NIFA Surgical e-News, February 2015

Vivian Watson, RN, CNOR

Vivian Watson, a 50+-year career nurse, has written about her life of perseverance in the face of obstacles in her new book, A Passionate Journey: Overcoming Adversity, Realizing a Dream.

Hear Vivian in person at the AORN Surgical Expo in Denver. She is giving the closing presentation at the conference on Wed., March 11, at 4:00 p.m., and her book signing will be on Tues., March 10, 9:30-11:30, in the AORN Bookstore. You can also order her book on her website.

Vivian talked with us from her home in Soso, Miss, sharing some highlights from her story and offering some advice for today’s nurses.

What was your first challenge?
I was born in the Deep South, during the Depression, with a cleft lip and cleft palate. Today we know that such a condition has to do with nutrition and genes, but it was different then. My parents were very smart but had little formal education. My mother remembered that when she was pregnant with me, she had seen a calf that had died in the barn and was deteriorating and awful; she had put her hand over her mouth. After I was born, she decided she must have “marked” me in that moment.

In those days, doctors would perform surgery on the cleft lip when the child was 5-6 months old, but wait to operate on the palate until the child was 5 years old. The first operation was done at Baptist Hospital in Jackson, Miss. But when time came for the palate repair, the surgeon who had performed the first surgery had been killed in an auto accident. My parents decided the doctor’s death was a sign from God that they should not proceed with the surgery.

How did this affect you?
I went through school not being able to say much at all. I tell in the book about how different my various teachers were and the impact they had on my life, one way or the other.

When did you decide you wanted to become a nurse?
When I was almost 6 years old, I can remember—in fact, I can still hear the radio broadcast in my mind—Franklin Delano Roosevelt declaring war on Japan. Around then, I remember sitting outside our little home, playing with my doll under a tree, and watching soldiers go off to war. I waved at them. My aunt told me about the major sacrifice they were making; some of them wouldn’t ever come home. They were serving their country. I wanted to serve my country and decided the best way to do it would be to become a nurse.

My aunt told me I could never be a nurse because patients would never be able to understand me. “You can probably do about anything else,” she said. “Just not be a nurse.” That didn’t make me stop wanting to be a nurse.

So what happened?
When I was in the 12th grade, my teacher said, “You have too good of a mind to waste.” She knew we had minimal resources at home, being a sharecropper family. But she wrote down the name of a man and a phone number. “This man can help you,” she said. “Don’t throw away your dream of becoming a nurse.”

After my graduation, my dad said, “I’ve done all I can for you. You can’t lay around here–too many mouths to feed.” (I was one of 9 children.)

I walked for 7 miles to the 2-lane highway, and thumbed a ride into Laurel, Mississippi, the closest town. The driver dropped me off at the Trailways bus station. I went in and used the telephone to call the number my teacher had given me. It was Mr. Matthews, a vocational rehabilitation lecturer. He told me how to find their office and I went there.

They gave me a comprehension test to see if I was worthy. Then they sent me out to the waiting room. After grading the test, Mr. Matthews said, “Whatever you want to do with your life, we will help you do it.” They sent me to Crippled Children’s Services, which sent me to Jackson, MS, for surgery. I took one year out of my life and had four operations, with the support of many very kind people.

And then you became a nurse?
Yes, after all my surgeries, Vocational Rehab took me back from Crippled Children’s Services and helped me. I took my entrance examination at the same hospital where I’d had my surgeries, Baptist Hospital, and I was accepted. In those days they gave you a place to eat and sleep and a uniform, and you worked 8 hours a day, 6 days a week to pay your way through nursing school. I graduated, passed the state boards, and subsequently was instrumental in helping run two large hospitals: Baptist Hospital and the University of Mississippi Medical Center.

What advice would you offer to nurses today?
First, surgery as we learned it in the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s is not what we’re dealing with today. We’re high technology now. You must develop the skills to adapt to it—be totally committed to lifelong learning in these rapidly changing times. Know that you must learn every day. Always share your knowledge with other team members. If you’re the only one who knows it, it’s not going to help anybody.

Second, own your integrity. If we are not committed to best practices in patient safety, we will surely fall short in the future. The health care system might very well say that nurses are not as valuable as they once were. But registered nurses are needed! We must be committed to that.

We must never compromise in our nursing practice. The people who come to us need our very best every day. Owning your own integrity and sharing your knowledge with your team members are the two most important pieces of advice that I could give anyone.