The nursing profession has changed quite a bit since Florence “SeeSee” Rigney, of MultiCare Tacoma General Hospital in Tacoma, Wash., began her career in 1946. From scientific advances to the evolution of nursing specialties to the emergence of scrubs, SeeSee has been at the front lines to witness the evolution of the nursing profession. We spoke to SeeSee, who will celebrate her 92nd birthday during National Nurses Week this May, to learn how the profession has changed during her 70-year career, and to talk about what inspires her to continue working.
NN: Why did you decide to become a nurse? Who (or what) inspired you?
SeeSee: It’s just something I had always wanted to be. I was in grade school when I decided that it’s what I wanted to do when I grew up. No one in my family was a nurse, but I planned for a career in nursing throughout school. For example, you had to take Latin, a foreign language and a few math classes to even apply for nursing school, so I made sure I did all of those things.
NN: Can you tell us a little about the nursing program you enrolled in?
SeeSee: I enrolled in a three-year nursing program in 1943, during World War II. There was a shortage of nurses at the time because so many of them had enrolled in the army. We went to class in the morning, and then worked, typically from 3-11 p.m. or 7 p.m.-7 a.m. We were young girls, just 18- or 19-years-old, and they put us to work immediately on the maternity floor, helping bring water to the patients or take care of the flowers that were delivered to them while they were in the hospital.
We didn’t even have our uniforms yet, but they gave us patterns to make our smocks, which had blue and white stripes, and we had to get special shoes that laced up and a slight heel, believe it or not. We spent about 8-10 weeks in the labor and delivery unit, and then 12 weeks on the surgery floor. We also worked affiliations at a children’s hospital in Seattle and then a few psychiatric rotations at other hospitals in Washington, but everything was very hands-on, much more than it is today.
A government-sponsored program called the Nurse Cadet Corps paid our tuition and, if the war had still been going on, we would have had to enroll in the Army Nurse Corps when we graduated.
NN: What were some of the benefits of joining the Nurse Cadet Corps?
SeeSee: In addition to paying for our tuition, we got a monthly stipend starting at about $15 a month. We received grey uniforms for winter—a blouse and a skirt, with a matching tam and bag—and grey-and-white seersucker uniforms for the summer. They were very classy. (Editor’s note: SeeSee, unfortunately, was never photographed wearing either uniform.) We also received passes to get service prices for public transportation and the movie theater, and we took full advantage of that!
NN: Can you share a little bit about your nursing career journey or career path? How did you end up where you are today?
SeeSee: I graduated in August 1946, and I started working right away in the operating room at Tacoma General Hospital. I was drawn to surgery and so most of my career was spent in the operating room. A few years later, I had some “big ideas” and I left to move to California to work at Kaiser Permanente. I stayed for maybe two weeks, and then got homesick and came back to Tacoma and worked at a doctor’s office for a little more than four years.
During that time, I got married. My husband was in the Air Force Reserve during the Korean War, so I worked at hospitals in Atlanta and San Antonio while he was in training in those cities. When he got deployed, we moved back to Tacoma for good. We adopted our two children in 1958 and 1960, and I became a stay-at-home mom, for the most part. I still worked for a day or two whenever the hospital or a doctor’s office needed someone, and then I went back to work full-time once the kids were older. After 17 years of working full-time again, I retired. But that didn’t last either because here I am, 25 years after retirement, still working.
NN: What inspires you to continue working?
SeeSee: At first, I went back to work because I thought I could use a little extra pocket money. After I lost my second husband, I just decided to keep working because I liked it. I like the people and I think it keeps my brain working. I keep thinking I should retire, but I just don’t know what I would do without nursing.
NN: What has changed the most about nursing since you started working?
SeeSee: There are so many new techniques in the operating room, which is better for the patients so they can be in the hospital for less time. When I started working, you had to stay in the hospital for an entire week after having a baby. So that’s a big improvement. Nursing is also much more specialized, which I think is a good thing, and there is also a much greater emphasis placed on higher education and obtaining advanced degrees. And, of course, computers. I have learned how to use them so I can keep up with everyone.
NN: What is your advice for students who are currently considering a career in nursing?
SeeSee: Don’t ever think that you know it all—take advice and listen carefully. Always remember to treat your patients like you would like to be treated.
NN: Is there anything else you would like to add?
SeeSee: Nursing has been a wonderful career. You can find a job just about anywhere, and today’s nurses now have so many areas to specialize in. I’ve never been sorry I became a nurse.