Jim Jenkins

Nurse Betty, who has made a difference

She has shared joys and heartaches with her patients with equal grace and gentility. The man who was having heart surgery and was understandably worried had Nurse Betty by his side and was so grateful that he and his family came to see her at WakeMed after his recovery was underway. The mother who had a stillborn baby and asked Nurse Betty to carry the baby to the priest for the last rites.

Moments that make the heart soar and make it break.

And four years ago, your correspondent wrote about her after she prepped him for a kidney stone procedure. Then she had no plans to retire. At 72, she intended to keep going until the time was right.

And now it is.

Betty McGee nursed thousands of people in 54 years at WakeMed (and under its previous names), working in the pre-surgical area and with expectant mothers. When she started, nurses did everything. But with every change, she adjusted: learned new computer systems, kept up with changes in treatments. She was not going to be left behind, and she wasn’t. But now it’s time, she says, to stand down and leave the tasks to others, to get on with another phase of life while she feels good and still has the urge to travel.

So when she clocks out in the mid-afternoon on Dec. 15, she wants it to be just another day in her career. No fuss. Nothing special. Her colleagues doubtless will not listen to that, and they should not. Nurse Betty is WakeMed’s longest-serving employee and certainly one of its most beloved. And still, at 76, she views her career as a “hobby I got paid for,” a cheery outlook that has been reflected in her work every hour, every day.

She’s taken care of many folks of all backgrounds in the community, some because patients heard of her through friends who told them, “Be sure to see if you can be with Nurse Betty.” And she’s handled some of the patients who required a little extra attention, the ones who were having a little more than the regular anxiety.

When their surgeries are done, some stay in touch. “Oh, sometimes they want me to come see them after surgery,” she said, “and I do, you know, if I can. You try to meet all the patients’ needs, to treat people with dignity and respect.” Always, she has wanted to stay on the floor, with those patients. No management, thanks. “I became a nurse because you have people who are sick and need care. I have wanted to be a bedside nurse all of my life.”

When she started at WakeMed, she also worked weekends at another hospital. She was raising two sons. Widowed at 35, she took care of her two sons, both of them giving her pride as they grew up. She lost one of them last year. She carries on, focusing on grandchildren, something retirement will provide her with more time to do.

Maybe it was her own heartbreaks along with the joys in good friends, the success of her children and the affection of her grandchildren that have made her perfectly suited to the profession she chose. Nurse Betty has known all of the feelings that her patients have known. She has as well not been afraid to sympathize, to pat their hands and their heads, to give them hope and to offer them sympathy.

Now there will be travel. And picking up grandchildren at school. There’s the new “retirement car.” Yes, life delivered some tough blows along the way, but always she kept going, keeping in mind, she says, that historic image of Florence Nightingale carrying her lamp to watch over wounded soldiers. Toward the end of our conversation, she brings up that lamp, one of her inspirations.

She’s been an inspiration herself, where it counts. “When I told my son I was going to talk to you, he said, ‘Be sure to tell him you’re my hero.’ ” She wasn’t bragging, just thought it was kind of nice. Yes it was. And if her son’s taking a survey of those who feel likewise, lots of hands are going to be raised.

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