Legacy of Care: Sybille Fortin, RN

As a 16-year-old candy striper at a local nursing home, Sybille knew she wanted to be a nurse.

"At that time, you had two choices for nurse education: a four-year program, which was more about health care administration careers at the time, and a three-year program, which offered hands-on patient care," said Sybille. "I knew right away I wanted the hands-on option."

"I went to Deaconess Hospital (1821 W. Wisconsin Ave.) just to see it in person. The hospital had a dignified, distinguished sense of history, which appealed to me even then. Deaconess was also known for its groundbreaking cancer care. Dr. John Hurley, a prominent oncologist, was doing amazing things at Deaconess that nobody else could touch."

"There was this sense of a proud history, and a forward-looking vision, all happening at once."

Sybille knew that Deaconess School of Nursing was right for her. She had considered Columbia Hospital's nursing school, but there was one problem. "I didn't like the hats," Sybille laughed.

Born and raised in South Milwaukee, Sybille met students from across the Midwest. "We were originally a class of 50," said Sybille, "and that included girls from Michigan, Green Bay, Kiel, Neenah-Menasha, Madison, and Steven's Point. I had never known so many people from outside the Milwaukee area."

Nursing was very different in the early 1970s. "Nurses were not allowed to discuss diagnosis, medication, or medical treatment with patients or families," Sybille remembered. "The doctor was the one and only point person."

"We were trained to stand up and offer our chairs to doctors whenever they entered a room," Sybille said.

"It was just the best education. I absolutely loved it. We worked hard for that degree for three solid years, with only two weeks off in summer. It was tough. Our instructors were very regimented and rigid."

"Our nursing director told us, 'You will quit at least 60 times while you're in school. Just don't give in.' And I didn't!"

"In the end, it was absolutely rewarding. The experience was invaluable. You were totally immersed in direct patient care, from the very beginning."

"Our instructors always centered our focus on the needs of the patient as a person, even back then," said Sybille. "We were always reminded that we were caring for human beings, and were allowed to be human ourselves. We were 18, 19, 20 years old, often caring for patients not much older than ourselves."

As part of practical training, student nurses completed rotations at many local hospitals. Sybille's career interest in behavioral health services sparked during an assignment at the Milwaukee County Mental Health Complex.

"When I first met my patient, she had styled herself after Mr. Spock. She had disassociated so far from our world that she thought she was part of the Star Trek universe. By the end of her treatment, I walked into her room and she was a totally different person. She said, 'This is who I really am, not how I was, not how you saw me.'

"That was it. I was sold. I thought, if we can help people this way, I want to be part of psychiatric nursing."

In 1975, Sybille was one of 36 Deaconess graduates. She began an internship at Family Hospital (2711 W. Wells St.). "During our last semester, we were team leading on all three shifts. We were trained to run the hospital. By the time I got to Family, everyone was just in awe at the experiences I'd already had."

"I absolutely made the right choice in nursing schools. What you learned at Deaconess, you knew. Without any question, you knew it utterly and completely."

Sybille was living in Oklahoma when the Deaconess Hospital campus closed in the Good Samaritan Medical Center merger. While the buildings are gone, the legacy of nursing care continues.

What advice does Sybille have for today's nurse graduates? "Always listen to your patients. Really listen. You will learn more than you think."