On Their Way – Gwen Mayhew, a calling to serve

Gwen Mayhew (above) as a senior at Martha's Vineyard Regional High School in 2005. — File photo by Photo courtesy of Gwen Mayhew.

On Their Way is a new, occasional series, in which The Times introduces Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School graduates who have moved on to establish themselves in careers on- or off-Island. We are looking for young people who have distinguished themselves by their accomplishments in business, in social services, in the military, in academics, in fact in any meaningful way you might imagine. Your suggestions will be welcomed by Nelson Sigelman or Whit Griswold, at The Times.

Late last month Ensign Gwen Mayhew, MVRHS class of 2005, relaxed in the kitchen of her family home overlooking Menemsha Pond, having recently completed a deployment on the USNS Comfort, a hospital ship off Port au Prince, Haiti, where she served as a trauma nurse to Haitian earthquake victims.

Gwen graduated with a BS in Nursing from Cedar Crest College in May of last year, passed her nursing boards and became an RN in July, and completed Navy Officers’ Development School in September. At her job at the National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda, Md., she had had only a few weeks’ supervised experience when she heard that some in her unit might be deployed to Haiti. She went to her superior and asked to join the deployment, saying that after thinking about it, she discovered that she had a strong calling to be there and help.

“Calling” is not a word Gwen uses lightly. In her churchgoing family, it is the way that one describes a strong impulse, perhaps divinely inspired, to a personal ministry. There were many volunteers, and Gwen had essentially no experience. Nevertheless, she was chosen.

Amy Edgar, assistant professor of nursing at Cedar Crest, comments about that on the college web site, “While she was at Cedar Crest College, Gwen served on the honor board and in a variety of leadership roles on campus. She really is an amazing person and I’m not surprised they selected her above so many others.”

After what had been essentially very gentle training for rookie nurses in the mother-and-infant ward at Bethesda, the USNS Comfort was a huge change. “I had never been independent, never had my own patients, never treated amputations, never treated a burn patient,” Gwen told The Times.

Suddenly she had 14 patients, all suffering from terrible earthquake injuries, and all the other nurses were just as swamped as she was and too busy themselves to offer much help. Few of her patients spoke English. It was a baptism by fire. “There was no time to think,” she says. “Just do it.”

When Gwen graduated from the Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School in 2005, she had no plans to become a nurse. Having volunteered at the SPCA and worked at Vineyard Veterinary Clinic, she thought she might want to be a veterinarian, and at Cedar Crest (her mother, Lois’s, alma mater) she started as a major in conservation biology as a preparation for vet school. Perhaps, she says, her work for the Nature Conservancy was an influence in that choice, and she credits her MVRHS biology teacher, Michael Joyce, for a sound preparation.

However, by the end of her sophomore year at Cedar Crest, she was uneasy with the thought of working with animals and wanted a career with more human contact. At the same time, she learned of the US Navy Nurse Candidate Program, which would help pay for her final two years at Cedar Crest in return for five years’ active duty in the Navy. Gwen told The Times that she had always been interested in the military because her father, Greg, and her uncles had all served. She changed her major to nursing and signed up to graduate with a commission in the Navy.

Gwen’s sense that saving lives in Haiti was work she wanted to do became reinforced as she lived through the exhaustion and horror and triumphs of the Comfort’s wards. “It was a life-changing experience,” she says thoughtfully. “I had the sense that I was meant to be there. I was in the right place at the right time.” Now she is thinking of volunteering to go to Afghanistan, where she can put her trauma-ward experience to work.

Will Gwen stay in the military after her five years are up? She says that she is proud of our country and proud of her military service. She would be happy to make the Navy a career. On the other hand, she has already seen the disruption that deployment causes to families with small children. Having a family someday is in Gwen’s plans, and she is realistic that she may have to make a choice between civilian family life and the Navy.