Patient wellbeing keeps Carson nurse working well into her own senior years
May 22, 2013
Ruth Wherry sat at her daughter's dining table on Wednesday wearing brightly colored scrubs, a stethoscope slung over her shoulders. It's a work uniform she's especially comfortable in, having been a registered nurse for 66 years.
Even at 86 years old, Wherry continues to don nursing scrubs for her 12-hour night shifts at Carson City Nursing and Rehabilitation Center.
"As long as I feel I'm physically doing a good job, age is irrelevant," Wherry said. "I hope if I'm not keeping it together, I'll have the sense to get out. I don't want to be in error and hurt a patient."
The aches and pains of aging have slowed Wherry down in recent years — she's had knee replacement surgery, deals with arthritis and has bouts of asthma. But she considers her physical challenges an aid to patient care.
“A lot of patients are very, very afraid. I really felt like I could get people through some very difficult times.”
"I know what they're going through," she said.
Her supervisors consider her experience invaluable.
"She's a role model for other nurses and for our clients who are seniors," said Carol Harrison, the center's nurse supervisor. "We feel gifted" to have her here.
The director of nursing services agrees.
"She's dedicated; totally dedicated professionally to the patients and dedicated to the facility itself," said Char Foerchler. "Nurses certainly learn a lot from her as well as (do) the CNAs."
Wherry tried before to retire, but it didn't suit her.
"I don't watch soap operas, don't go to the casinos, don't belong to a bridge club or like playing games," she said. "I still feel needed. I still feel that way."
A native of Iowa, Wherry was retired when she moved to Nevada 11 years to be closer to her daughter and grandson. So she went back to work.
In 66 years of nursing, Wherry has worked in many environments.
Early in her career, she specialized in community health and worked in city clinics, teaching prenatal and baby care in addition to finding and treating patients with venereal disease and tuberculosis. She traveled to rural schoolhouses in Iowa, providing immunization, vision checks and checking well water, and spoke about community health wherever she was invited.
"I was on the run," she said. "No grass was growing under my feet."
While her four children were growing, Wherry worked in doctors' offices. Later, she was director of nursing in a long-term care center for 10 years, which also provided her children with some of their first jobs.
"My daughter (now an ordained United Methodist minister) said being a (nursing assistant) was the best preparation for being a minister."
Another daughter, Mary Wherry, followed her into nursing and is now the deputy administrator for Nevada State Health Division.
Over the years, Wherry has also used her experience to teach nursing, but patient care is where her heart is.
"I like patient contact. That's where the real reward is, from feedback from patients," she said.
"Mother suggested I start a happiness box. I have a box full of notes and cards. If I get tired, all I have to do is open the box. I focus on the positive."
Wherry considers the time she has spent in intensive-care units particularly fulfilling. Those settings involve more one-on-one time with patients, she said.
"I can take care of the whole person. It's in-depth, no fragmentation.
"A lot of patients are very, very afraid. I really felt like I could get people through some very difficult times."
A hospital administrator in Iowa once told Wherry that she could see more going on while walking through the hall than most nurses see at a patient's bedside, she said.
"I do feel I have a special empathy for finding out why (a patient is sick) and what's keeping people from functioning properly," she said. "I feel like I'm kind of a resource. My age and experience can give some guidance."
Wherry has seen a lot of change in her nursing careers and strives to stay up to date with changes in health care, and she's disturbed that not all nurses try to keep up with changes.
"Keeping current is primary. You have to keep up if you're going to stay afloat," she said. "I feel you should not administer medication without knowing what it's going to do to the body."
Wherry takes a number of nursing journals, paying special attention to changes in drugs and lab tests. After she's combed through the journals, she takes them to work to share with her fellow nurses.
Nursing isn't all work and study. It's also allowed her to travel extensively, both as a tourist and in programs such as a nursing exchange program to China.
That's another piece of advice from her mother: to not put off doing the fun things in life and to travel while physically able to do so.
Continuing to work has allowed her the resources to continue traveling. In a few weeks, she will head back to Iowa for her 70th high school reunion and a round of family visits. And she still hopes to visit Alaska, one of the few places she's never been.
So when will Ruth Wherry retired from nursing?
"I'll stay in health care until they know as much about the brain as they know about the heart."
That could be a while.