1940s nursing graduate recalls struggles, rewards of era 

Feb 01

Crisp white dresses and starched caps were required wear for nurses during much of Hazel Witte's 43-year career.

But it was the tender touch of the human hand that attracted her to the profession and kept her there for most of her adult life.

"It was the personal touch," said Witte, who turns 86 this month. "I felt like I was doing some good for people."

A 1945 graduate of the Methodist Hospital College of Nursing, Witte worked with fellow alumni to create a museum dedicated to the college and joined in the museum's official opening last week.

The red-brick building at Fifth Avenue and Grant Street in Gary that houses the museum was the same place in which nurses in training studied and lived when Witte was learning the tricks of the trade.

"At that time, nursing school was hands on, and I liked that," Witte said.

Before nursing programs were developed at universities and colleges, nurses learned in hospital settings to become what were called diploma nurses.

At nearly $400, the cost of the three-year program in the 1940s could be a tough pill to swallow.

Just 17, Witte had come to Gary from the small Illinois farming community of Lawrenceville. Like thousands of others in those years, she came to find work.

Up for a job in a lab at Methodist Hospital, Witte was asked what she wanted to do.

"I said I'd like to be a nurse, and the woman said, 'How come you're not?'"

With the second world war underway, Witte had hoped to be sent overseas as part of a nursing corps. But the war ended before she got the chance.

"It was June of 1945, and I graduated in August," she said.

Instead, she spent 17 years helping deliver some of the more than 5,500 babies born at Methodist in the post-war years.

New moms spent 10 days in the hospital in those days, a contrast to the overnight stays common now.

Life-saving pharmaceuticals that arrived in the post-war years, including new infection fighting drugs and the Salk polio vaccine, changed the health care landscape, as did sophisticated new surgeries and treatments for heart disease and other ailments.

Before that, "Gall bladder surgery was a big surgery to us," Witte said.

Witte eventually went back to school to earn an advanced degree and moved into hospital administration at Methodist before retiring in 1988.

But it's the days spent in hospital wards she recalls most fondly.

She doesn't regret not being a doctor.

"The fulfillment I wanted I got being a nurse," Witte said.

The museum she and other Methodist nursing college graduates helped create is important, Witte said.

"The elementary students and the new nurses coming into the universities need to know some of the struggles we went through," Witte said.

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