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Innerviews: At 90, nursing memories remain close to her heart

CHRIS DORST | Gazette photos
Nursing matriarch Bettie Burdette, 90, proudly displays the registered nurse certificate, presented to her by the state in 1945. The St. Albans resident went on to devote the rest of her working life to the career she chose at the start of World War II. She retired as nursing director at CAMC Memorial.
CHRIS DORST | Gazette Bettie Burdette — Innerviews: She just turned 90, Old-line nurse ER, OR and nursing instructor and director of nursing at CAMC/Memorial...still has get-togethers with old doctor and nursing friends.
COURTESY PHOTO-B&W In 1945, Bettie Burdette was all smiles over her new role as a registered nurse at Charleston General Hospital.
COURTESY PHOTO As an athletic 17-year-old, Charleston West Sider Bettie A’Hearn Burdette enjoyed a round of golf.
COURTESY PHOTO-B&W On March 7, 1947, Bettie A’Hearn married Bill Burdette, her former science teacher at St. Albans High School. “He was the toughest teacher I ever had,” she said.
CHRIS DORST | Gazette Bettie Burdette — Innerviews: She just turned 90, Old-line nurse ER, OR and nursing instructor and director of nursing at CAMC/Memorial...still has get-togethers with old doctor and nursing friends.

Nursing must be in their DNA. Her mother was a nurse, back in the long ago day when uniforms grazed the ankles. Three of her granddaughters are nurses, including an anesthetist in the Army.

They say she inspired them. No wonder. Few in the profession have more experience than Bettie A'Hearn Burdette.

She turned 90 on March 5, still holding forth in the stately corner home on Kanawha Terrace in St. Albans where she has lived for half a century.

She dropped college to study nursing shortly after Pearl Harbor, compelled by a need to contribute. She studied in New York as a cadet, emerging from training just as the war ended.

Her career blossomed in Charleston, at General, Memorial and Thomas hospitals. ER. OR. Infection control. Nursing instructor. Nursing director. She did it all. The work, done right, wasn't easy, she said, especially in the ER. The word stress simply did not exist.

And oh, yes. Through it all, she reared six children.

Even today, despite the complex technology, overwhelming paperwork and heavy workloads, she'd be back on that hospital floor in a heartbeat.

"I was born in Pittsburgh. Our daddy was killed in a car wreck when I was 5. Mother moved us to West Virginia, to Confidence where she was from. It was a farm in Putnam County. In the summer, I spent a lot of time on my grandparents' farm. That was a good life.

"I wanted to be a forest ranger. We went to Babcock and Watoga a lot and I was impressed with the superintendent.

"I grew up partly on Park Avenue on the West Side. Then mother bought a house in St. Albans. I went to Glenwood and Woodrow Wilson and then St. Albans High School. I graduated in 1942. My science teacher was Bill Burdette, the toughest teacher I ever had. In 1947, we got married.

"I went to Marshall and the war started. Pearl Harbor was on a Sunday. I was up at Highlawn at my sister's. I was at my sister's neighbor's when we heard it on the radio. I'd never heard of Pearl Harbor.

"I went back to Marshall on the Greyhound bus that evening. The next morning, our German professor was gone. Boys were leaving right and left. Everybody had to do something. So I finished out the term and went in training at Charleston General to be a nurse. Colleges didn't have nursing programs then.

"The first six months was a probationary period. We wore black shoes and socks. When you got your cap, you wore white. We had gingham uniforms with white bibs. You had class everyday, then worked on the floors.

"We segregated patients. We didn’t think anything about it. That's just the way it was. The black patients were on the first floor. We had a patient named Dr. Smith from Institute. We were instructed to call him by his first name, and I wouldn't do it. I called him Dr. Smith.

"We lived at 415 Brooks St. Each class had an individual house with a house mother. Our house mother always saw that we had plenty of food.

"We joined the cadets. It was a way to get nurses to join the Army or Navy or whatever. I joined the Public Health Service. We went to New York for the last six months of training.

"We had a good time. There were four of us from Charleston in the cadet program. I'd never been on a train, much less slept on one. We slept on the top bunks. Mr. and Mrs. Bode had a jewelry store down here, and they were on the train. She said she had the best time watching us. We'd never eaten on a train. It was fun.

"We did everything. We went to Leon and Eddie's, a famous nightclub. One of the girls' daddies was from White Sulphur Springs and they hadn't integrated. We were at Leon and Eddie's eating one night, and all of a sudden, we got up and left. I didn't know what was going on. Some black people had come in and sat down, and he couldn't take it so he left.

"We had a psychiatrist who donated his time to the hospital. I was making rounds with him. We went in this room and didn't see the patient. He was under the bed. So we got down under the bed and talked to him.

"The war was over that summer, so I was never an Army nurse. One of my daughters is now. I worked at Charleston General a year and then worked as a nurse at Carbide. Carbide was busy. Institute was just starting up.

"I got married while I was at Carbide. We went to Gainesville, Fla., while he was in pharmacy school. We were married 48 years.

"We had five nursing schools in Charleston, and I taught practical nursing at Garnet. I worked at Thomas and at General. I worked the emergency room. We saw everything. You name it, we got it. You never knew what you were going to get. We would have charts stacked this high. Carbide exploded one time, and we had all these faces burned.

"We had a really good bunch of general practitioners in the ER at Thomas. Most had been in the war. Carl Tully. Joe Smith. All sorts of good doctors.

"I liked ER. We didn't know the word ‘stress.’ I just did my job. I worked OR, too, but that wasn't my favorite.

"Later, I did infection control at Memorial. They called me a surveillance nurse. It was a general infection control program in the hospital. I think Charleston Memorial had the first one in the state. I was asked to take it until they interviewed people and found a director with master's preparation. One of the doctors said, 'What are we waiting for?' So they just hired me.

"I was director of nursing at CAMC when I retired. Then I worked at Riverside Nursing Home some. A friend was a retired nurse at Riverside and liked it so much she asked me to join her.

"We've lived in this house 50 years. We lived next door first. When the people here moved, we bought the house.

“George McGovern stopped by this house when he was running for president. He was visiting Marshall where my son, Willie, is administrative assistant to the president. Willie brought George McGovern to Charleston to get some eyeglasses, and he had to go to the pot. That's what he called it. The pot. He stopped in with my son to go to the bathroom. People around here talked about that for years. They said I should have charged.

"I have a dinner here once a year for the nurses and doctors I worked with. So many of them are dead now. 

"Dr. Bert Bradford was my friend. He brought me figs all the time. One night, I was having a dinner party and Dr. Bradford called and asked me to get him some night crawlers. I brought them to him anytime he wanted them. Grandma Harshbarger lived up on the corner and it was damp, and there were great big night crawlers there. I left my dinner party and went on the corner and got them.

"The next day, the Joint Commission was visiting the hospital, and I had a big Maxwell House coffee can full of night crawlers in dirt in the refrigerator. Dr. Bradford came by with the commission people and asked me right in front of them if I had his night crawlers.

"I have six children. That's not so many. They grow. I tried not to work too much when they were little.

"I loved nursing. I don't think there's any kind of nursing I didn't do. We were pretty versatile. There's nothing easy about taking care of sick people if you do it right, but I'd be a nurse again. There are so many different jobs in nursing now, you just find the one you like.

"I was 90 on March 5. So I feel like Florence Nightingale."

Reach Sandy Wells at sandyw@wvgazette.com or 304-348-5173.


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