LONG BEACH - Well wishers filtered in and out Wednesday afternoon at the Harbors Home Health and Hospice station on Pacific Avenue. Donna Mead, RN, was on both the giving and receiving ends of big sincere hugs and thank yous. It was an emotional experience that day, realizing that she was saying goodbye to 20 years of work with the organization and a total of 44 years of nursing. But her bright yellow Volkswagen Bug, parked outside the front door, was evidence that this nurse is energetic, young at heart and will keep active as a retiree.
It seems that Donna always knew she wanted to be a nurse. Born and raised in Pittsburgh, Pa., she has fond memories of visiting her Aunt Dolly's workplace - the emergency room of Allegheny General Hospital. In a memoir Mead recently put together, she wrote, I would visit her and for some reason, I loved the hospital. The smell, the activity and just everything about it.
Donna entered nursing school at that same hospital in 1963. She said it was a strict environment, with uniform hems that had to fall well below the knees, demands of signing in and out and a rule of no men on the first floor. Marriage while in school was not allowed. But that didn't stop Donna, in 1964, from finding Dean Mead, the man she would ultimately marry. She wrote, I fell in love with a wonderful man from Portland, Oregon. He was attending Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, studying to become a Presbyterian Minister.
Her graduation in September 1966 led her to a job in an 18-bed women's medical ward, hard work that paid just $4 an hour. She took her state board tests in December and shortly after, on Christmas Eve, married Dean. When he became a minister, the couple began a series of moves orchestrated by his profession. And wherever they went, Donna always found work as a nurse. Her experiences were varied and she wraps up her experiences as a nurse as being "exciting."
On the move
Their first move was to Erie, Pa., where Dean was associate pastor of a large church and Donna worked in a hospital urology surgery department. It was in that town that their first son, David, was born.
From there, they moved to Union City, Pa., where Dean pastored two churches and Donna worked as an on-call nurse and also became the mother of their second child, Dustin. Recalling this period of their lives, Donna wrote, Dean prayed that our churches would catch spiritual fire. But little did they know that one of those churches would literally catch on fire. They felt indirectly responsible for the half-burned pews and fire-scorched sanctuary carpet.
Donna's memoir states, We were given a rug in the manse that was very old. A Persian rug with colors gone and it was also threadbare. We asked if we could replace it and they reluctantly said yes. They cleaned the carpet and placed it in the church loft.
Heat from lights that shone on the stained glass, combined with cleaning fluid, produced a combustion that was not doused by divine intervention. Dean and Donna felt "really bad" when they viewed the ruins of the church. They stayed in Union City until a new church was built and until, we had had enough snow to last a lifetime. They moved to San Manuel, Ariz., In 1975.
Nursing in a mining town hospital
San Manuel was a town site and everything was owned by a copper mine company. Donna went to work at the company hospital, experiencing the joys of babies born to the town's young families. But there was also heartbreak. She wrote, I learned quickly the mine was not safe.
Media coverage of the recent West Virginia mining tragedies have spurred a lot of emotion in Donna, as she recalls what went on in San Manuel. West Virginia, she wrote, brought back to me the safety violations that are present. I became very troubled over (companies) making money at the disregard for human life. One night (in San Manuel) a young man fell down the main shaft at the mine and his remains were recovered in multiple plastic sacks. His wife went into labor with their baby, with the shock. The management of the mine came to her hospital room and bought her with money, to not press charges for the death."
This experience spurred Donna into ending her career at that mining company's hospital. Speaking Sunday from her home in Ocean Park, she expressed how sorry she feels for mining families that face tragedy. "They're just trying so hard to make a living, so they put up with a lot."
Not all mining companies have disregard for their workers. Donna learned that when she went to work for a hospital in an environment run by Kennecott, another copper mine, in Kearney, Ariz. This was an open pit mine and miners had fewer injuries. The company cared about its workers. Donna recalled in her memoir, I loved it there but it was 45 miles across the desert floor. Here again, we worked the ER, clinic, nursery, surgery floor and also the shops throughout the mine. It was busy and I learned a lot. Never knew what to expect and each day was different. I would work nights there and Dean would bring the kids on Friday nights and sleep in the van. In the morning, he would drive me home."
