Nursing remains in the family


Nurses have come a long way this century.

Hazel Blackburn McLay remembers the day she graduated from the University of Maryland's nurses training program 68 years ago like it was yesterday.

It was also her wedding day.

She says she probably eloped that spring day in 1927 because it was her first day of freedom after three years in a paternalistic hospital that, besides forbidding students to marry, also fed, housed, and trained them free in exchange for their being the hospital's menial work force.

Mrs. McLay's daughter, Hazel Patterson, 64, and granddaughter, Mary Ellen Rapposelli, 36, have vivid memories of nursing, too. All three are graduates of the University of Maryland School of Nursing.

When festivities marking the 100th anniversary of the school's Alumni Association get under way at the Marriott Inner Harbor tonight, the threesome will be among the honored guests.

In Mrs. McLay's day, being a nurse meant emptying bed pans, bathing patients, preparing meals and doing light housekeeping the hospital, said Barbara Heller, dean of the School of Nursing.

It's much different now.

"Today, nurses are playing a huge role in primary care. The focus is changing from the hospital to the community and from acute care to long-term care and the prevention of disease," she said.

Mrs. McLay and her peers were not even entrusted to draw blood or take a patient's blood pressure -- duties reserved for interns -- although they could give insulin and other injections.

At 91, Mrs. McLay lives with her daughter Hazel and son-in-law Ross at their family-run Patterson Funeral Home in Perryville. She is frail from congestive heart disease, but her memory is strong.

"My parents didn't want me to be a nurse because it wasn't a postion of honor," said Mrs. McLay during a visit to her Cecil County home, where she has lived most of her life. "They wanted me to do secretarial work. But I worked and saved my money to buy a uniform so that I could go into training."

Two years after high school, with uniform in tow, young Hazel Blackburn moved into Parsons Hall -- the nearly new nurses' residence in Baltimore where, decades later, her daughter and granddaughter would also live during their schooling.

"Every morning we woke the patients at 6:30 with a pan of water and washcloth, and we'd bathe them before breakfast." The young women spent mornings in the hospital, afternoons at class, and evenings at the hospital again, giving every patient a rubdown before bedtime.

They had little time to go home for visits, were instructed not to get too friendly with patients and were forbidden to marry.

Nevertheless, she did manage to meet Thomas McLay, her future husband, at the hospital when he was confined to a ward there for three weeks because he had broken his leg.

"They were like indentured servants," Dean Heller said of the nursing students. "They did everything but sweep the chimneys."

After earning her diploma, Mrs. McLay became a private-duty nurse in a hospital for a while, then took an assignment at the Wilmer Eye Clinic at Johns Hopkins Hospital. She left nursing in the late 1920s to begin raising a family. Her husband, a factory equipment salesman, died in 1976.

Mrs. Patterson graduated in 1954, the first year the University of Maryland handed out four-year baccalaureate degrees in nursing. She went to work for the Harford County Health Department, treating patients in clinics and making home visits, a common practice in the 1950s.

Today, aides do much of the grunt work once assigned to nurses, Mrs. Patterson said, and secretaries handle much of their clerical duties.

Like her mother, she retired from nursing after two years to start a family.

"I've been out of it 40 years, but I have kept informed," she said. An affable woman whose energy belies her years, she renews her license every year, reads voraciously on medical topics and monitors the health of friends and family members with serious illnesses.

And she stays in touch with nursing through the career of her daughter, a community health nurse with the Cecil County Health Department.

"I told her she could be anything she wanted in life, but she had to be a nurse first," Mrs. Patterson says. "Because I knew if she had that degree she could always get a job."

Mrs. Rapposelli says her mother's refrain became a family joke. "I'm sure she would have supported me in anything I wanted to do, but it just seemed that with my interests and talents nursing would serve what I wanted to do. It would offer me a variety of opportunities," she said.

And it has.

After graduating from Maryland in 1980 she spent two years as a clinical nurse at the Johns Hopkins bone marrow transplant unit before moving to the Cecil County Health Department, not far from her home in Bear, Del. There, much like her mother had done years before, she visited young and elderly homebound patients as a home nurse .

Later she went into school health, education clinics and child health care with the county. Today she is a community health nurse supervisor in the Health Department's Division of Health Promotion.

She broke family tradition and chose to continue working after marrying and having children.

Today, like many other moms of the 90s, she balances family -- her sons are 12 and 6 -- with working full-time and studying for a master's in nursing from the University of Delaware in nearby Newark.

It's a long way from the life of a nurse in her grandmother's time.

"You can link the history of nursing to the history of women in our society," said Dean Heller. "In the 1920s, women had few choices. They barely had the right to vote . . . Now, there are so many specialties in the field of nursing."

Mrs. Patterson agreed. "When I graduated, you only did hands-on nursing -- either in a hospital or in public health. These nurses today are so smart . . . Sometimes I wish I were still in it."

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