“Living is learning, and learning is living. And you’re never too old to learn.”
Mary Douglas, a retired school teacher who stopped her paid job only to turn around and start formal training for her next assignment as a hospital volunteer, is talking. And when Mary Douglas talks, you find yourself listening. She may have stopped teaching, but her presence is sure to keep you focused.
She is 86 now, dean of the volunteers at St. Barnabas Hospital in the Bronx, and if she’s coming into your room to cheer you up, you had best be prepared to be cheered up.
“I know I have to go in there and be pleasant,” she explained about her weekly routine as a Certified Nursing Assistant. “I’ve been doing this long enough to remember that I was a called a Pink Lady” when I started. “That is the adult version of what we knew as ‘Candy Stripers,’ “ she said.
For those counting, that volunteer gig started more than 31 years ago. If it is Wednesday afternoon, it is Mary Douglas on duty.
Does she cure people? Why yes, she said, “I say, I came in her to get you well. I say it as nicely as I can. And I’m going to do everything I can to be nice to you. Your job is to get well.” Often, she said, it works.
“Patients are miserable and they react well if someone pays attention to them.”
Mary Alberton Douglas was born in the Outer Banks/Kitty Hawk region of North Carolina to a farming couple. She grew up there and went to school there. She was the valedictorian of her high school class, and was loved and praised by all her teachers. She always knew she wanted to teach, and each teacher wanted to her to specialize in his or her 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. She 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. The teaching job she had there was very strict. Teachers 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 that he was somehow related to 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.
Mary Douglas keeps neat records of all such things.
She 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.
Mary Douglas got 100 on her tests and was the top of her class at medical aide school, as well as being an honors student. Her graduation was 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, Mary Douglas has remained a volunteer as St. Barnabas because of pension restrictions with the City of New York, and her union contract. She cannot take vital signs or give medicine, but can assist RNs.
Over time, she met many very interesting patients in her time at St. Barnabas. She talked 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, Mary 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, she took a training course in Long Island City to become a hospice volunteer.
Mary Douglas now volunteers with hospice patients every Wednesday. She walks into the patient’s room, 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, she 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, Mary 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. Mary Douglas sings in the church choir, and is a Eucharistic minister at St. Anthony of Padua R.C. Church.
Her husband died after a heart attack several years ago. She said they had been watching “Wheel of Fortune” and when he died, she yelling at him to tell him how unhappy it had made her. 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.”
-Terry H. Schwadron and Katie Russo