Guest commentary: Take it from a nurse’s son — they deserve our thanks

Thank you nurse illustration

The World Health Assembly designated 2020 as the International Year of the Nurse and the Midwife, spurring the Scripps Health Foundation’s announcement of 2021 as the Year of the Nurse.

That made me think of the 95-year-old retired nurse still living in the house I grew up in.

My mom, who raised three boys through every scrape imaginable — including climbing 30-foot trees like monkeys or playing tackle football without equipment or even a helmet (because who had the money for that?) — announced one summer afternoon at age 41 that she wanted to go to college to become a nurse. I was 12 at the time.

Shocker? No. The reason it didn’t surprise me is that it came from my mom. If she said she wanted to be a nurse, even young me understood it was going to happen.

So she enrolled in College of Staten Island in New York, 10 miles from our home. Back then, a nursing degree was a two-year degree. But the classes were mostly in the late afternoon until late at night.

Meanwhile, Mom continued to lead us through Cub Scouts, Boy Scouts, Little League, school sports, bad grades and good grades, broken arms and stitches. We joked that she wanted to be a nurse to deal with our string of injuries. She was a juggler of things, all for us, because that was Mom.

In fact, I had to laugh many years ago when Cub Scouts of America announced it was going to let women get involved in the organization. Who the heck did they think was running the Scouts in the first place? Certainly not the dads. In our neighborhood, moms led every event and schlepped us all over the place, from forest hikes to museums. They were called den mothers.

While Mom attended classes, I became one of the original latchkey kids. But in this case, she attached the house key to a string around my neck. Every afternoon when I arrived home from elementary school, I stooped forward to put the key in the lock.

I’d enter an empty house, begin my homework or watch television and sometimes glance through Mom’s 6-inch-thick nursing textbooks. Around 5:30, I’d look at an index card she had taped to the stove. There was always a prepared meal, a TV dinner or maybe a flat box of Tater Tots for dinner.

No matter what it was, it seemed like everything had to be heated at 350 degrees. Sometimes I’d get lucky and find the package of Oreos that Dad hid. I usually polished off the entire package in one sitting.

Meanwhile, Mom studied long hours and graduated at the top of her class. She became a nurse in coronary care/intensive care at Coney Island Hospital.

There was good and bad. Working coronary/intensive care can be heartbreaking. I can tell you that nurses work long hours and are incredibly dedicated to the patients. Nurses are caring and are underpaid. They stand throughout the entire shift. That’s why back and foot aches are common. Mom’s feet hurt all the time.

They must put up with some ego-filled doctors, too. A few didn’t appreciate the hard work the nurses put in. Back then there were a lot more “God complex” doctors.

Although Mom worked 12-hour days, she would often clock out but remain at the hospital to play checkers with the heart patients. These men and women were lonely and depressed. She wanted to cheer them up.

More often than not, when she arrived at work the following morning, she’d find that the bed had been cleared and her recent partner in checkers had died that evening. It was sad to think that the person had been alone and had died in the dark of the hospital room.

Mom might have been the last person the patient spoke to. That was tough on her. She cried a lot.

One Friday per month she brought home nurses’ potluck from the hospital. She worked with many Filipino nurses — that was good for me because she brought home lumpia [spring rolls] and pancit [a noodle dish]. I became a major fan. Many of the nurses grew to be her good friends and we got together for barbecues and other family outings.

Mom was a nurse for 26 years.

As I mentioned, she is now 95 years old. Until a few years ago, Mom took long walks, drove to functions at the benevolent JCC [Jewish Community Center] even though they knew she was not Jewish, cooked her own meals and lived an overall healthy life.

But then Alzheimer’s came knocking. She is still Mom, but she is not the same. My wonderful younger brother has taken care of her for the longest time. But now Mom requires round-the-clock care.

When people meet her today I am sad. They did not have the pleasure of meeting the mom my brothers and I knew. She was a great mom. And she was a great nurse — the kind of nurse you’d love to have if your life was on the line.

Nurses like my mom deserve to be recognized for the caring lives they lead. Thank a nurse if you get the chance. It’s the least all of us can do. Every year should be the Year of the Nurse.

John C. Weil is a longtime La Jolla resident.