Someone asked me once, “When did you know you wanted to be a nurse?” The day, the hour, the minute is memorable, as if it happened yesterday.
My mom, Cecilia Matthews, was a registered nurse who worked the 3-11 shift during a time when many moms did not work outside the home, when my brother and I were little. I do not ever remember a time she did not work. To me, her job was one of excitement and glamour.
Each afternoon, I sat on the end of her bed while she got ready for work, our process always the same. Getting ready started around 1 in the afternoon. She got us packed up for Grandmom’s house, toys and snacks, before she got herself ready. I remember sitting on the end of the bed, watching her get ready.
She would sit on the bed and put on her spotless white panty hose, her white uniform freshly ironed and spotless. She was so proud; she took great care to carefully pin her nursing school pin and name pin on that bright white uniform. Her shoes were always polished; my father was responsible for this task once a week. The shoe polish in the bright blue box with the nurse on the front was a staple in our house. Her cap was starched and carefully folded into a triangle with a hat pin and bobby pins to keep it in place.The last part of the process was a mist of Jean Nate perfume, one for me and one for her.
To me she was a guardian, she looked like the Lady in White. It was this routine that never failed me; it grounded our family. Everyone had a role. My dad oversaw the shoes and the cap, I do believe he even did the laundry.
As I got older and in grade school, our house was where extended family members came to recover after illnesses or injuries. I learned to be a caregiver from the best. One would theorize that being a caregiver was in my blood, as they say. So, for me, the question is not when I knew, but rather there was never a time that I did not want to be a nurse.
Twenty-one years ago, I left a busy medical-surgical floor here at Einstein and entered a world that was both frightening and exciting all at the same time: I became a neonatal intensive care nurse. I remember calling home about a month into my orientation, crying to my mom, that I had made the biggest mistake of my life. There was no way I was going to be able to be everything these families needed, I would never know enough to make a difference. She very eloquently told me to “stop it,” that I was exactly where I was supposed to be.
Fast forward 21 years. I have held the hands of too many parents to count, I have cared for my staff like my family. Together we have now weathered a pandemic. I never thought I would be called to lead, but my desire to care for everyone – patients, staff and family – led me to this place. I never thought my path would lead me to neonatal nursing. I was looking for a change the day I interviewed, a place where I could teach and care for the whole family.
Now, as a mom of two, I reflect on my mother’s legacy and what lessons I’ve passed on to my children. In their younger years, I taught them how to care for family. They learned how to care for aging grandparents when most kids were hanging out with friends. They learned the joy in pushing a wheelchair on a trip to the mall “just to get Mom-mom or Pop-pop out for a while.” Most importantly, they learned why they had to share their mom with other babies. Many years ago, they visited my work in the NICU and saw firsthand why they needed to share me. These two continue to amaze me as they help me care for their disabled dad.
I am present in each moment. I have found that my passion is creating that moment, no matter how small, that will make a difference, one person at a time. While my Lady in White has left this earth, I know that she is looking down on me, and she is proud of the legacy she created by simply being herself.
Maryann Malloy, DNP, RN, RNC-NIC, is the Nurse Manager of the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit at Einstein Medical Center Philadelphia. A version of this essay first appeared in The Philadelphia Inquirer.