Legacy of Care: Dorothy Kassahn, RN

Dorothy "Dot" Kassahn grew up in Watertown and spent summers with her aunt and uncle in Milwaukee. "I knew the city well," she remembered. "My family owned a business in West Milwaukee, and we would travel around the South Side to buy specialty meats and spices for the lunch crowd."

When her uncle needed vascular surgery for his varicose veins, the family choose Evangelical Deaconess Hospital. Dorothy, a teenager at the time, remembers being immediately impressed. "The hospital was impossibly clean and spotless," she said. "Even the utility rooms were immaculate. Everything had a place, and everything was in its place. The nursing team was extremely organized and moved like clockwork."

"When I went to my guidance counselor, I knew I wanted to be a teacher or a nurse. He recommended the three-year nursing program at Deaconess. Before I was handed that brochure, I'd already made my decision." At the time, three years of nursing school, including instruction, books, housing, uniforms and supplies, cost only $3300.

Nurse training was not what you may expect. "We learned from practicing on each other. Seriously. We had to insert feeding tubes, run IVs, deliver hypodermic shots, and give bed baths -- to each other -- to complete our lessons!"

"Some of the instructors weren't much older than us. One, however, seemed very much older and was a retired Army nurse, Miss Gretenhart, who taught us the fundamentals of nursing. You had to make the bed perfectly to pass her class."

Dorothy also remembers the ritual of "weighing in" with Marion McGill, the employee health nurse. "They wanted to make sure we were eating well, since our tuition didn't include food," laughed Dorothy. "Some of the girls were on fad diets, even back then. I tried an early form of the Atkins Diet and lost 50 pounds while I was in school."

"We had one refrigerator for a whole apartment building of nurses. Since we had to buy our own meals, we had to be conservative with our grocery money. My roommate, Sue Peck, and I had a room on the second floor that faced an alleyway, so in the winter, we stored food out on our window ledge."

"One night we heard a strange sound outside our window, but we didn’t think too much about it. If we had ripped open our curtains right there and then, we would have seen that the security guard had climbed up the wall to our ledge. He probably would have had a heart attack and fallen! The next morning, we were called down to see the housemother and the security guard, who told us not to use the ledge for food storage. After all, the food could fall and hurt someone."

"The housemothers were pretty strict about study time and quiet hours. And we obviously didn't have cell phones or the internet back then. So, you'd think that would cut down on our socializing, right? Wrong! Since our entire bathroom windows opened into a central air shaft, we used that to communicate with each other. You'd knock on the ceiling or stomp on the floor, and that would be your signal to come stick your head out the window and chat."

"Well, one night, we got a brilliant idea. What if we’d call someone to the window to talk and instead, dump a bucket of water on them? Now, we were smart enough to do this in the room across the hall, of course. Soon there was a lot of yelling and hollering going on and the housemother had her hands full trying to find out who was all involved!

Dorothy shared another memorable -- and mischievous -- moment from her time at Deaconess. "Every day, we had morning chapel with our chaplain, Reverend Charles Goldsmith, who was affectionately referred to as 'Charlie Chaplain.' We didn't have live music for chapel, so Rev. Goldsmith would use a record player to supply the music.”

"Well, as you can imagine, we got tired of hearing the same song every day. So, one night, we snuck into the chapel and switched out the record for the Woodstock album. Can you imagine the look on Charlie’s face when, instead of choir music, he would hear Country Joe McDonald singing ‘The Fish Cheer’? That would just about have blown his mind!"

"We had it all set up to play, got back to our dorms, and slept on it. After a good night's sleep, we chickened out! We snuck back into the chapel again and fixed it. The prank wasn't worth it. We wanted to finish nursing school, after all."

After graduating from Deaconess in 1973, Dorothy was hired at Milwaukee County Mental Health - North Division. "I was thrilled to earn a starting wage of $4.99. That was a really big deal. It was an even bigger deal when I got a raise to $5.35!"

Instead of the recommended year of medical/surgical experience, Dorothy went directly into psychiatric care. "At the time, the federal student loan program had a forgiveness clause. If you worked in certain government hospitals, your loan would be forgiven after seven years of service. My plan was to get good experience at County, and then move on to another hospital."

"It didn't quite work out that way. I stayed with County for over 27 years, working in different programs and services. In 2000, I left the Milwaukee County Mental Health Complex and went to work for the Aurora VNA where I was reunited with my roommate Sue Peck. As an education coordinator for the VNA, I wound up teaching after all. I wonder what my guidance counselor would say to that!"

In 2006, Dorothy joined Aurora Psychiatric Hospital, where she is now the only behavioral health clinical nurse specialist for the system.

What Deaconess lessons does Dorothy carry closest to her heart, even today? "We were taught a lot of critical thinking. Why focus on what you don't have? How will you make it work with what you do have? You learned to be responsive and resourceful, no matter what the situation."

"We were also trained to look at a person, as a PERSON. Not as a patient, not as an illness, not as a bed. As a person that somebody loves and cares about."

"Sometimes that gets forgotten in health care, but Deaconess-trained nurses never forget."