Checking on patients in the recovery room at Mercy Hospital Washington, Ellen Havelka appreciates the monitors and all of the equipment that helps her care for them following their surgeries.
An RN for more than 50 years, Havelka remembers well a time when her eyes and ears didn’t have all that high-tech backup.
“Our first monitor was “the bullet,” she said, smiling and holding up her hands to mime the device. “It was 6 inches around.”
Times have changed and the equipment has gotten far more sophisticated. Through it all, Havelka has evolved with the demands of her field and, looking ahead, she plans to keep on doing just that.
“I can’t imagine getting up in the morning and not coming here,” said Havelka, noting she has no plans for retirement.
“It’s a lot of physical work, but if I didn’t work, it wouldn’t be three months and I wouldn’t be doing anything at all but sitting in a chair.”
‘Needs to Be Active’
Likewise, those who know Havelka can’t imagine her ever not working.
“She’s one of those types who needs to be active in a field that she loves,” said Joyce Fleer, a longtime friend and recovery room coworker who retired in January 2010.
Mercy patients are better for having Havelka on staff, Fleer and others say.
“She’s a very compassionate, caring lady,” Fleer remarked. “She treats all of her patients equally. Whether they are rich or poor, they all get the same quality care.
Kathleen Gnavi, former manager of surgical services, said Havelka always does what’s best for the patients.
“She treats the entire patient: mental, spiritual, as well as the physical,” Gnavi commented. “She involves the family as much as possible.
“Ellen detects issues before the vital signs manifest the problem. Her co-workers and physicians respect her judgment.
“Besides being a very competent, highly trained nurse, she is an exceptional, Christian person, who balances career and a busy family life.”
Havelka’s current manager, Phyllis Edler, said it’s the work ethic that she brings every day to the job that makes her such an excellent nurse.
“If Ellen ever calls in sick, it’s rare, but I’m on the phone making sure she’s OK, because something must be seriously wrong,” said Edler. “She’s just that dependable.”
After 50 years at the Washington hospital — beginning when it was St. Francis Hospital, then St. John’s Mercy Hospital and now Mercy Hospital Washington — Havelka has cared for many people in Franklin County multiple times — some even joke that by now she must have treated everyone in the county at some point.
Her longevity is, in itself, a comfort to them, said Edler.
“It’s nice to see a familiar face, in fact, patients will actually request her... I requested her when I was a patient,” Edler commented.
In one family, Havelka has cared for four generations.
Dolls Had Band-Aids
Havelka was just 12 years old when she got her first taste of what it would be like to be a nurse. Her brother needed a tetanus shot, and the country doctor in Mount Vernon, Ill., where the family lived handed Havelka the needle to let her administer it.
“I always knew I wanted to be a nurse,” she remarked. “I used to put Band-Aids on my dolls, and I made dressings out of leaves from the trees.”
Havelka was still just 17 when, straight out of high school, she enrolled in the RN program at Barnes Hospital School of Nursing. It was a three-year program with one month off each year.
Back in those days, the nursing students lived in residence.
“It was next to Children’s Hospital and we had a mama at the front desk to watch us,” recalled Havelka.
“It was very strict. We had a curfew that you didn’t break. If you did, you were in serious trouble... freshman curfew was 9 p.m. and it was one hour later for juniors and another hour later your senior year.”
Nursing students were not allowed to leave the residence alone. They were required to be with another classmate, said Havelka.
“These were all young girls, most from small towns,” she recalled, “so they felt responsible for us.”
Students wore uniforms in those days and the stripe on the cap indicated what year she was — freshmen had pink stripes, juniors had light blue and seniors had a royal blue stripe, said Havelka.
Uniform inspections were held often and the students were expected to be flawless.
“Our shoes had to be clean, our nylons straight and all of our buttons buttoned,” said Havelka, noting the dress had 30 buttons down the front. “When we sat down, we had to fold our apron up so it didn’t get wrinkles.”
Compared to today’s relaxed standards it sounds excessively strict, Havelka admits, but it was a sign of the times.
“They wanted a professional appearance. It was the ’50s, and things were different.”
Students were allowed to get married during the last six months of the program, but they could only live off campus during the last three months, said Havelka.
But if you got pregnant and couldn’t wear your uniform, which was slim-fitting, you couldn’t graduate, she noted.
“They would let you come back and redo the last six months.”
The cost of Barnes Nursing School was $396 for three years, said Havelka. That included room and board.
“It was a lot of money back then, so you could apply for a scholarship or a loan,” she said. “If you had a loan, you were obligated to work at Barnes or at St. Louis Maternity Hospital.”
While she was in nursing school, Havelka met and fell in love with her husband, Milford, whose family was from Owensville.
Before she was married, Havelka’s in-laws brought her to then-St. Francis Hospital for a job interview (because she couldn’t drive) and she was hired on the spot. In fact, the hospital was so short-handed, her new boss asked if she could work that night.
“I said, ‘But I’m not married yet,’ ” recalled Havelka, explaining in those days, it was considered unseemly because she wouldn’t be living with her parents.
The Havelkas were married March 24, 1962, and Ellen’s first day at work was April 18, 1962. She was assigned to the night shift.
“I said his parents gave me the job as a wedding present,” Havelka said, with a laugh.
On the Job
“I can still see the front of the building,” Havelka commenting, thinking back 50 years ago to what the hospital (what is now the Mercy doctors building) looked like.
Her shift was eight hours from 11 p.m. to 7 a.m. and she was assigned to the second floor, 2 East where she had a nurse’s aid to help her and 2 West where she had an orderly. Havelka was the only RN on duty.
The second floor was mostly for geriatric patients, but there were about four or five people who lived at the hospital because they had nowhere to go, said Havelka.
She cared for patients recovering from surgeries and other medical procedures.
“They were total care because they were old and very sick,” Havelka recalled, noting back then there were no IV pumps, monitors or automatic blood pressure cuffs.
“If your family could afford it, they hired you a private duty nurse,” she commented.
In the early 1970s, Havelka was assigned to the recovery room in the old hospital.
“It was small,” she said. “Three stretchers on one side and three on the other.
It was all one big room with curtains to separate the patients, she said.
When the Sisters of Mercy came in 1976 and the new hospital was built, Havelka remembers moving patients to the new building by pushing them in their wheelchairs across the street. Those who had to be on stretchers were transported by ambulance, she said.
The first patient in the operating room that afternoon was a woman having a C-section delivery.
“We were still moving people,” Havelka recalled.
Looking back over her five decades in nursing, Havelka said her “best love was geriatrics.
“And I really like taking care of people who are mentally handicapped.”
Havelka continued to work as a nurse when she and her husband had their two daughters. She worked every other weekend, eight-hour shifts on Saturdays and Sundays.
While she was at work, her husband picked up the slack at home.
“I have a wonderful husband,” said Havelka, smiling. “When the kids were little... he was the best dad in the whole world.”
Co-Workers Keep Her Going
Havelka said as much as she loves nursing, what keeps her going on the job are the people she works with every day.
“We are like family, friends, sisters,” she said. “We love each other, and when one of us has a problem, we all do.
“We pray for each other, cry with each other... it’s amazing to me.
“It makes it feel like, in the morning, that I’m not coming to work,” she added.