Innerviews: Retired nurse continues life of caring
CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- There's nothing spectacular about her life, but she has lived it with distinction, in a salt-of-the-earth, never-met-a-stranger way. Her caring, homespun demeanor suited a long nursing career that started with wartime cadet training.
Proud widow of a Normandy invasion veteran, she contributed to a room in his honor at the veterans transitional living center on Leon Sullivan Way. Residents there call her "Miss Betty."
She and her husband were avid square dancers and followed the circuit all over the place. Other travels included a sentimental journey to Normandy.
A breast cancer survivor still active in her cancer support group, she has participated in dozens of cancer walks and has a T-shirt quilt to prove it.
She is a former West Virginia Mother of the Year.
The world could use a lot more people like 86-year-old Betty Young.
"My father drowned when I was 11. His car went in the river. They didn't find him for a couple of days. My mom had to go to work in a department store in Glenville to raise us.
"I'll never forget the night the minister knocked on the door and told us that daddy was in the river. It was a terrible February snowstorm and the roads were bad. There were no heaters in the cars. He had on galoshes and a heavy winter coat and couldn't get out.
"Between my junior and senior year in high school, I worked at the soda fountain at the Rexall drug store in Glenville. I made 25 cents an hour.
"They had a picture on the wall of a nurse in a dress uniform. I called the West Virginia Nurses Association here in Charleston and asked if I could go as a cadet nurse because Mom didn't have the money to send me to nursing school.
"We took the bus to Clarksburg to St. Mary's Hospital and the director of nurses said her class was full for September. I called McMillan Hospital. The director said her September class was full but she had room for me in June. That started two weeks after I graduated from high school.
"I was in nursing almost 40 years, and I loved it. The training was wonderful. We were on the floor in student uniforms in six weeks. We had a lot of coal miners as patients. They had a lot of injuries.
"They took in a new nursing class every six months because it was during the war, and they were getting short of nurses. The government paid for our tuition, uniforms, books, room and board. If the war had still been going on when we graduated, we were committed to working three years in a government hospital or in the service.
"We wore blue uniforms with a starched apron. Collars on the uniforms were so stiff we had to put Kleenex in our necks to keep from getting sore. In six months, you got your cap, a real distinction. When you were a senior, you got a black band across your cap.
"The war was over by the time I graduated. I stayed at McMillan. I was in charge on the maternity floor, OB, labor and delivery. That was my favorite floor. You never ceased to get a chill and a 'Thank you, Lord' when you got a healthy baby and a healthy momma. Childbirth is still a miracle to me.
"I met Ross when he came home from the war. He went in on D-Day on Omaha Beach. You know that 97 percent of the first wave got killed. His men went in on the second wave, and he didn't lose a single man.
"His mother had been a patient at McMillan. She had three strokes before the fourth one killed her. I took care of her. She said when her son came home from the war, she wanted him to meet me.
"One evening, I went in to answer her light. She said her son was out there, the one with the beautiful brown eyes. She called him "my little Ross." I went out the door with a bedpan in my hand and said, 'I guess you are her little Ross,' and went on about my business.
"That's how it started. We got married after I graduated. He worked at DuPont. When I was working, he was home with the kids. I worked the 11 to 7 shift two or three nights a week for about 20 years.
"Patients are sicker at night. You lose more patients at night, but you don't have a lot of visitors, and you don't have doctors making rounds. I couldn't have gotten through night shift without some wonderful LPNs.
"In 1971, when my last child went to college, I was hired at the health department. I had worked night duty so long, when I didn't have to go to work on Christmas night, my kids didn't know how to act.
"I worked there 17 and a half years. The first nine years, I made home visits. It was harder, but I loved it. Do you know Amandaville in St. Albans? One of my friends said, 'You don't go to Amandaville, do you?' I did have patients over there. This one man in Amandaville, he had this beautiful expensive hospital bed in a chicken coop. He lived in a chicken coop.
"People in the community knew I was there to help them. I never had anybody who wasn't polite. I always had my uniform on and had my black bag with everything in it I needed.
"I retired 26 years ago when I was 60. They no longer have home health services.
"The year of the 50th anniversary of D-Day, Tom Holcomb and his wife and Ross and I went with a busload of veterans to London where they were before they went in before D-Day. Then we crossed the channel to Cherbourg and went up to Normandy and to the cemetery. I cried.
"We met one lady in the cathedral in London. She told the men that she saw the ships leaving and prayed because she knew they were somebody's son or somebody's husband and wanted them to get home safely.
"Almost five years ago, they built the new shelter for veterans on Leon Sullivan Way. They had a picture in the paper showing them laying the footers. The story said to call if you were interested in donating money to furnish a room. I was the first one to call. It was $1,000. To me, that's money. I just have my Social Security, a little pension from the health department and a little from my husband from DuPont.
"They named the room for my husband. I was down there yesterday to check on them and see what they needed. We had a dinner at church Sunday and had a lot of bread left over. I gave half of it to the veterans' house and the rest to the men at the Roark-Sullivan shelter. They all call me 'Miss Betty.'
"The year my last child went to WVU, my son was dating a girl whose parents square danced. He wanted us to go with them to learn. My husband said he would go but he wouldn't dance. They got him on the floor, and he never sat down at a dance for 11 years. The theory is if you go to a square dance for three hours, it's the same as walking three miles. And it's a lot more fun.
"We went to 10 nationals. We even danced at Disneyland in California. They shut everything down at midnight and we danced until 1 a.m. We went to Portland and Birmingham and Louisville and Houston.
"My oldest son flew for TWA. We had some wonderful trips on his vouchers. We went to Alaska, Australia, New Zealand, London twice, Paris twice. Went to Hawaii with 100 square dancers and danced on three islands.
"We came back from Alaska on a Sunday evening after a 15-day trip, and my phone was blinking and it was the radiology department at Memorial. I had a mammogram right before I left. They needed to redo my mammogram. The doctor put my film up to view just as I stepped behind him. I said, 'My God, doctor, I have breast cancer!' As a retired nurse, I'd seen enough of those to know what I was looking at.
"I was devastated. That was 1996. They gave me a choice between lumpectomy or mastectomy. I said, 'Take it off.' I took chemo and refused radiation. I'm blessed. I get up every morning and put my feet on the floor and thank God. If I'm in town, I do the cancer walks. I had a quilt made out of my T-shirts. I still go to my cancer support group.
"I don't go because I feel like I still need moral support. I go because it breaks my heart to see the young girls 35 and 40 who are raising kids who have breast problems.
"Three weeks after my surgery, my first Sunday back in church, my husband had a massive heart attack. They did bypass surgery and he died three weeks later. That was a very hard winter. I was taking chemo, and he was gone.
"I said to myself, 'Betty, there are a lot of people worse off than you are. You've got a house you paid for. A car that's paid for, kids that are great, and you are blessed.'"Reach Sandy Wells at firstname.lastname@example.org or 304-348-5173.