All in good time: Gladys Welch retires
Going to work at the Martha's Vineyard Hospital was the most natural thing in the world for Gladys Combra. Her sisters and her mother, a nurse, worked at the hospital. Gladys started there part-time while attending Oak Bluffs High School, then headed off to nursing school in 1946 and returned full time after graduation.
Now, 59 working years later, as she begins retirement, Gladys (Combra) Welch says that nursing was everything she had hoped it would be. The explanation is simple. "I like helping people," Ms. Welch, 79, of Vineyard Haven said this week.
Ms. Welch's career, first at the Martha's Vineyard Hospital and later at the Windemere Nursing and Rehabilitation Center, testifies to the accuracy of her self-assessment.
Ms. Welch had a variety of nursing assignments at the hospital, from 1952 to 1970, including 15 years in the operating and emergency rooms and two in the maternity labor and delivery rooms. In 1954, Miss Combra became Gladys Welch and continued to work because, she says, she did not want to "waste any of my nursing career."
In 1970, when her son Darren was born, she took her six week maternity leave, and when she was ready to return to work there was no job for her. So from 1970 to 1974, Ms. Welch owned and operated an answering service. It was not until 1977 that Ms. Welch, then a widow with three children - Darren and Neil, and Diane - was able to secure another nursing job at the hospital.
From 1977 to 1996, Ms. Welch worked non-stop at the hospital on the evening and night shifts. In 1996, when the hospital filed for bankruptcy, Ms. Welch took a voluntary layoff. She returned the following year as a per diem employee at Windemere.
Ms. Welch recalls that in the early years of her nursing career, there was no disposable equipment. "We had to wash out the gloves and bed pans and syringes every time, because we were going to use them again." And the technology has changed. "I remember when all we had were X-rays, and people had to go off-Island for a CT-scan."
Louise Yapp of Vineyard Haven attended nursing school with Ms. Welch, and they worked together for the nearly 50 years Ms. Yapp worked at the hospital. Ms. Yapp describes her classmate and career partner as "a very, very good nurse. She was thorough, and she always followed through."
Further, Ms. Yapp said, "In a group of nurses we would have to support each other. Gladys was supportive, she was encouraging. She was just a real good, old-fashioned nurse. That's what we were taught, and we had very, very good training in those days."
While working at the hospital, Ms. Welch found herself drawn to the elderly patients, so the move to working at Windemere in 1997 was enjoyable. "Physically it was harder at Windemere because for the residents this was their home, and whatever they wanted you tried to do to the best you could to get them."
At Windemere, Ms. Welch's responsibilities included supervising the certified nursing assistants (CNAs). "I had to see that they knew what they were to do, and I needed to be able to find the answers to their questions," she said.
Simone Brewer, of Edgartown, is a licensed practical nurse (LPN) who began working at the Windemere four years ago as a CNA. Ms. Brewer told The Times that when new nurses needed answers to questions, Ms. Welch was the person to whom they turned.
"I am speaking for a lot of people when I say that this woman should be honored for what she did in her lifetime. She gave nurses such knowledge and understanding." Another co-worker said that Windemere residents would see that gray hair and feel a connection.
Ms. Welch said she has a "lot of compassion." At Windemere, when patients were nearing the end of life, it was her job to "make them as comfortable as possible and let them leave in peace and with dignity." She also found herself helping family members, because "it is difficult for people to accept that they have to put a loved one in the nursing home rather than staying at home."
On December 11, Mrs. Welch headed off for a three-week vacation. While on vacation, she just decided "it was time" and tendered her resignation.
When she returned from that vacation and realized that she was, in fact, retired, Ms. Welch said she "could not believe I wasn't going back" because she enjoyed working with "a lot of lovely people - nurses, doctors, the different employees - have always been nice and cooperative."
But one of the young physicians had taken to saying "Hi, grandma" to her in passing. "I have white hair and that was all she could think of, so perhaps it was about time."
What's next? Ms. Welch says she doesn't know yet, but gardening, and "beaching it" will be part of her next career.
Susan L. Silk is a frequent contributor to The Times.