Innerviews: LPN wraps up 45 hands-on years
CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- It was hard sometimes, caring for the sick, hardest when she could only help them die. But she got used to it. She got good at it, too.
Through it all, she took care of her eight children. And when she wasn't nursing someone on the job, she nursed ailing friends and family members.
Becky Williams spent a working lifetime as a licensed practical nurse, the career she dreamed of as a girl growing up in the coalfields. When she finally enrolled in nursing school, she already had four children.
For the last 37 years, she nursed at the Cabin Creek Health Center. She spent eight years before that at Charleston General Hospital.
Last month, at age 70, she finally had enough gumption to retire. But she probably won't stop taking care of people. She doesn't know anything else.
"When I was really young, we were at Notamine, a little coal mining town that isn't there anymore. They called it Tightroad, because the roads were dirt and there were houses on each side. My mom and dad divorced when I was 2, so my grandparents raised me. They were immigrants from Italy.
"Pawpaw, Jim DeRaimo, came over from Italy and went to work in the coal mines. Two years later, my grandmother came. They got married and had nine kids, one girl and the rest of 'em boys. She raised me until I got married. The divorce wasn't pretty, so my grandmother didn't let me see my mom very much.
"We left Notamine and moved to Chelyan. The turnpike took our house there. We moved to Miami when I was still in grade school. I went two years to St. Agnes in Kanawha City and started junior high in Chelyan.
"From the time I was a kid, I wanted to be a nurse. I had a good life with my grandparents -- excuse me, I'm going to cry -- but it wasn't like growing up with parents. My dad remarried and had kids, and my mom had kids, and it was like I didn't really belong. I just always felt like I wanted to be able to take care of people, to help other people.
"I was at East Bank High in the class of '59 and ended up pregnant. I had one semester to finish. I quit, had my baby and went back to school the next year.
"So I married my baby's father when I was 17, had another baby, then two more babies. Then, with four kids, I decided I wanted to go to LPN school in South Charleston.
"I loved it immediately. I never had any desire to go back to school to be an RN. I liked hands-on patient care.
"I started in pediatrics at General. I requested pediatrics. I was there for three years, got pregnant with twins and left long enough to have my babies. They were two or three weeks old when I went back, this time to General's emergency room.
"I worked the evening shift. I was there when Garrison Avenue flooded. We were wading in water up to our knees. We had several bodies of people who had drowned.
"We were trying to get one old woman undressed and she kept holding to her bra. I finally persuaded her to take it off. There was a sack in there with a wad of money. She had over $3,000 in her bra.
"Then I got pregnant with my son. I quit long enough to have him, then went back to General and floated to all the floors.
"My husband was killed in a car wreck when he was 29, in 1973. I took three months off, but then I had to go back. It was too depressing staying home.
"I remarried three or four years later and had another son. I got rid of that husband and raised those eight kids on my own.
"I came here in '76. This building wasn't done yet, so we opened for two years at Sharon Dawes School. Me, Dr. Robert Young and a receptionist were the only three working. My uncle, Tony DeRaimo, helped get this clinic started. He called and said they were going to start hiring.
"I loved pediatrics, but I loved being here because I knew a lot of people, and I felt like I was coming back to my community and trying to help people I grew up with.
"They started the building in '75 and completed it in '76. There were times when we were seeing 100 patients a day, just the three of us. It would be 8 or 9 at night before I got out of here. And I had seven kids then.
"Everything was paperwork back then, paper charts, paper everything. We did EKGs, but we had to cut them ourselves and mount them because a doctor in Charleston was reading them.
"When I first started here, everybody wore white uniforms. You weren't even allowed to wear pants. Now everybody wears scrubs. Used to be, you had to wear your hat. I got in trouble at General over that. I was in pediatrics and doing a lot of sterile stuff, and kids would jerk my hat off. I got written up because I didn't have a hat on when the supervisor came around.
"Some of the main things we see are hypertension and diabetes. We saw a lot of black lung patients. We had our own black lung program. They sent me to Beckley for training in breathing treatments and all that stuff.
"I loved those old coal miners. They were a hoot. They aren't around anymore. I've seen a lot of people come and a lot of people go.
"I've been here half my life. I've nursed kids and their kids, and now they are having kids. I've known these people for years. They are like my family. I never wore my nametag. Everybody knew me. Nobody has been here longer than me.
"Dr. Young and I delivered a baby across the creek here. We used to do that some. I got a call one day and this lady says, 'Can you come help me? My baby is sick.' She was up in Dawes Hollow.
"When I got there, the baby was unconscious, almost completely gone. I threw the mom, baby and grandmother in the back seat and flew out of that hollow. I was almost ready to deliver my last baby, big as a bear. I kept wondering whether to stop and get help or keep going. I kept going.
"He was 3 years old. He started vomiting. So I was driving with one hand. I was holding the baby's head, my arm over the back seat. When I got here, I kicked the door open in back and screamed for the doctor. He started doing CPR. The baby expired.
"They found me in the stock room crying. I thought I had killed the baby. I thought he had expired on his vomit. That really tore me up. It was one of the worst things I ever went through here. He had a ruptured bowel.
"My dad had a cardiac arrest right outside here. We took the crash cart outside and worked on him. He lived a couple of years after that.
"After hours, I would take care of people, like hospice patients. I've been with lots of people who have died. I even took a hospice class years ago thinking I would want to do that.
"I took care of my family, too. My dad. My uncles. My baby brother who passed away. I've seen so many go.
"It was hard when I had to help my brother die. He had sclerosis, and he was a bad diabetic. He was 49. My dad was sick at the same time. I would work here, go cook for him, leave there and go to South Charleston to take care of my brother.
"The clinic has really grown. Four clinics have branched off from this one -- Clendenin, Sissonville, East Bank Middle School and Riverside High.
"I thought I would just work and work until they carried me out of here, but I have back problems and knee problems, and it was getting too much for me to roll out of bed and try to walk. I retired Aug. 10. They had a big party for me.
"I miss the people, but I enjoy being at home. I've already read six books since I've been off.
"I don't think I would change anything about my life. My kids maybe haven't been the best, but they are what kept me going. The oldest is 52 and the youngest is 35, so I have them at 52, 51, 50, 49, the twins, 42; then 41 and 35. I want to spend more time with them because I didn't get to when they were growing up.
"It hasn't been easy, my life, eight kids, but I feel good about it. And if somebody gets sick, I will be there. I guarantee it."
Reach Sandy Wells at firstname.lastname@example.org or 304-348-5173.