By Chandra Harris-McCray
She remembers Kim, a young girl who was hospitalized for two years after swallowing lye and severely burning her mouth, throat and stomach. She remembers the face of the young boy whose body was covered in burns after surviving a house fire.
Even though Betty Clark has not made the rounds on a hospital floor in seven years—she retired in 2004 after a 40-plus-year career in nursing—she never has forgotten the faces of her patients, and she rarely forgets their names.
An Early Call to Nursing
As a child, sitting at the bedside of her ill grandfather, it was the smiling faces of nurses that left an impression on Clark.
Gingerly walking down the hallways of the hospital, dressed in crisp, white uniforms—dresses, not pants—with matching white hosiery and shoes, nurses toted the charts of patients and were just as knowledgeable as the doctors they followed. They shouldered so much responsibility with pride and little fanfare that "they seemed surreal and almost angelic to me," Clark recalled. "I was just a little girl, but I knew I wanted to be one of them."
The oldest of three children, Clark said, "I grew up in a household where we did not have a lot. We were poor and everyone around us was poor, but we did not know it because we had everything we needed—the basic necessities and love."
Clark's parents instilled in her a reverence for education. "Even though I knew my choices were to either become a teacher or a nurse, it was more options than my parents ever had," she said.
At 17, Clark, a Maryville, Tenn., native, enrolled in the School of Nursing at the University of Tennessee Research Center and Hospital, the predecessor to the UT Medical Center, along with 60 other women.
"After six months of classes on 'The Hill' and clinical experience at the hospital, I worked my first night shift as a student nurse," she said. "The program was rigorous with studies in medical, surgical, pediatric, psychiatric and outpatient nursing, but I was determined not just to do well in a class, but to graduate."
Many of her classmates chose marriage over graduation and never finished their studies. In 1962, Clark graduated with her nursing diploma and was told by a faculty member to "always wear your nursing cap with pride and upon the standards of your chosen profession."
She did, and still does, even without wearing a nursing cap or starched, stiff uniform.
Clark's eyes still glimmer with excitement as she remembers the beginning of her nursing career. Making $255 a month, Clark shared an apartment on Clinch Avenue and worked from 11 p.m. to 7 a.m. on 5 East—the surgical floor of the UT Hospital. "That lasted for a year. I moved to the pediatrics floor and worked the day shift."
Not Just a Career, But a Lifestyle
After the birth of her two children, Clark became a PTA mom and received an honorary lifetime membership in the Tennessee PTA organization. "But I never really gave up nursing. I organized the very first health clinic at Bluegrass School. I volunteered for the Red Cross, at my children's schools in the nurse's office..."
By the early '80s Clark had enrolled in some refresher nursing courses at the prompting of a colleague, and "I fell in love with nursing all over again. It was as if it had never left me."
As an oncology nurse for nearly a decade at Blount Memorial Hospital and former president and charter member of the Tennessee Valley Oncology Nursing Society, Clark became engrossed and fascinated by cutting-edge cancer research and treatments, so much so that she joined the team of a cancer research center.
"It was just as exciting as when I first started my career. I was one of the first nurses in the United States to become an oncology certified nurse," she said. "We were making discoveries that changed and saved lives.
"I remember two women who were at the end of trying this and that. One had stage-four breast cancer and the other had stage-four ovarian cancer. They survived, and they were not just patients, they are two of my dearest friends."
It was those friends who helped Clark see her way through a dark tunnel after being diagnosed with a rare form of cervical cancer. In 2000, after losing her husband six months earlier, she became a patient and was told her survival rate was less than five percent.
"Obviously, my purpose was not fulfilled," she says. "I still had more people to care for."
She is caring for nurses she will never meet by remembering UT Knoxville's College of Nursing in her will and creating an endowed scholarship.
Twice widowed, Clark lost her mother, sister and best friend all in the same year, but even with life's series of sorrows and betrayals, she holds fast to a quiet resolve and humble demeanor.
"You have angels in life and you do not even know it," she says. "So I have lived my life channeled into helping other people.
"And I would do it all over again. I would not change a thing."
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