I am a Sister Nurse: My Story

Sister Rosemary Donley PhD, APRN, FAAN

I was asked to share my experiences of being a very young sister and a diploma nursing student at the same time.  I entered the Sisters of Charity of Seton Hill in Greensburg PA after I completed high school.  I had idealistic ideas about serving God and helping others.  I thought that I would be an English teacher or a librarian. The following year, the canonical novitiate, I was given the habit and assigned to help in the diet kitchen at Assumption Hall, our infirmary.  My responsibilities were similar to what happens in today’s hospitals and nursing homes.  The novices set up the hot cart; assembled the trays; placed cold food on the trays and took the hot cart and the trays to the infirmary floor.  We then served and collected the trays to our senior and sick sisters; returned all the equipment to the kitchen and cleaned up.  We served three meals a day. cross

The Sister in charge of the diet kitchen asked me to take trays to Mother Rose Genevieve.  Mother Rose, as we called her, was old, suffered from several chronic diseases, and had demonstrable joint damage from rheumatic arthritis.  Most days, she was alert and very concerned about the welfare and lives of the novices.  During her long and very admirable life, she had served as President of Seton Hill College, Administrator of Pittsburgh Hospital and Major Superior.  She was a wisdom figure and I was so pleased to get to know her.

At the end of the canonical year, I was sent to Pittsburgh Hospital to take an admission test for their school of nursing.  I began the program that summer at Seton Hill College studying chemistry, microbiology, anat
omy, physiology and psychology.  We had long week days and classes on Saturday mornings.  At the end of the summer, we went to Pittsburgh Hospital and became probationary students, “probies.”  Unlike my classmates, who were clearly identified by their uniforms, I was dressed like the supervisor or the Director of Nursing.

In those days, diploma nursing students were introduced into the clinical area in their first semester.  I remember my introductory statement, I am not the Supervisor; I am a first year student.  I also recall being assigned to a critically ill patient during the Christmas holidays.  He had acute renal failure and his level of consciousness was low.   I was very apprehensive because I was studying foundations of nursing and my patient needed so much more than a clean bed, good positioning and morning care.  It occurred to me that I could pray for him; I did.  As I matured and continued in the program, I affirmed a new and more positive identity.  I am a sister nurse.  While my classmates struggled with relational challenges, working through the developmental tasks of late adolescence, I tried to reconcile the priorities and norms of the novitiate with those of professional nursing.  Some of the expectations were incompatible.

At the end of the novitiate, the Mistress of Novices asked me an interesting question.     Which program was harder, the novitiate or nurses training?  I thought: she will not like my answer.  I said nursing school was more difficult because if you made a mistake or forget something in the novitiate, the consequences are not serious.  However, in the hospital, errors and omissions put patients and colleagues in jeopardy.

Years later, when I was a staff nurse, I learned why I was chosen to go to nursing school.  Mother Rose told the Mistress of Novices that I would be a good nurse.  I was tall and would command respect and I was kind.  I was also kind and ill people, especially chronically ill people, need kindness and compassion.

You can see where I come from by googling http://www.scsh.org

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