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Longtime Grenada nurse reflects on lifetime of nursing

Published on Monday, May 8, 2017

By: Ruth Cummins

Martha Cooley's nursing career began at the Grenada hospital, three years after she graduated from high school in nearby Gore Springs.

It's where she's winding down her calling, which has taken her family from the Delta to New Mexico and back. But don't count Cooley among the retirees just yet.

She's only 86, with a birthday around the corner in August.

“People say, 'Are you sure you're that old?'' said Cooley, a nurse at the University of Mississippi Medical Center Grenada since October 1994. “I tell them, 'That's what my mama says.'”

Cooley works part-time as needed on the second floor reserved for patients who've just come from surgery.  When she's not at the hospital, you might find her on a bush hog or a tractor.

“I'm keeping up the 10 acres ... I have. Yesterday, I pushed a mower from 9 until 5, but I took breaks,” she said. “We put a pond in. I like to clean house. I play piano, and I love to sing.“

When Cooley begins a shift, the country girl at heart has a checklist.

“The first thing I do is go see that patient, eye to eye, and check that IV,” she said. “That's just something that's a pet peeve with me. I want to know that it's OK.”

Cooley assesses patient Rickey McKay of Ackerman.
Cooley assesses patient Rickey McKay of Ackerman.

The mom of four and widow of Thomas Walter Cooley Sr. has honed her skills as a cardiology nurse, pediatric nurse, surgical supervisor, and late-shift emergency room nurse. “I love nursing. I don't understand anyone who doesn't love it for what it is. I've tried to roll with the changes,” Cooley said.

Cooley's patients adore her, said Shannon Farmer, a registered nurse and director of acute care services. Coworkers can't pass Cooley without exchanging a hug.

She's quick to laugh. Her smile is on speed dial. To know her is to love her.

“She's one of the sweetest people that you will ever, ever meet in your life,” Farmer said. “She's a joy when it comes to nursing, and I think one of the biggest things she does, not only for nurses here but everywhere, is the example she sets, and her dedication. She wants to continue to learn and to be part of something.”

“She never stops. Even when she gets home after all day here, she never stops,” said case manager Lori Thomas. “Not only is she extremely bright and intelligent, she's so easy going. She has always been a calming force.”

Cooley's life experiences serve as the foundation of her nursing career.

“I was salutatorian of my class, and I got the American Legion Award. I'm doing my obituary now for my children. That's how I know all this,” she joked. “I had 12 in my class, and Gore Springs School was first through 12th grades in one building.”

Cooley began practicing nursing in 1948.
Cooley began practicing nursing in 1948.

Two weeks after her graduation, Cooley said, she and her mom went to town and passed by “a station wagon load of nurses from the hospital. We talked to them, and one of them asked me what I was going to do with my life, and why don't you come and be a nurse.”

She's too shy, Cooley's mom told the nurses. “But I went into training two weeks later, and I loved it,” Cooley said.

Nursing school was a three-story house near First Baptist Church of Grenada. “The nurses lived there, and my room was under the stairway on the first floor,” Cooley remembered. “We had classes in a room in the back of the house.”

Cooley went straight from graduation to Grenada Hospital, landing a job in 1951 as a floor nurse before her promotion to surgical supervisor. Then, as love would have it, she re-connected with a childhood friend she'd known since they were 2.

“He came home from the Navy, and I don't have to tell you the rest of the story,” Cooley said of Thomas Walter Cooley Sr. “We were married in Greenwood, and I worked at the Greenwood hospital.” Their first child, Tom, was born in 1953, followed by Peggy in 1954.

Peggy was just 11 months old when they moved to Albuquerque. “I knew I could work anywhere,” Cooley said. She took a job at the hospital that cared for the area's American Indians - “nights, because my husband was working days, getting his security clearance for his job at Sandia.”

Daughter Martha came along in 1958, followed by Trish in 1961. Martha Cooley moved on to another hospital, working full-time in the emergency room, on the late shift, for 14 years. “I wish I'd written a book. I wish I had put it down on paper. I have a lot of stories,” Cooley said of that phase in her career.

She became head nurse for an Albuquerque cardiologist in the mid-1970s. Cooley's children grew into adulthood, and all four kids and Cooley worked at Lovelace Medical Center in Albuquerque for a time. “We always laughed and said that if they'd hire Walter, we'd change the name of the hospital to Cooley,” she said.

Cooley is quick with a laugh and a smile.
Cooley is quick with a laugh and a smile.

The Cooleys moved back to Grenada in 1994. She interviewed at Grenada Lake Medical Center, now UMMC Grenada. “I remember that they asked what I would do,” Cooley said. “I said I wanted to work 9 to 5, Monday through Friday. They just laughed.”

What she wanted, though, was to leave behind decades in management and supervision, and instead provide bedside care. “I worked more than 40 hours a week for a good while,” she said, even though she was hired part time. “We were busy, busy, busy. We had so many isolation cases. I remember working half a shift with a LPN, trying to get all the bedsores clean.”

She lost Walter Cooley on Christmas Day 2009. “He had a hemorrhagic stroke,” she remembered. “He was sitting at the breakfast table with me, and he fell to the right. I knew exactly what happened. We transferred him to Jackson the next day, but I knew he was gone.”

Some of her patients over the decades stay with her. “I remember each patient I was with when they passed away,” Cooley said. “I had a patient one time, and a nurse's aide slapped him. That was just dumb. I said, 'Either she goes, or I go. I can't work under those circumstances.' They let her go.”

She recalls what she considers one of her biggest mistakes. “I have never in my nursing career given the wrong medication, but one time I had a patient that was supposed to get a grain and a half of a medication, and I gave her three fourths of a grain. I'll never forget that,” Cooley said. “I was horrified that I didn't give her as much as she could have had.”

Cooley shares a laugh with Dr. Justice Gondwe.
Cooley shares a laugh with Dr. Justice Gondwe.
Cooley has not only weathered change after change in health care, she has embraced them. “I was an Epic trainer, and we had a lot of people go through the training,” Thomas said. “Mrs. Cooley breezed right through.”

Even so, “she's one of the nurses from the old school,” said registered nurse Julia Williams. “She wants everything done according to the book. That's what I like about her.”

“I only wear white when I'm working. I never wore a pants uniform until I came here,” Cooley said.

Cooley has helped younger nurses learn the ropes when it comes to bedside care. “She taught me that when you walk into a patient's room and they're angry or upset, don't take it personally,” Williams said. “Ask them what you can do for them. Figure out what you can do to make their day better. And if a doctor is in a bad mood, you have to let it be like water and roll down your back.”

The reason she keeps her hand in nursing, Cooley said, “is just the pure joy of seeing someone improve, or even if you know they're not improving, you've done something to make a moment happy or to help them feel good.”

“I tell my husband that if I can get to her age and I can move like that, I'll be good,” Williams said. “I love her.”