A Calling that Spanned Decades

Back in the mid-1950’s, Joan Paganelli (today, Joan Bilosz, RN) remembers standing tall and proud in a blue uniform with a white collar and cuffs, over which she wore a bib and apron (“all heavily starched,” she commented), awaiting her “capping ceremony” as a student of The Middlesex Memorial Hospital’s nursing program (which changed its name to Wilcox College of Nursing when it was granted accreditation by the state as a college).

“The ceremony of capping was one of tremendous importance to us so-called ‘probationers,'” Bilosz remembered. “It meant you had successfully completed the probationary period at the school and were accepted as a ‘student in good standing.'” With each year of education the student successfully completed, a small blue ribbon was added to the wing of the cap. Seniors had a full length of ribbon across their entire cap, and on graduation day, they received a black band.

A Career Spanning Decades
For Bilosz, graduation day came in 1957 — 59 years ago, but who’s counting? Amazingly, this spirited, energetic, dedicated registered nurse-who will be celebrating her 80th birthday on June 5-is still working (albeit part-time) at in the adult day health center program at Blair House of Tewksbury, located in Tewksbury, Mass.

During her long career, she’s worked mostly in hospital settings in four different states (Connecticut, Massachusetts, Florida and New Hampshire), specializing in acute care, intensive care (ICU), post-anesthesia care (PACU), and oncology. “My mother’s stories about her work were always so interesting. She inspired two of my relatives to become nurses,” said her daughter, Leslie Firicano. “Of course, they’ve long since retired — but not my mom!”

Bilosz’s stories are, indeed, very interesting. She talks about how nervous she was as a new, young person entering the profession. “I’m an anxious person anyway; but oh, wow, was I ever nervous on my first day as a nurse! The key thing to remember was, ‘Always stand for a doctor.’ And back in those days, the doctors — heck, even some of the other nurses in the unit — were tough on young nurses. They were expecting you to fail; and they did not hand out praise lightly.”

Teachers Were Tougher Back Then
She remembers being asked one day to clean a maggot-ridden pressure ulcer wound on a comatose patient. “They had fans going in the room to mask the horrible smell,” Bilosz recalled. “The stench was so awful, I almost threw up. But I got in there and cleaned the wound.” When she finished, the attending nurse told her she had cleaned the wound perfectly, and then made her do it over — because, she told Bilosz, “You can’t have that type of expression on your face when you clean a wound.”

Bilosz also tells a funny story about a certain doctor she worked with at Hartford Hospital in Connecticut who wasn’t nice to any of his colleagues, or any of the other clinicians on staff. “All the other nurses would run away and hide when William Beecher Scoville came down the hall,” Bilosz laughed. “But not me. I thought, ‘I don’t care how mean this guy is; I will try to learn something from him.'”

Her nursing colleagues were in earshot the day Scoville turned to Bilosz and stated, “You know, I could hire a monkey to do your job.” Her colleagues were horrified, but Bilosz just laughed at him.

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Working with History-Makers
If his name sounds vaguely familiar, it’s because he nabbed a place in medical history books. In 1953, Scoville performed brain surgery on Henry Gustav Molaison, to treat his epileptic seizures. Scoville had a “hunch” that the hippocampus was responsible for the seizures, so he removed two-thirds of it, plus the patient’s entorinal cortex, perirhinal cortex, and amygdala — leaving Molaison with profound amnesia and memory disorder (and yes, still having occasional seizures).

Molaison lived another 55 years, never remembering what he did the day before. Today, this patient is known as the most important person in the history of brain science, because he participated in hundreds of studies that led to incredible contributions in the field of memory research.

ADVANCE would like to point out on behalf of nurses everywhere: this patient probably would have had better surgical outcomes if he had hired a monkey to do Scoville’s job!

Scoville is not the only famous surgeon Bilosz has worked with. “I worked with a cardiac surgeon at that very same hospital who also earned his place in medical history. But he was a very kind man who treated people with dignity and didn’t mind answering a nurse’s, or anybody else’s, questions,” Bilosz recalled. “He would smile and explain things in detail, giving even more information than was really needed. He was happy to educate anyone who was willing to learn.” That surgeon was Dr. Henry Low, the pioneer who performed the first successful heart transplant operation in 1984. Today, the hospital’s cardiac unit is named after him.

Thinking, Doing & Caring
Bilosz’s mantra as an RN can be summed up with three little (but very important) words: thinking, doing and caring. “An RN is always using her brain on the job,” Bilosz noted. She uses the example of a patient who complains in very general terms that they don’t feel well.

“You need to read her chart, ask her questions, take her blood pressure — and all the while, you have to think about what you’re thinking while you’re thinking it,” Bilosz laughed. “Analyzing any patient situation involves using all of your critical thinking skills.”

Doing, of course, is all about the hands-on skills nurses need to gather data and implement treatments. Bilosz mentioned that approximately a decade ago, she went to a continuing education seminar that talked about “the future of nursing” and promised that someday, RNs wouldn’t have to insert Foley catheters or do intradural injections — that would all be done by aides and assistants.

“The speaker actually thought that less qualified health care workers would be performing all these tasks,” Bilosz recalled. “It hasn’t worked out this way at all. In fact, the shift now is toward earning more degrees, such as a bachelor’s or master’s degree. It has been demonstrated that nurses with more education provide better care. If you want to remain competent as a nurse, you have to dedicate yourself to lifelong learning and continuing education.”

But perhaps the most important aspect a nurse brings to any patient relationship is caring. “You have to respect the dignity of every human being, regardless of their status or background, and practice compassion,” Bilosz stated. “I can assure you: at my age now, I really feel compassion for the people who come in with aches and pains! There are probably many nurses who are better than me; but none are more caring or compassionate. I really try to give every patient my all.”

Anne Collins is a staff writer. Email her at acollins@advanceweb.com.

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