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True Tales of a Nurse: Segregation to Barbie

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Her name was Betty. She was the middle child of seven children, and she wanted to be a nurse. But it was the 1920's and her family didn't have much money. Her father wasn't too inclined pay for an education, at least not one for a girl, so she worked her way through nursing school on her own.

One of her early jobs was at Grady Hospital in Atlanta, back when it was segregated. She was a skinny young blond girl who had been raised in the South, but she quickly figured out that if she asked to be assigned to the "colored ward" she would be allowed to do more procedures.

There was a tunnel under the street linking the colored ward with the main hospital and the white doctors didn't make the trek over very often. So Betty found herself handling emergencies, dealing with families, and pretty much in charge most of the time.

She might have come into the job with some prejudices of her own, but she saw that she was needed. So she willingly jumped in to serve a group of patients that many others neglected.

She didn't marry until she was 25, an age when most of her family had written her off as an old maid. She further surprised them, because instead of immediately having babies, she and her lawyer husband, moved to Washington, D.C., where Betty got her Master's Degree from Catholic University.

She later became the chief nurse at the U.S. Veterans Hospital in Washington, caring for yet another under-served group of patients. She had her first child when she was 31, and went back to work, becoming a working mother long before the phrase even existed.

She had her second child at 38. In the seven years in between her two children she co-authored, "Anatomy and Physiology," a textbook that was used by most of the medical schools in the country.

She went on to become a chief of Public Health Nursing, and later an instructor at American University and the Education Director of a major teaching hospital.

Marriage at 25, a Master's after that, a big job before her first baby, a published book before her second child and a career that included public and private sector work as well as teaching at a University level. It would be an ambitious path for a woman today, but for a girl born in 1905, it was pretty big stuff.

Over the course of her career, Betty touched the lives of thousands, perhaps even millions, of patients, students and staff. It's hard to imagine how many hands she held, how much care she gave, how many people she taught, and how many lives she saved.

After she retired, she spent her time sewing, gardening, volunteering and doting on her grandchildren. Once she even made clothes for her granddaughter's Barbie.

By then it was the 1970's and poor Barbie's wardrobe was limited to go-go boots, swimsuits and miniskirts. But Betty thought it was important for her granddaughter to know that Barbie could have a career. So she helped her granddaughter make Barbie a nurse's uniform, telling her, "The world always needs someone who knows how to take care of people."

She passed away in 1989. She was a teacher, she was a nurse, she was trail-blazer and she was my grandmother. (Elizabeth Ruth Carpenter Earle 1905-1988)

Lisa Earle McLeod is an author, syndicated columnist and keynote speaker. She frequently speaks to healthcare organizations about harnessing the power of love in the workplace. See -

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