Legacy of Care: Beverly Nehring, RN

When Beverly graduated from high school in 1959, she knew she wanted to be a nurse. She also knew she'd need to choose an affordable nursing school. At the time, a three-year program at Milwaukee County Hospital cost just $325. Beverly scheduled an appointment with the nursing school director.

That appointment changed her life.

"She told me, 'Don't waste your time applying for nursing school. You aren't qualified.'"

Always determined and never discouraged, Beverly set her sights on Evangelical Deaconess nursing school. Her grade school friend had already enrolled there, and the hospital was making headlines for its groundbreaking cardiovascular care.

"Deaconess told me, come back after you've had a year of college, and we'll take you." Beverly enrolled at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee for general studies, and returned to join the Deaconess freshman class of 1960. "My friend was now one year ahead of me in the program, so I had a 'big sister' looking out for me," she remembers. "It was SO much work -- but we still had so much fun."

New nursing students were called "probies" while on probation, and wore white gunny sacks with belts rather than the traditional nursing uniform. Students lived in dormitories near the hospital, with 4-6 roommates sharing an apartment. There were no televisions in the rooms or the shared lounge areas, only radios. "The dorms were beautiful, but they were minimal," Beverly remembered. "You were lucky to get weekends off, because we were hospital staff as well as students. It was a special occasion to go home during the school year."

She remembers the daily routine well. "We all had to take turns working in the chapel, which started at 6:30 a.m. Then, we worked in the hospital from 7-11 a.m., walked -- from 16th and Wisconsin -- to MATC downtown for classes until 4 p.m., went back to work from 4-7 p.m., and then did schoolwork from 7-9:30 p.m. We had a free half-hour, and then it was lights out at 10 p.m. Of course, most of us were up studying well past 1 a.m."

"Deaconess Hospital was always full, always busy. Our senior class ran the night shift. We learned an awful lot from being in real-life crisis situations, all day, every day. It was a true baptism by fire."

Beverly shared her most embarrassing story with a smile. "We were allowed to scrub in a physician for surgery. This involved pinning a sterile towel to his back with steel clips. Well, I secured the towel a little too tightly -- right through his scrubs and into his skin! The doctor turned around and calmly said to my instructor, 'Will you please ask your student to please remove these clips out of my back?'"

While some of her classmates did rotations at Milwaukee County and Children's Hospitals, Beverly was part of a class who trained at Cook County Hospital in Chicago for six months. She would take the old North Shore Line train from Milwaukee to Chicago's near south side. "It was Culture Shock 101," she said. "The hospital was doing 1,000 births a month at the time. We had women lining up on gurneys in the halls, waiting to give birth."

Beverly, wearing her Miss Trinity sash, rode in several local parades during her time at Trinity Memorial Hospital.

Beverly remembers being at Cook County during the April 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion. "We were far away from our families, not sure what was going to happen next in the world. It was a very strange feeling, and a very strange time. Some people just couldn't handle it."

"Nursing school could be like that at times. It sometimes seemed impossible to get through just one more day. But we supported each other, and helped each other, and we did get through it. It wasn't just starting the program, it was staying with the program. I feel those who stayed were the ones who REALLY wanted to be nurses."

Beverly graduated from Deaconess in 1963. "Capping was a precious ceremony," said Beverly. "When you walked down the aisle with your candle, kneeled for your capping, and were crowned with that black velvet band, you had made the big time. To this day, capping is one of my very favorite memories."

"Each school had its own style of nurses' cap. At Deaconess, we needed to fold our own hat into five pleats with great precision. It was a tough job to get it right! It was a very definitive look, though. Patients could tell you were a nurse right away. People saw that black band and knew you were well trained."

In 1964, she joined Trinity Memorial Hospital (now Aurora St. Luke's South Shore) where she eventually opened the first Critical Care Unit and implemented the first defibrillator in the state of Wisconsin. "It was as tall as a doorway and totally intimidating," she remembered. Over the years, she worked in several units, and even represented the hospital as "Miss Trinity" in the South Milwaukee Music Festival and Patrick Cudahy parades. "Nurses' skirts were very short at the time," Beverly laughed. "You really had to keep your knees tightly together on that float."

When Beverly continued her education at Alverno College, she was surprised to run into a familiar face: Delores Nix, her former nursing instructor at Deaconess. As part of the Deaconess Alumni Association, she is now involved in planning this year's 50 Year class reunion. "I have always valued education," said Beverly, "and I feel I got the most I could have ever gotten for my money. My only regret is that so many of my classmates wound up in careers outside nursing.”

In January 2014, Beverly will retire with over 50 years of nursing experience, 40 of which were within the Aurora system. "I'll have to give up my pager," she laughed. "I don't even know what that feels like."

"It's easy to say things are so much different today, but they really shouldn't be. The patient stays the same no matter what changes with technology or research. Computers are tools: they don't override the patient experience. We are human beings and we work together to heal."

"My three years at Deaconess gave me both instructional learning and intense hands-on experience. I was able to rotate through operating rooms, labor and delivery, medical/surgical, pediatrics, psychiatric, cardiovascular and other programs, well before graduating. I learned how to see clinical symptoms and patients' responses without technology. I fine-tuned my intuition and observation to piece things together, and see the patient picture as a whole. I gained a base of confidence in my abilities that nobody can take away."

"That's what I learned at Deaconess."