Susan Marens: Nursing Around the World

I recently overheard someone say that women make friends in their twenties and in their sixties. I think there is some truth to this. Susan Marens is a friend I have made in my sixties. I first met Susan through our neighborhood book club, and then we became swimming buddies when Covid 19 closed the local pool and we began doing our morning swim together in the Chesapeake Bay. After our swim, we would dry off in the early morning sunshine and have a chat. I came to know Susan much better over the summer. Susan’s recollections in these chats were placed all over the world …. that happened in Spain, this in Hawaii, that in Italy, this in California. Many of her recollections were from international swimming meets in which Susan had participated, as she began competitive swimming when she was nine years old. However, other stories sprang from her career as a nurse. So, one day I asked Susan to meet me on the beach so I could interview her about her nursing career.

Susan Marens began her nursing career in 1960 at Moorfield’s Eye Hospital located in the City of London. Susan was 17 when she started her career at Moorfield’s. The young women in training were required to reside in the Nurses Home where they were cared for, but also disciplined, intimidated and humiliated by Nursing Sisters the trainees referred to as dragons. The Nurses Home, located in Kensington, had once been a hotel, but while Susan was there it  was quite austere with no heating in the winter. Fans of Downton Abbey may remember when Mrs. Patmore required eye surgery in the summer of 1914 to correct her cataracts at Moorfield’s Eye Hospital which is still considered the leading provider of eye health services in the UK.  

After completing her training at Moorfield’s, Susan wanted to leave London, where she had grown up, for the countryside.  The Royal Isle of Wight County Hospital, established by Queen Victoria, was the perfect option for her.  The Isle of Wight is an island off the south coast of England, near Portsmouth, and it is well-known for its beaches and seafront promenades. The beautiful countryside coupled with the gracious building which housed the hospital gave Susan an experience she fondly recalls with no regrets at all about her choice to go there. As part of her training, she worked in General Surgery and Medical Surgery as well as pediatrics from 1962 through 1965.

Even though she did not want to leave the Isle of Wight, Susan returned to London. She first worked at the Chelsea Women’s Hospital on a Surgical Medical ward. Susan recalls that the other nurses at this hospital were mostly from New Zealand and Australia, and she made some wonderful friends while working there.  One of these friends returned to Australia to become a Flying Nurse, travelling by plane to reach patients in the remote areas of Australia. From the Chelsea Women’s Hospital, Susan went to the Edward VII Hospital where she worked as a private duty nurse. Usually Susan was caring for someone who had just had surgery, but she recalls one night spent in the Sloane Square Hotel with a man, who, although he was dying of cancer, could not get a bed in the hospital.

Susan’s private duty nursing was through an agency whose owner asked Susan if she would like to go to the United States for a year. Kaiser Permanante (KP) would pay her travel expenses if Susan agreed to work for KP in Oakland, California. Susan had always wanted to travel, so this offer was very appealing. In 1965, 22 years old, Susan travelled to Oakland, California where her work was mostly Surgical and Medical/Surgical.  Kaiser Permanante was, at that time, just developing the idea of Intensive Care Units (ICU) units.  Susan’s first experience in this area was during her time in Oakland, California. 

Susan married during this time as well, and when her husband received orders to Hawaii, she was off again. However, there was no reciprocity between states regarding nurse licensing, so Susan obtained a new license through the University of Hawaii, specializing in psychiatric nursing.  At the end of that tour in Hawaii, the family moved to Virginia, a state where again there was no reciprocity. However, Susan obtained a Virginia license and worked part-time at Virginia Beach General Hospital from 1968 to 1970.

The family, by then she had two children, moved to Spain in 1970, where Susan worked at the Rota Naval Hospital doing well-baby check-ups. Susan also taught Lamaze classes. The family did a lot of travelling in Europe during that tour.  In 1979 Susan returned to Virginia Beach, and as she had been away from bedside nursing, her favorite, for seven years, she took a refresher course at Virginia Beach General Hospital.

Upon completing the course, Susan worked at Bayside Hospital in telemetry, which addressed devices such as heart monitors.  Her children were older now, and her real interest was in ICU as this combined both bedside nursing, where she valued the bedside contact she had with patients, coupled with the challenges of an ICU patient. This interest led to Susan attaining the Critical Care Reg Nurse (CCRN) certification. She had to go to classes and take a national exam which she says is the hardest thing she ever did. She passed, much to her surprise and delight. 

Susan was an ICU nurse for 20 years until she left Bayside in 2006, which she refers to as her first retirement.  In 2008 she joined the team at Optima Health Triage Nurses where patients call in to go over their symptoms with a nurse, and ask “What should I do?” The nurses guide them to the next step they should take.  Susan started as a Triage Nurse part time at 24 hours a week. In 2020 she was down to 16 hours a week, then 8, and then she fully retired in August of 2020, 60 years after she began her nursing career at Moorfield’s Eye Hospital.

When asked what her most memorable moment was in her career, Susan recalled a quiet summer afternoon on the Isle of Wight when she was on duty. She received a telephone call for the hospital to prepare to receive 11 seriously injured Emergency Room (ER) patients. That was all she was told. She called everyone to come in, which they did, and then the staff just waited in the silence, wondering what happened, what was going to happen.  Then suddenly a line of ambulances appeared, approaching the hospital from down the road. A plane had crashed in the hills of the Isle of Wight. A poacher, an illegal hunter, had seen the crash and ran to the site where he pulled 11 people from the burning aircraft seriously burning his own hands.

Someone else must have seen the plane go down, and had called the ambulance squad, most of whom were elderly men. These men had climbed up the side of the hill to carry the people on stretchers to the ambulances. Susan recalls that as the burn victims came in, in a great deal of pain, all they asked for was a cup of tea.

Susan and I talked for about her career for about hour, sipping tea from our thermos as we sat on the beach. When Susan noticed the time, she explained that she really needed to get home.  One day, a little over a week ago, she had found several Monarch caterpillars on her milkweed plants. She realized the caterpillars did not have enough milkweed to satisfy their voracious appetites, and that they were also in danger from the birds who feed caterpillars to their young. Her neighbor, a member of the Butterfly Society, bought Susan a butterfly cage as a gift. The cage served to protect some of the caterpillars and Susan could place more milkweed in the cage as needed.  After having their fill of milkweed, the caterpillars are able to form a chrysalis. After about 10 days, a perfectly formed butterfly emerges from the chrysalis, and then the new butterfly hangs on the cage for 2-4 hours to dry its wings. When it starts fluttering in the cage, it is ready to be released. Susan explained that one butterfly was being born when she went to bed last night, and she needed to return to them all to see how they were doing.  Susan disappeared over the dune, walking her nippy girlish gate – a result of being a competitive swimmer for the last 70 years.

Susan Marens will never retire, for she will forever be the bedside nurse. Those baby butterflies could not be in better hands.

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