Former Nurse Nears 103-year Milestone

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By Debra Wood, RN, contributor

August 9, 2011 - Grandmothers sometimes know best. Back in 1927 and fresh out of high school, Helen Crossley of Arlington, Va., heeded her grandmother’s advice and went to nursing school.

Helen Crossley, RN
Helen Crossley, who turns 103 on August 24, 2011, practiced nursing for more than three-quarters of a century. Photo credit Culpepper Garden.

“I’ve enjoyed every minute of it,” said Crossley who will celebrate her 103rd birthday on August 24, 2011. “I have lovely memories.”

Crossley has practiced nursing in various states and South Africa, caring for patients, administering anesthesia and caring for school children. As many registered nurses have done, she seized opportunities and took advantage of all nursing offers to balance family and career and alter one’s career objectives as life changes.

“I’ve been very fortunate,” Crossley said. 

Upon graduating from the Medical College of Virginia (now part of Virginia Commonwealth University) in Richmond in 1930, Crossley practiced as a private duty nurse during the Great Depression before being hired by the U.S. Department of the Interior to work at a boarding school for Cherokee and Seminole Native Americans in North Carolina.

While there, a physician asked Crossley to administer ether to one of his patients during a procedure.

“I kept him anesthetized, and he didn’t get sick or vomit, so the doctor said, ‘You know, Helen, you ought to study anesthesia,’” Crossley recalled. She followed his advice, and pursued a nurse anesthetist degree from the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. By 1940, she had moved to Poughkeepsie, N.Y., and began working as a nurse anesthetist at Vassar Hospital.

Crossley married, moved to Dallas and secured a nurse anesthesia position at Baylor Hospital. Then, when her husband was transferred to South Africa, Crossley secured a nurse anesthetist position at an East London hospital. 

Returning to the United States, she changed fields to school nursing, so she could spend more time with her son. She spent 22 years as a junior high school nurse in Prince Georges County, Md. After retiring, she maintained her license and worked as a private duty nurse until she reached 96 years of age.

“Nursing is so different,” said Crossley, who continues to keep up with changes in the field through her alumni association. When VCU opened its new school of nursing building in 2007, Crossley traveled to Richmond to help cut the ribbon.

“I keep in touch,” she said. “I feel like I have been nursing forever.”

Helen Crossley, RN
Helen Crossley celebrating living at Culpepper Garden for 30 years. Photo credit: Culpepper Garden.

Crossley fondly remembers how her uniform changed during nursing school and how proud she was to wear a white uniform and a cap with a stripe. She bemoans the change in nursing uniforms and the fact you can no longer tell “a nurse from an orderly.”

When the time came to officially retire, she looked around for a nice place she could call home and found Culpepper Garden in Arlington, where she has lived for more than 30 years.

“I made reservations in Arlington cemetery, so I thought the smart thing to do was go to a senior citizen place near there,” Crossley said. “They don’t even have to have a hearse. All they have to do is put rollers on the casket and give it a shove down Arlington Boulevard.”

Fellow residents at Culpepper Gardens often ask her advice about various health concerns. She refers them to the doctor.

Crossley encourages new nurses to “remember the patient is the most important thing. You have to listen and take care of them.”

Never having broken a bone, she remains healthy and active. She cooks for herself, takes an antihypertensive, and is quite proud that she can still take care of herself.

“I always say, ‘This lassie has taken care of her chassis,’ said Crossley, with a chuckle. “Listen to your body.”

Although she has outlived her husband, son, brothers and sisters, Crossley enjoys the company of her nieces and nephews.

“I’ve been very fortunate,” Crossley said. “Have the faith. That’s all you need. Leave it up to the Lord.”

© 2011. AMN Healthcare, Inc. All Rights Reserved. 


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