Nursing is often a life-long passion for those who love to help others. That’s certainly the case with Florence Rigney. She’s considered the oldest working nurse in the U.S. and she’s ready to go back to work. Unfortunately, the hospital where she works won’t let her report for duty during the pandemic.
That’s probably for the best, considering Rigney is 95 years old. At that age, the virus could deal a serious blow to her health. She loves helping patients and preparing the operating room, but her life-long love of nursing will have to wait, at least until the pandemic is over.
If these past few months have got you down, take a moment to learn about Rigney’s amazing story and how she stays committed to the job.
What It’s Like to Be America’s Oldest Nurse
As a surgical nurse at Tacoma General Hospital, Rigney graduated from nursing school all the way back in 1946. At the time, her parents would have rather had their daughter become a secretary, which was considered a much more practical position for women in the 1940s. But she knew she wanted to help people, not just push papers for a living.
Today, she’s been practicing nursing for nearly 74 years. Over the course of her long career, she’s mainly worked in the operating room, assisting surgeons, and managing the equipment.
Before the pandemic hit, Rigney was still at it. Her age didn’t get in the way of her ability to do her job. She says she can’t do many of the things she used to do on the job, such as lifting patients, hauling heavy carts, or completing other kinds of physical tasks, but she was still turning on the monitors, counting instruments, and prepping the room for surgery. According to her Fitbit, she was walking around two miles over the course of each shift.
She was also known for keeping her young patients in line. If anyone pushed back on her age, she would always tell them she was a youthful 59.
Her supervisor, Silje Kennedy, director of preoperative services, says it’s hard to find Rigney standing still on the floor. “She’s an inspiration to all of us. She runs laps around all the kids, and she’s kind of like our little boss on the days she’s around.”
Sitting Out the Pandemic
Rigney says she’s anxious to get back to work as the coronavirus rages on. Living in Tacoma, Washington, she’s been watching the highs and lows of the pandemic from a distance. The coastal city is just a few miles south of Seattle, once the sight of a major outbreak. The area was one of the first to get hit with the deadly virus back in March, but the situation has since improved.
However, the hospital is still hesitant about bringing Rigney back onto the floor. The number of new virus cases is still ticking up in certain parts of the state, so it’s probably best to have Rigney stay at home until further notice.
She says she has missed the job and her colleagues over the last few months. Despite being stuck at home, she’s still working to improve her skills as a nurse. As she told National Public Radio, “I will say that the days go by quickly. I have done continuing education classes since I’ve been at home. I do those on the computer. But it isn’t like being there. And I’d rather be there and be busy.”
Some of her friends and colleagues tell her that this may be the right time for her to retire, considering all the uncertainty in the air. Rigney says she thinks about it, but she’s not ready to throw in the towel just yet. When the pandemic hit, the hospital abruptly asked her to stay at home. That’s not the picture-perfect retirement party Rigney deserves, considering how much of her life she’s devoted to the job.
For now, she wants to get back into the operating room and see her patients and colleagues for a while before ultimately stepping down sometime in the future. She says she tried to take a year off when she turned sixty, but she quickly realized she’d rather be on the floor helping people. It’s clear that Rigney isn’t the type to stay idle.
With over 70 years in the business, America’s oldest working nurse is a testament to the power of the human spirit. Let her be an inspiration to us all.