Retirement marks 40th year of nurse’s career

Chief Nursing Officer Delilah Duffy displays treatments patient may need at home in her office at Central Montana Medical Center.

Photo by Jenny Gessaman

Delilah Duffy, much like her office and her outfits, is neat, clean and coordinated. As the hospital’s chief nursing officer, that’s to be expected.

The surprise is Duffy’s energy, a passion glimpsed through her intonations and body language. It’s an energy she plans to keep all the way up to June 15, when she retires from a 40-year nursing career at Central Montana Medical Center.

Colorful decades
Duffy harbors some guilt over the beginning of her CMMC career: She started in June 1977 after a shortened hiring process with the director of nursing.

“I asked if they had any jobs, and she said, ‘Well sure, when do you want to start?’” Duffy recalled. “That was my interview. I really haven’t had to interview in my 40 years here.”

Duffy still feels guilty, but that didn’t stop her from laughing.

The Lewistown native went to MSU for her bachelors of science, coming back after graduation. The timing of her hometown return had Duffy working in the old St. Joseph’s hospital for six months before CMMC migrated to its current location.

Duffy hasn’t just moved buildings, though. She has worked in almost every department a nurse can apply for, including the operating room, the emergency room and the ACU, or acute care unit in non-nurse lingo. That variety of experience is, in part, why Duffy felt confident applying for her current job in 2014.

“Because I’ve been in the trenches, I understand,” she said.

Despite living through four decades of departmental changes and medical advancements, it’s hard to get Duffy to speak about her own personal experiences. For example, she described her first CMMC patient, a 10-year-old boy scheduled for a tonsillectomy.

“I remember going in and getting his vitals, including blood pressure,” she said. “Boy, talk about nervous.”

After a genuine laugh, Duffy shifted the story away from a personal narrative.

“We started in wards,” she said, referring to hospital operations. “Now it’s all moved to private rooms, private bathrooms, private showers.”

As quick as she can take a pulse, Duffy progresses the story to the hospital’s narrative, and to the changes CMMC and the healthcare industry have made in patient privacy. Sure, the commodes and the bedpans and the bedside dividers are pulled from her memories, but Duffy isn’t in her stories. Patient, nurses and hospitals are.

Her animated and amusing antidotes do reveal one thing about Duffy, even if it’s unintentional. She’s humble.

That, and she isn’t big on bold paint colors.

“When the hospital moved up here, it was quite a shocker: it was all orange, from the cupboards to the chairs,” she laughed.

Little picture, big picture
While it’s hard to get a story featuring Duffy as the protagonist, all of her tales are entertaining. Forty years has brought her several shocking stories, some from old hospital policies.

“We were a smoking facility,” Duffy said. “When I first came here, everybody smoked. Doctors smoked; they walked around with pipes.”

Yes, patients smoked too. One even set his trashcan on fire with a hot cigarette butt.

Struggles also supplied some of Duffy’s anecdotes.

“I got three patients in out of one accident,” Duffy said, recalling a night in the ER. “I was the only nurse.”

The on-shift doctor grabbed her, and together, they put three chest tubes in, slipping one between the ribs of each patient. It was rough on the two staff members, and taxing on the ER’s inventory: They ran out of a certain chest tube size.

Duffy was still working at 5 a.m. when another patient came in.

“In walks a patient who needed a chest tube,” she said.

The size they were out of, Duffy added.

“It was probably one of the worst nights of my life.”

A majority of Duffy’s stories, though, focus on patients. Her comparisons of then and now illustrate how much more nurses can do for those needing care.

“Our CCU, critical care unit, was a six-bed CCU,” she said. “That was full most of the time, and it was usually heart attacks.”

At the beginning of her career, those cases were serious and often chronic. A heart attack happens when a blood clot stops blood flow to the heart muscle. Duffy explained that, if the condition is left long enough, it damages and even kills tissue. The sad truth was, nurses and doctors had no way to treat the clot.

“We didn’t have anything to do but put them to bed,” she said. “Then came TBA, the clot-buster medicine. And now you can put in stints.”

A condition that could be fatal four decades ago is now treatable. In fact, medical professionals aim to prevent any damage if they can get to a victim fast enough.

“It’s just amazing what changes have done,” she said.

Duffy goes on to recount the shift from glass IV bottles to plastic IV drips, and from constant IV monitoring to smart pumps that can control a medicine’s delivery rate. She remembers the marks that speed limits and seat belt laws left on her career: Duffy saw a noticeable drop in ER head traumas afterwards.

One thing all of Duffy’s stories share is good quotes.

“In the operating room, I was a circulating nurse,” she said. “When you came into the OR, everybody scrubs and puts on their sterile gloves except you. You run around getting things. Everybody’s a god, and you were a gopher.”

Even though Duffy did play gopher, she’s still happy with her career.

“Nurses love nursing: It’s the satisfaction of taking care of patients that keeps you going,” she said.

Shifting focus
Duffy’s 40-year career has built an impressive list of accomplishments: Her CMMC work history takes up several pages in her resume. Those decades, however, have also built a home.

In 1978, a year after starting at CMMC, Duffy married a local rancher. Today, the couple has three children and the ranch has 500 head. Duffy’s home is roughly 25 miles outside of Lewistown, a distance that was sometimes difficult during her 40 years of winter commutes. Duffy never missed work, though. It wasn’t even a choice.

“You couldn’t call in sick because the other nurses couldn’t get in either,” she said.

She is so reliable, neighbors now call the Duffies in the winter. They don’t ask if Mr. Duffy will be plowing the road for his wife, they ask when.

Despite work, and despite ranch work, Duffy doesn’t see her life as too full.

“You know what I use this job for?” she asked. “I use this job to get out of the hard work on the ranch. This is my fun job.”

Duffy laughs before continuing.

“I’d come in here and it was actually my day off,” she said.

Her husband is all too aware of that fact, and of the date of her impending retirement.

“My husband has already asked me, ‘So, are you going to run any swather this year?’” she said.

Duffy’s retirement plans differ slightly from her husband’s hopes. The veteran nurse wants to devote her time to her two passions: travel and family. Duffy is eager to see grandchildren, and already has trips to Glacier National Park and the Grand Canyon planned for this summer.

Ranching is not included in her timeline.

“I want to retire from both of the jobs cold turkey,” she said.

Even as she looks forward, Duffy still has times she cannot believe all she’s lived through.

“We started with a stethoscope and a pen,” she said. “That’s all we needed. Now there is so much more equipment than in the old days.”



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