Published on May 04, 2015
Because Ruby Winters followed her heart, she saw another one make history.
The Jackson resident did so by ignoring an incredibly bad prediction: "My father said going to nursing school was a waste of time for me because I wouldn't be able to handle all those sick people," she said, "just because I was afraid of lizards."
Instead, she finished nursing school in 1949, eventually found a job in the OR at the Medical Center and, some years later, scrubbed for the world's first animal-to-human transplant.
"I didn't think about it being history-making at the time," she said in April, shortly before her 86th birthday. "I was doing my job. It was a hospital."
In the beginning, Winters did her job amid the Jim Crow Era, when few African-Americans were allowed in surgery, except as patients. Even those were kept separate from whites.
The woman most people called "Ruby Nell" or "Miss Ruby" back then didn't mind knocking down barriers and exceeding expectations.
Growing up and playing in the fields on her family's Rankin County farm, she fled in terror from a wide variety of creatures great and small.
"I was afraid of everything," she said. Not everything, as it turned out.
At the time, when there was no high school for blacks in the county, her family sent her and her three siblings to Piney Woods, the county's historically African-American boarding school. After four years there, she still didn't know what to do for a living - until she discovered the nursing school at what is now Baptist Medical Center in Jackson.
"I decided on that," she said. "I thought I could do anything anybody else could."
Not only did she prove her family wrong by becoming a nurse, she also challenged the code of a segregated society by becoming friends with a fellow R.N.: Joyce Caracci.
After Caracci left Baptist to help break in the University of Mississippi Medical Center, Winters figured she, too, wanted to be part of something new.
Besides, she said, "I went to school at Baptist, trained at Baptist, worked at Baptist and got sick at Baptist. If I didn't leave, I'd die at Baptist."
In 1957, just two years after it opened, Winters joined the Medical Center, trying to avoid a career in general nursing, where you might see the same patients for years. It was too hard on her spirit, she said.
"I would get involved with the family and be so hurt if one of them would die."
She also hated giving injections, she said.
"I had to get counseling about that, because giving shots meant hurting somebody. And I knew full well I couldn't do pediatrics - not those little babies."
Seeking a job in surgery, where she had worked before, Winters was told all the OR positions were filled. That's when Caracci stepped in and found her friend the job she was meant to do.
"She became my right hand," Caracci said. "I don't know what I would have done without her."
Often working with Caracci, Winters scrubbed on several cases with the legendary Dr. James Hardy.
"People feared him," Winters said. "He was . . . I don't know. He was just the way he was. But we got along just fine.
"If I hadn't known what I was doing, I guess it would have been worse."
After she and Caracci assisted Hardy on the world's first lung transplant in 1963, Winters knew what was coming.
"Dr. Hardy was going to do a heart."
She had worked on several open-heart cases already, and her duties for the first animal-to-human heart transplant were similar, including passing instruments and sutures to Hardy.
"You have to know what he's doing," she said. "Anticipate what he's going to do. So you don't put anything crazy up there."
The donor organ, from a chimpanzee, had to be stopped at one point.
"The heart doesn't need to be pumping when you're trying to sew," Winters said. "Then, to take this man's heart completely out, to remove it from the body and put it in the pan - that was something to see."
It was a "high part" of her 30-year career, Winters said.
"The low part was getting patients on the table and they die before surgery. We worked hard to revive them."
Through the years, she rose to supervisory positions while she and her husband, Robert, brought up three children, including Dr. Karen Winters, now a professor of nursing at UMMC.
Ruby Winters' last job at the Medical Center was teaching OR protocol. Students and residents alike learned from her.
A widow for seven years, she retired 28 years ago. She keeps a scrapbook of photos and newspaper clippings - a Medical Center mini-history that includes an article with the headline, "Ruby Winters ends fruitful career at UMC."
The last sentence is a quote from Vivian Watson, nursing administrator for the surgical suite at the time: "Ruby has never let us down."