Whether recalling the first kidney dialysis procedure at Saint Marys Hospital, talking about teaching nursing students at the bedside, or discussing her thoughts on the key to longevity, Sister Antoine Murphy has a quiet grace that reflects the institution she's served for 78 years. This month, the good Sister, who turned 102 in January, celebrates her anniversary at the place she's called home since she arrived as a nursing student in the 1930s. We caught up with her to talk about her community – the 16 members of the Sisters of Saint Francis who live year-round at the hospital – serving patients, and much more.
The youngest of three children, Sister Antoine grew up in a rural area west of Waterloo, Iowa. She caught the nursing bug early, in the midst of a terrible flu epidemic. Just four years old, she asked her mom what a nurse was. Her mother's words made an impression. "I made up my mind then that this is what I was going to do," she says. She attended the College of St. Teresa in Winona, Minnesota, which had a five-year nursing program. There she met the Sisters of Saint Francis, and she got her clinical experience at Saint Marys. When she finished her training, she joined the hospital as a staff nurse.
There were 80 or 90 Sisters living at the hospital at that time, she says. Sister Antoine started out as a nurse for an OB-GYN physician, supervised what then was known as the "medical emergency floor," and worked on the orthopedic unit during her 35 years as a nurse. After her time in nursing, she served on the pastoral team as a member of the Sister Visitors. Asked how old she was when she retired a second time, she matter-of-factly says, "Well, I was too young."
Sister Antoine went on to serve for many years as a volunteer at the hospital, retiring from that role in her 90s, when she says her eyesight got too poor to read the door cards and recognize patients. Today her ministry continues, praying for patients and their families. She goes to mass every day, writes intentions, and talks with patients and families at the chapel. Just the other day, one of those family members told Sister Antoine about his wife who was at the hospital and very ill. "He went on to talk about how grateful he was to the Sisters for founding this place," she says. "And he elucidated so eloquently that he almost had me in tears."
Looking back, Sister Antoine recalls the first kidney dialysis done at Mayo Clinic ("it was very primitive"), changes in treatments ("we used to give milk and cream to ulcer patients"), and the give and take between physicians and nurses ("they taught us things, and sometimes we taught them things"). And she remembers fondly the nursing students she trained and the patients she cared for. When asked about what advice she might offer from her experience, she says, "Just be positive and be helpful whenever you can. Be friendly with your compatriots and everyone else." And as for career advice, she says, "Do what you like."
Sister Antoine credits her longevity to good genes, while noting that staying active, being part of the community, eating well, and having a peaceful existence probably contribute. As does having meaning in your work. "To me, it's been very rewarding," she says. "The Sisters have a very important mission, and I have been a part of it." And perhaps a sense of humor plays a part, too. She admits that when she woke on her 102nd birthday, she opened one eye, and then the other, and said, "I guess I made it." Indeed.
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