By James DeWeese
For 31 years, retiring nurse Marie Joseph has presided over medical treatments of all sorts at St. John's Queens Hospital in Elmhurst with an easy mix of efficiency and compassion. With a broad, quick smile, Joseph has become the longest-running nurse in the operating room, a demanding position that attracts increasingly fewer candidates from nursing school every year.”It's a lifetime,” Joseph said. “But I did it … I passed the test with flying colors.”When Joseph, 68, retires Friday, she will pass the longevity mantle on to her friend and longtime colleague, Judith Greich. Greich, who arrived in the OR just months after Joseph, said the entire staff will miss the nurse who seemed to have an innate aptitude for the rigors of her profession.”I always loved nursing,” recalled Joseph, who immigrated from her native Port-Au-Prince, Haiti in 1961. “I was the third kid in eight and I was always helping my mom taking care of the children – even when they misbehave I take the blame for them.”Joseph has never been married and never had children of her own – although she does lend a hand with her brothers' and sisters' 11 kids – so she was free to dedicate her undivided attention to the thousands of patients that have passed through St. John's operating rooms since she started there in October 1973.”From then it's been a long and hard way, but worth it,” said Joseph, who lives in Glen Oaks and could have sought work at another hospital within walking distance of her house. Instead, Joseph decided to remain at St. John's, which she and her colleagues likened to a family.The operating room is a difficult place, she said. Patients are sometimes scared. The hours can be long. And there's blood.”You know, you must have a calling for the OR,” Joseph said. “People, when they see blood, they react differently.”Still, the OR's draw is powerful, said Joseph, who has worked under five different chairmen of surgery.”I think you can express your compassion and your respect … to the patient,” she said. “You feel so proud when you can help someone. You're gonna help them return to their normal life.”As a circulating nurse, Joseph spent as much time tending to her patients' emotional needs as well as their physical ones. In other units, modern technology has increasingly distanced health care providers from their patients, Joseph said. But in the OR, personal contact still reigns supreme.”You stand by the patient until he goes to sleep. He needs to know that there is someone with him,” she said. “That's one reason why I liked the OR because of the closeness with the patients.”Neil Mandava, St. John's current surgical chairman, said the intense emotional and physical demands placed on nurses and new educational opportunities are making it difficult to train and recruit new nurses. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services estimates that the national shortage may grow to as many as 808,000 nurses by 2020, according to a 2002 study.”Many, many years ago, women had only two options – either they would go into nursing or they would become teachers – secretaries maybe,” Mandava said. “Now, that's different.” Besides, he added, nursing is not an easy career. “Youngsters looking into professions, they see that nursing is hard work. There are long hours. It's stressful. Whatever happens to the patients, you live that,” Mandava said.Mandava, who first met Joseph when he was just beginning his career in 1981 at St. John's, said Joseph has risen to the challenge. “I think she really epitomizes the old values the nursing had – the Florence Nightingale-kind of nurses if you will,” Mandava said of Joseph.Joseph studied nursing in Haiti, where she spent several years working in the back country. After she moved to the United States, she spent a year at St. Elizabeth's Hospital in New Jersey and then went to Swedish Hospital in Brooklyn. Later, she made the move to St. John's, where she has remained ever since.Although Joseph's work at the hospital made her a medical “Jacqueline of All Trades,” she took a particular interest in ophthalmology. She routinely assisted eye doctors on complicated surgeries and even helped integrate nearby St. Joseph's ophthalmology practice into St. John's when St. Vincent's Catholic Medical Center shuttered the under-utilized sister hospital.”If the eye surgeons saw Marie, they knew they could just hold out their hand and they'd get the right tools,” Mandava said.Joseph said she plans to lay low for a few weeks, tying up loose ends, doing paperwork and enjoying a well deserved break. An avid dancer, cook and jokester, Joseph said she won't have any trouble filling her days, although she plans to visit her friends at St. John's as often as possible. “I could last another 31 years,” she said. “To tell you the truth, I could be going strong if I was in a warm climate. I could be hanging on a few more years. I love what I'm doing.”Reach reporter James DeWeese by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org or by phone at 718-229-0300, Ext. 157.