Mary Douglas, Retired Schoolteacher
and Volunteer at St. Barnabas Hospital
by Katie Russo
Mary Douglas was introduced as a volunteer at St. Barnabas Hospital, but we quickly learned that she was so much more than that.
Douglas was born in the Outer Banks/Kitty Hawk region of North Carolina as Mary Albritton. Her parents were farmers. The first time she came to New York City was in high school, with some family.
Douglas was the valedictorian of her high school, and was loved and praised by all her teachers. She always knew she wanted to teach, and each teacher wanted to her to specialized in their subject. The principal of her high school told her the best thing for her to be was an elementary school teacher, in order to teach a bit of everything.
To become a teacher, Douglas attended Elizabeth City State University, where she said that the college president was like another parent to her. Both her parents and the president were hard on her and made sure she lived up to their standards, reminding her she didn’t know everything. That same president signed her on to live and work at the college her senior year, then recommended her to her first job in Crisfield, Maryland.
Douglas said she “felt so alone” in Crisfield, without anyone to look after her like her parents and the college president had. The teaching job she had there was very strict—they could not be seen buying alcohol or with people of ill repute, and had to attend church on Sundays. She met and married her husband, Frederick Richard Allen Douglas (who went by “Douglas” to avoid the inevitable conclusion of Frederick Douglass), a Korean War veteran. Eventually, they moved to New York City, where Mary Douglas taught at an elementary school on 180th Street, Louise Archer Elementary. She retired Feb. 2, 1985, at the age of 56.
Douglas had never taken a day off, so when she went to retire, she had months of paid leave she could use. She took her leave from September 1984 until January 1985, and used that time to attend medical aide training school. To become a certified nurse’s assistant (CNA), one must complete 122 hours of in class training and 32 hours of hospital training, the latter of which Douglas did at St. Barnabas Hospital. Douglas got 100 on her tests and was the top of her class at medical aide school, as well as being an honors student. She graduated in Riverside Church with her class of 1,500 people. The woman who ran the program, a Ms. Respoli, asked “What kind of people would you like to work with?” Douglas replied “Senior citizens” and has been working mostly with them ever since.
Even though she graduated as a medical aide, Douglas is only a volunteer as St. Barnabas due to pension restrictions with the City of New York, and her union contract. As such, she was a “Pink Lady” when there were Pink Ladies and Candy Stripers. She cannot take vital signs or give medicine, but can assist RNs.
Douglas said she met many very interesting people in her time at St. Barnabas. She told us about a little boy from Australia who told her about playing with kangaroos, which made her determined to go to Australia (and she did). There was also a Kuwaiti patient with a translator that she found very kind. Interestingly enough, Douglas said the most interesting people she met were a group from Texas, who talked to her about how different everything in New York was. In 2011, Douglas took a training course in Long Island City to become a hospice volunteer.
Douglas now volunteers with hospice patients every Wednesday. She walks into the patient’s room, whether she knows them or not, and says “Good morning my love? How are you doing?” She also asks “Do you need something? Can I help you?” Even though she speaks Spanish, Douglas speaks in English to the patients. She asks if they are Catholic or Protestant, and if they are Catholic they say Catholic prayers together, and the Lord’s Prayer if they are Protestant. She tells them stories about all the places she has visited through her late husband’s work, such as Cartagena, Santo Domingo (where she took merengue lessons), Los Angeles, New Zealand, and Australia. We remarked that she sounds far more positive and pleasant to speak with than most people, and she told us that “Attitude is everything” and that being as nice and she can and doing whatever she can to make them happy is part of the SBH motto, “Patients First”.
Even as she gets older, Douglas leads a very fulfilling life. On Monday and Tuesday she goes to her doctor’s appointments and the bank, Wednesday she volunteers at SBH, and Thursday and Friday she volunteers at the school she used to work at in records and guidance. The third Saturday of every month, she has a meeting with her sorority. Douglas sings in the church choir, and is a Eucharistic minister at St. Anthony of Padua R.C. Church. Even though her husband had a heart attack years ago while watching Wheel of Fortune with her, she still has family. Her two children, Frederica and Frederick, live in Green Bay, WI, and Spring Valley, NY. She has grandkids, and a personal legacy beside that.
Douglas has mentored hundreds of volunteers over the years, even teaching a reticent young adult everything about working in the hospital. She still has students approach her on the street in the Bronx many years later and say they’ll watch out for her. Elizabeth City State University granted her an honorary doctorate, and named an auditorium after her. When asked for advice, she reminded us that attitude is a lot of how people perceive you, and finally: “Learning is living, and living is learning. I’m still learning, and none of us know everything.”