Shenandoah Alumni and Faculty Remember 50 Years of Nursing

Shenandoah Alumni and Faculty Remember 50 Years of Nursing

No matter your age, you likely know something about the 1960s: The Beatles, President Kennedy’s assassination, the Six-Day War, the Civil Rights Act, Neil Armstrong’s walk on the moon and the Vietnam War. It was in the midst of this tumultuous time that Shenandoah’s first graduating class of nurses completed their studies and began their professional careers. 

Their stories comprise a rich and fascinating history of a profession that has seen rapid and amazing changes. From physicians’ helpers in starched white uniforms to technology-savvy health-care team leaders, nurses have met the ongoing challenges of a changing world and redefined their roles to become the influential leaders and caregivers they are today. Yet through the changes and the evolution of the profession, nurses retain a commitment to service, caring and giving, and a dedication to making a difference.

“What has not changed is our love and compassion for people that led us down the career path of nursing,” said Cheryl Golembiewski Gearhart ’74, ASN.

Dressing the Part: Uniform ‘Fashion’

During the 1960s, nurses were almost exclusively female, and their dress code reflected society’s traditional interpretation of women’s roles. They wore white uniforms with starched caps, pins, capes, white hose and shoes. Nurses were not allowed to wear jewelry or cosmetics. Hems were measured from the ground up so that, in a line of nurses, all hem lengths fell just below the knees at exactly the same spot.

“Now, can you believe nurses are wearing colored scrubs instead of all white uniforms with caps?” said Ellen Hammack Yoder ’66, who received her associate’s degree and later returned for an MBA.

Yoder noted that handwriting was much more important then. She fondly recalls the cooperative relationships between the university and the community, as well as riding on Shenandoah’s float in the 1965 and 1966 Apple Blossom parades.

Sally Burton Neff ASN ‘89, BSN ‘97, recalls the number of bobby pins necessary to hold her cap in place. When working toward her ASN, Neff said, “The caps were enormous and took multiple bobby pins to secure, and we had to carry them around in a special little box when not in use. They would get caught on the curtains dividing the patient beds when I was trying to crank up the head of the bed or work with IV pumps and lines.”

When Neff returned to Shenandoah for her BSN, “The code had changed considerably. We were able to wear pants and tennis shoes [rather than white oxford tie shoes], and no caps. Because of the need for maneuverability, we were able to function more efficiently… and our heads didn’t hurt from the caps and bobby pins.”

Barbara Bryant McWhinney, ASN ’66, BSN ’94, is a Winchester native, and a respected member of the Winchester Medical Center staff. A graduate of one of the first classes of nurses, McWhinney remembers that students weren’t allowed to wear the standard white hose worn by nurses. She recalls a “rebel” nurse in 1977 or 1978, who came to work in a pantsuit. According to McWhinney, “This was unheard of, and we were concerned about what would happen to her.”

The cultural changes in the late 1960s and 1970s paved the way for less conservative nursing uniforms. Technological advances in textiles facilitated the change to scrubs, as the cloth was made more stain-resistant and more easily laundered. Scrubs first arrived in the operating rooms and then transitioned to the nursing profession. Male and female nurses both approved of the unisex design, and scrubs are now a primary identifier of health care professionals. Both Inova Health System and Valley Health have adopted colored scrubs as a means of identifying their nursing staff, maintaining consistency and presenting a professional image.

Program and Facility Changes

McWhinney participated in the collaborative program with the Winchester Memorial Hospital established in the 1960s. She recalls Shenandoah’s first clinical labs were performed behind the band room in Racey Hall on campus. These facilities were remarkably different from the modern classrooms and labs now offered at the Health Professions Building on the campus of the Winchester Medical Center.

“Student nurses had no ‘sim labs’ in those days, and we had to make three kinds of beds: without patient, with patient and an ‘ether’ bed for the patient arriving back in a room after surgery or giving birth,” said McWhinney. “Three drugs were used: sulfa, penicillin and ether. The pharmaceutical companies had not yet created the variety of medicines we have now.”

Helen Zebarth, BSN, M.Ed., FCN, served as a full-time professor at Shenandoah University for 25 years and director of the Mary B. Wilkins Wellness Center until her retirement in June 2004. Since then, she has served as an adjunct professor, teaching two courses a semester. Zebarth considers Shenandoah’s transition from an associate’s degree to the bachelor’s degree and now advanced degrees as major milestones. She remembers the momentum created during the program’s move to new facilities.

“It was exciting when the nursing program moved first from the basement of Cooley Hall to the John Kerr Building, and then later into the Health Professions Building,” said Zebarth. “Those moves made a powerful and positive effect on the students, faculty and academic programs.”

She also described the beneficial results of the university’s outreach into the community. “Shenandoah students [and alumni] practice in all areas of health care, from the WATTS program for the homeless and the Free Medical Clinic to the Winchester Family Clinic and the Migrant Camp,” said Zebarth. “These all help the entire community to stay healthier.”

A Close-Knit Community

Alumna Valerie Kerby Hyde, BSN ‘07, remembers her days at Shenandoah as “a tight group of classmates. The 35 of us…literally spent our lives together [during] those five semesters. I remember, after we graduated, checking email to see when everyone passed their NCLEX [exams] and obtained their first jobs.”

Kimberley D. Ryan, ASN ’01, BSN ’02, MSN ’06, DNP ’10, said she returned to Shenandoah to continue her nursing education “because I liked the close-knit community.”

Ruth Unhoch Wenzel, ASN ’88, BSN ’90, MSN ’98, prepared for a variety of career paths and returned to Shenandoah each time to advance her career. Born and raised in Winchester, she has spent 24 years at Valley Health in various capacities and currently serves on Shenandoah’s Alumni Board of Directors. In 1999, she became a family nurse practitioner and a certified diabetes educator for diabetes management. She talks to high school students on career days and served on the Nursing Advisory Board.

“As a member of the first class of nurse practitioner students, we were a small group of eight,” said Wenzel. “We voted to take classes through the summer to finish in two-and-a-half years. We shared laughter and tears. It was intense. We all grew up, grew smarter and grew together. Attending Shenandoah equipped me for the real-world workforce.”

Current students appreciate both the close relationships with faculty members and the opportunities to take their skills out of the classroom. Leslie Purcell ’13 , BSN, participated in a medical mission trip to Brazil during spring break.

“It allowed me to put my practical skills and my knowledge to use while providing health care in a remote country,” said Purcell.

Changing Roles of Nurses

Chris Francis, ’76, ASN, ’85 BSN, was one of the first male nurses at Valley Health/Winchester Medical Center. Francis came from Sri Lanka to the United States with a green card, sponsored by a local family. He began his career at Winchester Medical Center as an orderly and nursing assistant. He entered Shenandoah’s nursing program and earned a bachelor’s degree and then a master’s degree. He later became the first male head nurse at Winchester Medical Center. Since then, he has become a respected leader. His name tag now reads “RN – Director: Renal, GI, Endocrine, Neurology and Oncology.”

How nurses relate with doctors has changed, too. McWhinney is now a wound and ostomy  continence nurse–a very specialized position. Fifty years ago, nurses were viewed as little more than assistants; they were helpers handing tools to doctors in the operating room or administering prescribed drugs. Back then, it was considered improper etiquette for a nurse to address a doctor. Nurses now enjoy partnerships, communicating vital information about patients, providing input into treatment plans and making independent  decisions about patients in their care. This new relationship standard is the result of more rigorous education and training standards that lead to advanced degrees, and to the BSN becoming the entry-level degree for a professional career.