The black habits with white bibs and the all-white outfits have disappeared. Today’s hospital personnel wear a full spectrum of colors, coded to their function.


The difference in hospital staff competency between the 50s and now is vast. The early nuns probably got almost all of their training on-the-job. Older sisters showed the younger ones how things were to be done. The “civilian” nurses’ aides I knew about also had little or no formal training.


In contrast, Borgess caregivers have a plethora of college and university degrees plus specialized advanced training in many areas. Despite the already high level of education there, many I met were pursuing advanced degrees at a means of personal advancement. This, I think, is a major difference between them and the Sacred Heart caregivers of the 50s.


The Sacred Heart nuns were not known for personal ambition. After all, except for those who might aspire to becoming administrators, they had reached their career goal the day they dedicated themselves to their vocation.


The last time I visited Sacred Heart Hospital, I saw only one nun. Her outfit was modern and attractive, a far cry from the black-and-white habits of earlier days. She was working in the office.

There may be more than one nun on staff at Borgess Medical Center now, but all those I talked with could name only one off-hand. She is not serving as a nurse. Her coworkers admired her good work as a spiritual counselor and patient confidant.


Sacred Heart Hospital is no more. Increased labor costs, as the number of nuns available to staff it declined, surely were a factor in its closing. What now is Borgess Medical Center overcame that and other obstacles to grow and prosper as part of Borgess Health, a huge health-care organization in southwestern Michigan. Although very few nuns work in day-to-day Borgess operations, the Sisters of St. Joseph continue their involvement as sponsors.


The penguins have flown away. Hospital care is in the hands of others and I found them to be competent and dedicated. But those nuns gave a great gift to many hometowns across America whether the hospitals they founded eventually died or flourished in other forms.


The Catholic nuns I’ve encountered over the years were rather secure people. They didn’t really need morale boosts to keep them going - especially from a fairly impious Lutheran who was raised as a Christian Scientist and has been told his name is on the rolls in a Mormon mountain vault whether he wants it there or not. But they deserve great appreciation, whatever the source.


Bless you all, hospital sisters, wherever you may be.

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Posted by Ronni Bennett at 05:30 AM | Permalink | Email this post


You took me back in memory to a time when I was switchboard operator at a Catholic hospital.

Two older nuns brought terror to my heart when their lights on the switchboard lit up at the same time. I knew if it was Sister Maria Grazia (Sister Superior) she would give me five minutes of instruction and I dare not interrupt. That would result in a tongue lashing from Sister Cecelia for not answering her light immediately. She would accuse me of being lazy and threaten to have me fired. The rivalry between these two nuns made me wonder what happened to their Christianity.

I was never able to resolve my dilemma of which call to answer first and was relieved when I quit that job to get married.

Oh! The stories I could tell you.
The Dominican Sisters raised such people as Joe Paterno and me. My experience was different than his, as was my success level, however, the necessity of discipline and appreciation of ancient music endured. The toughest guy in the Hanoi Hilton was also educated by these nuns. It could have been worse.

Many fond memories erupted from this article - thank you, Richard.

There is a gap in the knowledge of nuns, their education, and practice though - many women went into the convent so that they could earn advanced degrees, indeed the Ph.D.s. They were science and math geniuses, and trained many physicians for decades. The education women could receive in the convent was not permitted in most secular universities, except the top 5 in the nation – for a long, long time – although, by the late 50s they all tried hard to appear accepting of "those girls" and often booted them out of medical schools, pre-med studies, and science graduate programs by telling them, commonly, "You're attractive; you'll probably get married and waste your education." So, the convent it was . . . for a long, long time.

And, yes, our health care is suffering from the lack of the most dedicated from all groups, but those wondrous Catholic (and Episcopalian) sisters topped the charts in ruling over patient care, and produced incredible RNs, but their RNs had to have extensive basic science and liberal arts education before starting their "on-the-job" training “on the floors” - at least 2 full years in fact.

Now, unfortunately, the SSJs do not ride herd on any of their hospitals -- MBAs have wooed and rocked them into a business somnolence; a tragic loss to patient care nationwide. You were fortunate to be in K K Kalamazoo.

Thanks, Ariel. You added much to my knowledge in this area.

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