St. Dominic's School of Nursing to hold special reunion

Back in 1952, Geri Graves was a shy 18-year-old high school graduate who went straight from her parents' home to the St. Dominic's School of Nursing. Living in a dorm full of other 18-year-olds, many of whom had come from small towns to follow their dreams, made her transition from home to school much easier.

For the next three years, Graves and fellow nursing students lived in the dorm while attending nursing school and undergoing intensive training at St. Dominic Hospital. While many that age struggled to find their way following the turmoil of World War II, the hospital was a comforting refuge that sheltered young students from the rest of the world while preparing them for a nursing career.

"We didn't have time to be homesick; we worked eight hours a day at the hospital, attended class and studied at night," said Graves. "In those days, we went to school 12 months straight and were only allowed to go home every other weekend. It was challenging, but we received an outstanding education that was second to none."

This August, almost six decades after receiving her degree and coveted nursing pin, Graves and other former students of St. Dominic's School of Nursing will come back to revisit the hospital and their memories of that special time.

A reunion for St. Dominic's School of Nursing graduates from years 1949 to 1983, the year the nursing school closed, is being organized by a steering committee of graduates chaired by Sister Karina Dickey, O.P., of St. Dominic Health Services. Graves said the joy of seeing her classmates and others who came after her will be overshadowed by the fact that some of the instructors are no longer living.

"We were so young back then, and very optimistic about the future," said Graves. "A great deal of our optimism was due to the training we received from the Sisters at the school, who were strict but loving. In some ways, those three years were the best years of my life. It's only natural to be a little sad that many who were so influential to my career, and my life, will not be at the reunion."

Graves graduated from St. Dominic's School of Nursing in 1955 at the top of her class. She remembers the pride she felt upon learning she had earned the coveted Balfour Award for making the highest grade in the state on the nursing exam.

She began her career after graduation in St. Dominic's Surgery department. Unlike many new graduates, she felt no qualms about working in this fast-paced, challenging area. She felt confident due to the extensive training she had received in the surgery area and numerous other departments within the hospital.

"Back in those days, we had a three month rotation in surgery," she said. "The same training occurred in obstetrics and other key areas. We also spent three months working at a psychiatric hospital in New Orleans. Our exam scores following school and our success during our careers spoke volumes. Our training was simply the best in the state."

Neta Parkman says she was "100% prepared" when she walked out of the nursing school in 1964. She, too, credits the emphasis on clinical training with preparing her to work at any hospital and in any capacity.

"The Sisters were very strict, but always compassionate and understanding," said Parkman. "Sister Helen Marie (Ebers, O.P.) was my mentor; someone I looked up to and wanted to emulate. Sister Maura (McElligott, O.P.) was another who meant a lot to me. The education and training we received truly was the best in the state. There was nothing we couldn't do, or hadn't experienced, by the time we graduated."

Parkman said St. Dominic's physicians were very involved in the nurses' training, often providing one-on-one guidance and valuable advice when the students rotated in their areas.

"When we learned to put in an IV, we did it under a doctor's supervision," she said. "That type of interaction with medical staff, as well as the strong clinical training, is something you don't see today."

Parkman enjoyed living in the dorm after moving from her parents' home in west Jackson. She remembers the Sisters keeping the students on their toes by reassigning roommates on a frequent basis.

"Sometimes you would go home for the weekend and when you got back, you would have a new roommate," she recalled with a laugh. "I never knew why, unless they wanted to make sure you got to know others and didn't get too close to just one person."

Originally, nursing schools in the state like St. Dominic's offered a three-year diploma program. Now, most nursing schools require at least two, and in some cases four years of academic classes. Graves and Parkman say while they understand things must change they don't believe they could have received a better education.

"When you went for a job interview and said you graduated from the St. Dominic' School of Nursing, they moved you right into the job," said Graves. "The reputation of St. Dominic's graduates was, and still is, very strong. Everyone realizes St. Dominic's is a special place and nurses trained here are highly skilled. We owe that to the Sisters, who made sure we got the training we needed to be the best."

All graduates of St. Dominic's School of Nursing are invited to the August 15 reunion, which will be held at St. Dominic Hospital. Highlights of the event will include a photographic display depicting the classes and instructors throughout the years. A special DVD featuring the life of Sister Maura, longtime director of the school who passed away in March, will also be shown. For more information about the reunion, contact Sister Karina at 601-200-6829.