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Jenkins: A 50-year WakeMed employee really does care

jim.jenkins@newsobserver.comNovember 20, 2013 

It is a voice that is exactly what the voice of a nurse ought to sound like. Soft, calm, comforting, optimistic, happy. At this point, tens of thousands of people who have passed through some division of WakeMed could identify it, and the memory would likely make them smile.

Betty McGee may rest assured that as we enter the season of Thanksgiving, she’s what a lot of people have been thankful for, over her 50 years as a nurse at WakeMed. For many, she was with them, holding their hand, perhaps, or listening to their lungs and their hearts, as they were readied for surgery. For others, she was the nurse in the delivery room. (She even delivered a few babies herself in those years.)

A person does a lot in 50 years, particularly when she remembers the days when WakeMed was a little hospital, and there were no ultrasounds or the other fancy machinery, when nurses had to sterilize everything, because those were the “pre-disposable” days. Indeed, Nurse Betty, as she’s known, might have done any number of things as her career moved along.

But, she says, “I wanted to be a bedside nurse. I like to think I’ve brought a little comfort along the way. Often, I silently pray for the patients, for their peace of mind, when I’m listening to their heartbeat. It’s almost like a ministry in a way.”

Betty McGee graduated from high school in Four Oaks, and got her nursing degree from the Wilson School of Nursing. She started working at WakeMed in 1963 for $260 a month. She’s also done some chimney sweeping (at one time she worked four jobs) and used to work some in her off-time at other nursing jobs. She was widowed young, raised two sons and today carries a child seat in her car for grandchildren. She is 72 but seems much, much younger.

She arrives at WakeMed at 4:30 each morning, working in the pre-op area of day surgery. There is where patients, some nervous, some very nervous, hear the voice, and feel better.

On the WakeMed campus, she is famous, the longest-serving employee in history. That was one of the reasons she got an early ride on the hospital system’s helicopter when it came in.

“I’ve seen everything,” she says. “I remember when we integrated. I remember when new technology came in. Robotics...amazing. But I know when we used to have to mix formula. There was a time when we rarely used gloves, if you can believe it. Here, look at this picture.”

In the picture, Betty McGee is wearing a starched white uniform, standing proudly with flowers. Her diploma is in an adjoining leather folder. Fifty years later, nurses wear the hospital scrubs, and their duties require training on all sorts of new technology.

Nurse Betty has embraced all the changes. Younger doctors, she believes, will be good surgeons “because they grew up with video games. They know how to work the robots, for example.” The changes have been positive for patients, but hands-on care is her speciality, and she thinks it’s important.

“Mother Teresa was my hero,” she says. “And I know she held all these people with infectious diseases, all these horrible things. When she died, they said she left only a wash basin, a cloth, and one change of clothes. I say to myself, if she can do that, then I certainly can do what I do. We’re all put here for a purpose in life. Hopefully mine has been to help people when they’re sick.”

She remains active in professional groups, attends a convention once a year, and is (of course) held as an example for other employees by WakeMed’s leaders. She has no plans to retire.

“My son wants me to go to Rome,” she says. “Some day I will. But I get vacations and can go places now. I don’t plan to retire.”

It’s hard to imagine she ever would. In the pre-op area, she carries her stethoscope and listens closely to patients, making conversation, complimenting people, assuring them everything will be fine, wishing them well. And sometimes, after they’re out of surgery, she admits she goes to see them to make sure they’re doing all right.

“And I see people in the mall sometimes, and they’ll come up and then I’ll remember them from the hospital,” she said. “That’s nice. You know, no machinery will ever replace the human touch.” Or Nurse Betty.

Deputy editorial page editor Jim Jenkins can be reached at 919-829-4513 or at jjenkins@newsobserver.com

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