‘It’s God’s gift’
OB nursing is all-in-the family for the Wilkins family, whose matriarch, her daughter and granddaughter have all followed the same career path.
When Mary Lou Wilkins started working as an OB nurse at Blodgett Hospital in the early 1950s, she never dreamed it would be the beginning of a family legacy.
Wilkins’ daughter, Sue Hoekstra, and her grandaughter, Christina Harms, followed in her nursing shoe footsteps.
And the legacy is becoming a bit of a national phenom. Good Morning America and People Magazine are planning stories on the family that has been dedicated to labor and delivery at Spectrum Health for six decades and counting.
Wilkins started the story when she entered nursing school in 1949, a year at Calvin College followed by two years of living at Blodgett Hospital’s nurses’ lodge during nurse training. It ran year-round for two years.
Wilkins had dreamed of donning a nurse’s cap as a little girl growing up in Fremont, Michigan.
“Nursing always just appealed to me,” said Wilkins, 86. “Way back when I was a little girl I thought nursing was a great thing.”
In high school, she worked for two summers as a nurse aid at the local hospital.
“That was kind of my introduction to what it was all about,” she said.
The passion had been planted. And it grew.
But shortly after graduating from nursing school in 1952, Wilkins grew ill. She had a pleural effusion, got married a year later, then three months after matrimony, battled tuberculosis. She spent 10 months in the local TB hospital before getting back to her passion of nursing.
“I was really restricted for about a year to not do much of anything,” Wilkins said. “I could only work part of the day, but Blodgett was really accommodating.”
She worked nights in the obstetrics department.
“I worked mostly in postpartum, taking care of mostly just moms,” she said.
When labor and delivery got super busy, Wilkins stepped in to help deliver babies.
Those were some of the most special and rewarding times of her career. She retired in 1991.
“Just the miracle of birth is just incredible to me,” she said. “It’s God’s gift. I was overwhelmed every time a baby was born.”
She had her own babies. Two sons and a daughter. Such joy it brought to her heart when she learned of Sue’s career aspirations.
“I just was thrilled with that,” she said. “By that time, the nurses’ lodge was gone, but she also went to Calvin College and Blodgett Nursing School. She lived at home. They go on rotations to different departments and I think OB just kind of hit her. She always loved babies.”
And when her granddaughter decided to also become a labor and delivery nurse?
“That was really fabulous,” Wilkins said. “When we went out to Colorado for her graduation (from nursing school), that was so special to have the three of us together and to have her want to follow in both of our careers.”
Currently her daughter and grandaughter both work for Women and Infant services where Christina works night shift in Labor and Delivery and Sue works day shift on the post-partum unit. Sue also worked about four years in Labor and Delivery in the 1990s.
Although they don’t “talk shop” much, according to Wilkins, she loves hearing about all the advances and changes in the field from her daughter and granddaughter.
Computers were just entering the workplace by the time she neared retirement. Visits have changed, too. At visiting time, the babies’ cribs were pushed toward the window so people could see the babies in the nursery.
“Visitors were not allowed in the rooms when the moms were feeding,” Wilkins said. “A lot has changed.”
Back in the day, fathers also weren’t allowed in the delivery room.
“I think that’s a big improvement,” she said. “I’m not sure everyone under the sun needs to be there, but that’s their choice. And I like that the family is able to be with their baby much more than when I was there. We thought mothers needed sleep.”
When Wilkins was on the clock, mothers often stayed five days after delivery.
“There’s also a lot more teaching about breastfeeding than when I was there,” Wilkins said. “Breastfeeding was not a big thing. They were asked if they wanted to bottle or breastfeed.”
If she had it to do over again, Wilkins wouldn’t change a thing.
“It was a good life,” she said. “It was a good experience.”
Wilkins’ daughter, Sue Hoekstra, carried on the “good life.”
It was her mother’s night shift and availability to be present during the afternoon and evening to do “mom stuff” that led Hoekstra to nursing.
“Not that we talked that much about her job, but I just knew she had this job that she liked, but she was still my mom and she was ever-present,” said Hoekstra, 56. “She would be there when I got up. She was very involved in our life. I thought, ‘That’s the kind of career I want’ because I knew I wanted to have a family someday.”
Like her mom, Hoekstra attended Calvin College for a year, followed by Blodgett School of Nursing.
“When I did an OB rotation, I loved it,” Hoekstra said. “I thought that was the best ever. I just knew that was what I wanted to do. I started in OB right out of nursing school.”
That was the summer of 1981.
She and her mom shared a career for 10 years.
In 2003, Hoekstra transferred from Blodgett to Butterworth Hospital.
After 36 years on the job, she doesn’t plan to hang up her nursing shoes anytime soon.
“I figure I probably have another 10 years,” Hoekstra said. “I’m blessed to have a career that I love. Right now I’m full time, but I might pare it back to part-time eventually because I have grandkids now that I want to be able to help out with.”
After closing in on four decades, the job is still rewarding.
“I still love to go to work everyday,” she said. “I don’t do delivery anymore, which I miss. But I love it when I work two or three days in a row and take care of the same family. I can really bond with them because we spend so much time together.”
Hoekstra said she especially enjoys the education process.
“I love the opportunity to teach them about feeding and caring for their new baby and to get them ready for one of the most important jobs they’ll ever have,” she said. “I’m honored I can be a part of it.”
She’s also honored that her daughter, Christina, chose to be a part of it.
Hoekstra recalled when her father-in-law was ill, and she served as an advocate, helping the family navigate the health care system.
“Christina saw the way I got in and advocated for his care,” Hoekstra said. “Sitting in the ICU at Butterworth, she kind of had this light bulb moment. She said, ‘I think I can do this.’ Everything just fell into place beautifully for her. I’m honored my daughter has chosen to follow in my footsteps. I just think it’s pretty cool. Between the three of us, we have 70 years of OB nursing experience.”
Christina Harms said she never felt pressured by her mom or grandma to become a nurse.
“I didn’t even think about nursing until my grandpa got sick,” Harms said. “I saw the way my mom was able to navigate the health care system for our family. Unless you’re in it, it’s kind of a confusing place to be. That really inspired me, the way she took care of our family and explained things for us. I wanted to do that for my family someday.”
She set her music degree from Western Michigan University aside and graduated from nursing school in Colorado.
She started her job in labor and delivery at Butterworth Hospital two years ago. She loves her role models and mentors.
“I feel that we are able to connect in that regard,” Harms said. “We are able to talk about work and I can get tips from them if I have questions about something or how to deal with a difficult patient or difficult case.”
She treasures the special bond they share.
“We all just kind of understand and really care about these new moms,” Harms said. “It’s definitely something that’s been able to bond us over the years.”
Her grandma retired after 28 years working postpartum and labor and delivery. Her mom has put in 36 years, all in postpartum.
The common thread—babies and moms.
“I knew that was my passion when I got into nursing school,” Harms said.
Her mom often takes care of Harms’ children. Harms sees her grandma, who took care of her when she was growing up, twice a week.
“I call her all the time for advice,” she said. “She’s really a close and important person in my life. I get out to dinner with my grandma three or four times a month. My dad always says, ‘Alright, enough of the shop talk.’”
Harms said she’ll always treasure when her grandparents flew out to Colorado for her pinning ceremony.
“It was cool to have the three of us (mom, grandma and myself) there kind of passing on the legacy,” Harms said.