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50 years of service: Palmer celebrates milestone in nursing career

The Energizer Bunny's got nothing on Julia Palmer. Monday, Mrs. Palmer celebrated her 50th year in nursing and she plans to keep going.

"I've always looked at it as a calling, not a job," she said. "I still like it as much now as I did back then. ... I've been blessed with very good health, so I haven't seen any reason to retire yet."

Seventeen of those years have been in the Intensive Care Unit at the McDuffie Regional Medical Center, where she "likes the people."

"She's very easy to get along with, a very easy partner to work with," said Wanda Dyches, a licensed practical nurse. "We've been working together for so long, we don't even have to talk about what we are going to do. It's like the right hand knows what the left hand is doing. We just go to work."

It's as if she was born for it. Although her mother and sister were teachers, Mrs. Palmer said she wanted to be a nurse since she was a small child. She attended nursing school in Macon, where she said "school was year-around for three years," and graduated on Sept. 24, 1957. During her first year of school, Mrs. Palmer married her husband, Dennis, who was made an honorary member of the class.

The marriage is still going strong today after 52 years. The Palmers live in Washington and have one son, Eddie, three daughters, Beth, Carol and Dona, and eight grandchildren.

"Macon was the first school in the state that allowed us to be married and attend school," she said. "My husband lived in Louisville, and I was in school in Macon, so we never argued about anything."

In the 1950's, Mrs. Palmer said nursing students wore white dresses and received a cap after completing their first nine weeks of school.

"It was a certain milestone," she said. "And you never wore your cap outside of the hospital."

Each school had their own distinctive cap. Mrs. Palmer said nurses working in hospitals recognized where others had attended school by their cap's design. Mrs. Palmer's cap was a piece of white material, which she would starch heavily and "press it against the side of my refrigerator until it would dry. Then I would peel it off like a piece of cardboard and fold it ... curl my hair through it and put a pin in it."

It's one tradition she doesn't miss. Dressed in scrubs with a blue floral print, Mrs. Palmer said the white uniforms were not practical for the demands of the job.

"And those caps kind of got in the way, even though the tradition was nice," she said. "They got in the way, especially in critical care. ... I can tell you the way we dress now is much more comfortable."

And it's a good thing since the job is even "more physical these days." Mrs. Palmer said she misses the male orderlies who used to assist nurses.

"When I have to lift a heavy patient, I have to go out and get more troops," she said with a laugh.

But the evolution of gender roles in society has been good for the health profession, according to Mrs. Palmer. When she first graduated, Mrs. Palmer said nurses had to stand at attention when a doctor walked in. And the doctors gave orders to the nurses rather than talked with them.

"We don't do that any more. We listen to them because three-quarters of the time they are right," Dr. Frank Powell said with a laugh.

While it is the doctors' responsibility to make the decisions, Dr. Powell said it only makes sense to listen to the nurses because they spend much more time with the patient. Dr. Powell said he feels comfortable with Mrs. Palmer taking care of his patients.

"She's always in a good mood," he said. "She knows what to expect. She's very practical minded. She's smart. She's sweet. She's very helpful. She's just all those good things."

Mrs. Palmer admits that advances in medical equipment have made her job easier. From intravenous therapy monitors that regulate the flow of fluids to fetal monitors that keep a constant check on a baby's vital signs during delivery, Mrs. Palmer has seen and appreciates it all.

But the greatest improvement in saving lives Mrs. Palmer has seen is the addition of Emergency Medical Technicians. Before McDuffie Regional, Mrs. Palmer said she worked in the Emergency Room at Athens General.

"I have seen people that could have lived if they had an EMT," she said quietly. "Before EMTs, if they lived, it was only by the will of God. Of course, I understand that everything is by the will of God, but EMTs is a good thing now. ... If they weren't good with their work, then we wouldn't have any patients to work on."

And no matter how many times she has seen it, the death of a patient is a traumatic experience for the veteran nurse. In nursing school, Mrs. Palmer said she was taught to remain unemotional around patients.

"Now, I cry with the family," she said. "When people are dying, and you know there's nothing else that can be done, you just work with the family."

But not all endings are sad.

"Sometimes I think a patient couldn't possibly survive. And then, they get well and they get to go back home," Mrs. Palmer said.

It's a thought that makes her smile.

Web posted on Thursday, September 27, 2007

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