A hospice situation early on
Their residence was still in San Manuel. And it was in that town that Donna said she got her first dose of hospice care. This was not yet something widely practiced. In fact, in this case, Donna said that local doctors were not interested in supporting a family about to lose a child. The request was for that child to stay in her home.
A little girl, Tammy, in our church, had leukemia. She was not doing well and her family could not tolerate any more hospital stays, so they wanted her to stay home to die.
Donna explained that while it was a tough situation for all concerned, having the child at home was good for the family. Tammy died at home, in her mother's arms.
Transitioning from Arizona
to the Long Beach Peninsula
Even with the emotional ups and downs Donna experienced while nursing in San Manuel, she wrote, Those were good years; a church full of kids and energy and our kids were growing and we were warm. But the constant sun rays of Arizona were swapped for Long Beach weather when the Mead family moved to the Peninsula in 1984. Donna recalled, It was time for a little rain.
After the move, Donna said, "I went to work at New Seaera. That's Long Beach Retirement now, by the fire hall. It was hard work."
In 1990, a woman named Phyllis Hernandez approached Donna at work and asked if she'd be interested in employment in the home health field. At that time, the agency Phyllis spoke of was also just starting to do some hospice work. This agency, Harbors Home Health & Hospice, became Donna's passion for the next 20 years. In the beginning, she recalled, she worked with, Betty Chambers, Teri Lundberg and Juanita Hoyt. Hospice might have been started across the country sooner, but Donna said, "It was just getting started in our agency then."
The agency got quite busy and at one point, had 8 RNs. Donna said that through the years, they had many nurses and it was great for her to know we were all being responsible and could be trusted to do what was needed in a timely fashion. I feel comforted that they will continue to serve the people.
Looking back at her 20 years with Harbors, Donna said, "I've done home health and hospice - both of them, all through the years. With home health, we'd go visit people in their homes and sometimes see 5 or 6 people a day."
Did she get attached to the home health and hospice people she cared for? "Oh, so much!" she said. "You grow to love them. And it's so hard, because (with hospice care) I've lost so many people. I've just walked with so many people through death." But her faith is what undoubtedly got her through.
She took care of people in a wide range of ages, from the elderly to an infant. "I took care of a baby that died," she recalled. "That was a hard one. He was a newborn, probably less than a month old."
When asked about the most rewarding part of this work, she answered quickly and positively. "To me, it's been getting to know such wonderful people. Sometimes, when I'm driving down the road, I think, 'I've been in all these houses.' And the thing is, people have invited me into their homes, trusting me. It's quite an honor."
And now that she has retired, she can call on those memories when she feels nostalgic. She said that Dean retired in 2000 and occasionally preaches when called. "He's always done that, on and off. He just preaches every so often." But both she and Dean are now official retirees.
Dean's model railroad hobby keeps him busy. He said at Donna's retirement party that he needs about three days of good, dry weather and he'll be able to set up his garden railroad in the yard of their Ocean Park home. Donna said that will continue to be his dedicated pasttime and he'll be doing it on his own, "Or he'll get me into it," she laughed. She said that he has given her a little section of land and she's going to "develop a farm. So, that's my project. I have the barn and a farmhouse and just need to get out there and fix it up."
But in the next month, she and Dean will be busy with plans for a wedding on May 15, when their son, Dustin, will marry Dee Dee Eaton.
And for August, Dean and Donna have planned to go on a cruise to Alaska. But before the wedding and prior to the cruise, they'll be delighted in following the request of their grown children and four grandchildren (ages 6, 8, 10 and 12) who, she said, "gave me a book Saturday. They each made pages with gift cards on them. It's a huge book. They said we have to spend the gift cards. There are 10 for restaurants and some for movies, books and gas. It's a wonderful gift. And the pages are filled with pictures of the grandchildren. The pictures are just so precious. It's real sweet."
Donna and Dean are looking forward to the adventures this gift will provide. And you can bet that when they're driving to the places where they'll use the gift cards, they'll be in Donna's bright yellow VW Bug. Her hands will be tight on the wheel. And for years, she'll keep a close watch on where she leaves her car keys. She laughed and spoke of her grandchildren. "They're all vying for my Volkswagen."