Long after she’d retired as a public health nurse, Mae Van Hiatt received requests, often in the middle of the night, to tend to worried neighbors and friends.
Whether someone had chest pains, needed bandages changed or suffered a cut preparing supper, Hiatt quickly responded with the compassion she was known for during her 40-year nursing career.
“She would go out in her nightgown many a night,” said her longtime friend and former colleague Judy Owen-O’Dowd. “She was such a caring person.”
Hiatt considered herself lucky to have found a profession for which she was so well suited. Taking care of others came naturally to her, and she’d always had a love of science, her family said. She was also a natural educator, as well as a lifelong learner. It all made public health a particularly good fit for her.
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Hiatt, 77, died last month from complications from Crohn’s disease.
Knowing that she was among the first health workers to care for the area’s first AIDS patients in the 1980s, her family is convinced that given the chance, Hiatt would have been one of the first to sign up to treat Ebola patients during Africa’s most recent outbreak.
“She of course was the first person to always step up and take care of anyone,” said her daughter, Dawn Rathge.
Hiatt was born in High Point, one of two children, inspired by her father’s inclination to studying the natural world and tinkering with technology. The family spent a few years during her childhood living in Wilmington so that her father, a welder, could work at the shipyards during World War II. They survived a hurricane that nearly swept away her younger brother, Mires Zett Jr., but Hiatt’s love of storm tracking was born there as well.
Her father encouraged his children’s education, and did all he could to send them to college. Hiatt played cello for the Winston-Salem Symphony after high school for a few years, and also attended the two-year nursing-school program at High Point Hospital.
Knowing she wanted to teach nursing, she pursued a bachelor of science degree from UNC-Chapel Hill, working at UNC Hospital throughout her studies.
Hiatt married Jim Hiatt in 1962, the same year she graduated from UNC. Hiatt’s parents both had twins in their families, so it might have been expected when Hiatt and her husband welcomed twin daughters, Dawn and Cherie. It came as a delight when decades later they welcomed twin grandsons as well.
A teacher and leader
Hiatt began her career working in operating rooms and emergency departments at hospitals in the Piedmont. When the Hiatts moved to Raleigh in 1969 she helped establish what is now known as Rex Hospital Home Services, making possible for traditional hospital care such as nursing, physical therapy, and speech therapy to take place in patient’s homes.
But Hiatt was particularly fulfilled when educating, whether those learning were nursing students or patients. At a recent doctor’s appointment, Hiatt was treated by a nurse who was also one of her former students. The former student told Owen-O’Dowd that Hiatt was a wonderful teacher who had helped frame the nurse’s own career.
“That meant so much to her,” Owen-O’Dowd said.
The bulk of Hiatt’s career was spent at the Wake County Department of Human Services as a nurse in the division that oversaw public health and clinics. Teaching was a skill integral to the position.
“Half of the job of working in those clinics as a public-health nurse was counseling and educating your patients, and teaching, and that was one thing she was so good at,” said Owen-O’Dowd, who worked with Hiatt as a medical technologist for Wake County. Hiatt was able to educate patients in “a noncondescending kind of way. She could get to anyone’s level and make them understand.”
Hiatt never shrank from the call of duty and often volunteered to work with populations others found intimidating, including those with tuberculosis, AIDS, or any number of contagious illnesses.
“So many people did not like working the STD clinic. She did not mind, and she really loved working with the STD patients,” Owen-O’Dowd said. “She knew the precautions to take, and she took her precautions, and she was fine. She cared about the patient.”
Full of patience
She cared about her family and friends just as deeply. Her daughters remember her as always being there, full of more patience than the two of them combined, they only half-joked.
Hiatt retired at age 60, near the time her twin grandsons were born. When she wasn’t antiquing or traveling abroad with her husband, she reveled in helping out friends and family in any way she could.
When her brother, a pilot, flew his last flight, Hiatt made sure that she and her daughters were on the plane to support him. “I now realize a sibling probably isn’t fully appreciated until they’re gone,” he said.
“There were times I’d call her at 10 or 11 at night and talk to her for hours on the phone, in the middle of the night. It never bothered her. She was always there for me. She was always that comforting ear to say, ‘It’s going to be OK,’” Owen-O’Dowd said.
Mae Van Hiatt
Born Oct. 13, 1937, in High Point.
FAMILY: Marries Charles James Hiatt Jr. in 1962; has twin daughters, Dawn Renee Rathge and Cherie Dara Taylor. They have five grandchildren.
EDUCATION: Graduates from High Point Hospital Nursing School as an RN, then attends UNC-Chapel Hill, where she earns a B.S. in nursing in 1962.
CAREER: Works as a nurse at UNC Hospital, at High Point Hospital and Baptist Hospital in Winston-Salem before joining Rex Hospital in 1969. Teaches and establishes the Home Health Program. She joins the Wake County Department of Human Services in the late 1970s and works for 20 years as a clinical and educational public-health nurse. Retires as supervisor of the immunization clinic.
Dies Feb. 24, in Raleigh.