Arlene Swanson, RN, poses in the emergency department at Spectrum Health Ludington Hospital
Arlene Swanson, RN, poses in the emergency department at Spectrum Health Ludington Hospital. Swanson has worked at the hospital for 55 years and spent most of that time as an ER nurse. (For Spectrum Health Beat)

Arlene Swanson, RN, has become a permanent fixture at Spectrum Health Ludington Hospital and has touched thousands of lives over the past 55 years.

Swanson started her nursing career in October of 1960 at Paulina Stearns Hospital in Ludington, Michigan, after graduating from the Hackley Hospital School of Nursing.

“Nursing has always been my life,” Swanson said. “From the time I was a little girl, I wanted to be a nurse.”

Little did she know, when she started her career as a 20-year-old nurse, that five decades later she would still be working for the same hospital where it all began.

“All of a sudden I realized I was one of those older nurses that I used to think were so old when I graduated nursing school,” Swanson joked. “It doesn’t seem possible that I’ve spent 55 years in nursing. That was never one of my goals. It just sort of happened.”

Swanson started her career as a surgery nurse before moving to inpatient nursing and obstetrics for several years. But she spent most of her career as an emergency room nurse.

Changes in modern medicine

Over 55 years, she has seen drastic changes in health care, all of which have improved how patients are cared for.

“We had glass syringes and needles that we sharpened, washed and reused,” she said. “I took care of patients in an iron lung, which is unheard of nowadays. I’ve also seen diseases eradicated during my career.”

And, of course, the salary for nurses has changed, too. Swanson was making $1.50 per hour when she was hired in 1960. That’s in stark contrast compared to 2015’s average hourly rate for a registered nurse of $33.15.

“That was good money back then,” she said. “I had friends making 75 cents an hour, so I felt very wealthy. In fact, the first year I worked, I made over $5,000. At the time, I had an uncle who worked on the railroad and told me that he had never made more than $5,000 in a year.”

Retired, but not ready to hang it up

Swanson retired from her full-time job as a nurse in 2000, but continued to work part time in the emergency room for many years. Currently, she works as an infection control nurse at Ludington Hospital, assisting with flu vaccinations, tuberculosis testing and hepatitis B clinics.

“I stayed as a pool employee because I wasn’t ready to hang it up,” Swanson said. “And I guess I’m really not ready to hang it up now, either.”

According to the human resources department at Spectrum Health Ludington Hospital, Swanson is the longest tenured employee in the hospital’s history. Only one other person, Raymond Williams, achieved 50 years of service.

“Arlene has a shared history with the Ludington Hospital, not only in her years of service, but also in their intertwined missions of making lives better for our community,” said Helen Johnson, RN, MSN, vice president of patient services and chief nursing officer.

“The highest praise a nurse can give another is to say they are a nurse’s nurse,” added Johnson. “That is Arlene through and through.”

Reaching 55 years of service at the same hospital is nothing short of amazing, especially considering the average worker in the United States has been with their current employer for just 4.6 years, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

From hospital nurse to hospital volunteer

Arlene Swanson, RN, laughs as she talks with a woman at Spectrum Health Ludington Hospital
Swanson has worked at Ludington Hospital as a nurse since 1960. She continues to work part time and also volunteers in the hospital’s gift shop. (For Spectrum Health Beat)

Along with working as an infection control nurse, Swanson has looked for ways to continue to offer her skills in healing by becoming a volunteer in the hospital’s gift shop.

“I can’t get away from the hospital,” Swanson said about volunteering, a position she’s held since June 2011. “It’s been my life. It’s in my blood. Volunteering in the gift shop allows me to help patients in an indirect way by raising money to support the services the hospital provides.”

Her passion for the hospital has spilled over to her husband, Gary, who also volunteers at Spectrum Health Ludington Hospital.

At 75 years old, Swanson does not see an end in sight for her career.

“I don’t think I’ll ever give up my nursing license,” she said. “I still want to be a nurse. I will keep working until they kick me out.”