Maye Etta Nolen was only about 9 years old when she was hospitalized for a medical condition requiring surgery (for an inguinal hernia). Not surprisingly, she was frightened, but the nurses at Oklahoma City’s St. Anthony Hospital worked hard to alleviate her fears and pain, both before the operation and during her two-week recovery period.
The year was 1944, and Nolen says that it was following this experience that she first began to think she might want to be a nurse when she grew up “so that I could help other children.”
Shortly thereafter, while attending summer Girl Scout camp at Lake Murray, another nurse entered the picture who would become a role model. “The camp nurse was an African-American woman, an Oklahoma County Public Health registered nurse named Mrs. Jessie Jacobs,” Nolen recalled. “In addition to attending to our physical needs, she also taught us health classes. She would supervise us in performing tasks such as proper hand-washing, filling ice and heat packs, correctly applying a simple bandage, etc. These summer camp experiences left no doubts in my mind that I wanted to be a nurse.”
A few years later, and still very much committed to nursing, Nolen – now a student at Oklahoma City Douglass High School – signed up to participate in “Career Days.” Ably guided by her counselors, she applied to nursing school her senior year.
Had she been only a year older, Nolen’s story might have then followed a very different course. For Nolen is black – and prior to 1951, African-Americans were not accepted into any of the nursing schools in Oklahoma.
In December of 1951, however, the University of Oklahoma admitted the first two African-American nursing students in the state. Nolen states that she was told that both were former schoolteachers who had already earned their master’s degrees.
After graduating from high school in May 1952, Nolen was admitted to the OU School of Nursing, and began attending classes in September 1952 – just two weeks shy of her 17th birthday. She was the only African-American student in the class.
She recalls college life being good: “During those years, we were required to live in the dormitory. I soon had several friends that I studied with and also ‘hung out’ with. The School of Nursing had a social director that planned recreational activities for us: skating parties, trips to Vance Air Force Base, etc.”
However, it was a different story at the University Hospital, which at the time remained racially segregated. “This was eight years BEFORE the NAACP began its sit-ins,” Nolen recalled. “The water fountains and rest rooms in the hospital had signs for ‘white’ and ‘colored.’ I could not drink out of the same fountain as my classmates.”
While University Hospital did treat African-American patients in its segregated South Wing, which had its own medical director and director of nursing, nursing students were never assigned there. However, all of the African American nursing staff worked on this wing.
Additionally, so busy was she with her studies and hospital assignments, she rarely had the opportunity to go home to see her family, and her family, not having a car, was unable to visit her. The two African-American students admitted before her were in advanced classes, and she hardly ever saw them.
“Although I had learned a lot and made friends in the OU School of Nursing, by the end of my first year in August 1953, I felt overwhelmed and so socially isolated that I felt that I could not continue in nursing,” Nolan recalled. So, she withdrew from OU and enrolled at Lincoln University in Jefferson City, Mo., where she declared English as her major.
Although she enjoyed her college experience at Lincoln University, Nolen said she quickly discovered that she truly missed nursing school. So, she wrote the director at the time, Ada Hawkins, and started the readmission process.
When she was readmitted in September of 1954, Nolen says she was more mature. Furthermore, faculty member Marie Mink had been hired and two more African-American students had been admitted. Mink took her to social gatherings of African-American registered nurses so that she would not feel so isolated.
“I graduated in September of 1956,” Nolen said, adding that she made superior scores on her National Board of Nursing Exams.
She calls the nursing education she received at OU “excellent” and says the school prepared her “to function in varied nursing roles: simple to multi-complex.”
Her first professional job was as the charge nurse at Oklahoma Children’s Hospital, where she worked the late afternoon and evening shift on a unit for school-age girls.
During this time, Nolen said, poliomyelitis was rampant. “We had many patients in iron lungs. The polio vaccine had not been invented. …We worked long hours, extra shifts and very few days off.”
After six months, she was offered the opportunity to transfer to the Operating Room at University Hospital, where she served as staff nurse and circulated for O.R. cases.
In 1960, she was hired at the Oklahoma City Department of Veterans Affairs Hospital, where she was initially assigned to an internal medicine unit as a staff nurse.
After three months, Nolen was assigned to the Recovery Room,” the forerunner of the modern-day Intensive Care Unit.
Three months later, she was appointed as head nurse of the Recovery Room.
“This was considered a ‘very elite unit,’ and only nurses with excellent nursing skills were selected to work there,” Nolen said. “Although I don’t know for sure, I was told that I was the first African-American to be appointed a head nurse at the Oklahoma City VA Hospital.”
In 1968, after resigning from the VA Hospital, she found herself on a different track when she went to work for the Oklahoma City Community Action program.
“Lyndon Baines Johnson was president of the United States, and America had declared War on Poverty,” Nolen explains, adding that in Oklahoma City, “this translated into the Community Action Program establishing a health care component.”
“We had a ‘health component bus’ and driver that was available to drive clients to their health care appointments,” Nolen recalled. “Each week, the nurses would meet with our physician, medical directors at the OU Medical Center and summarize our weekly activities. Sometimes the physicians would make home visits with us. My picture appeared with one of the family practice residents making a home visit in one edition of The Family Practice Journal.”
Nolen described this period of her career as a “truly exciting time” for her.
“It was the first time that I could work in street clothes and a lab coat. I was in meetings with city and county officials. At the University Family Medicine Clinic, I was an integral part of a Multidisciplinary Health Care Team, which in addition to family practice physicians and other nurses, included physicians of various specialties, psychologists, social workers, dietitians, speech pathologists and other specialists from time to time.”
It was her experiences during that time that convinced her she needed to further her formal education. While continuing to work for the Community Action Program, Nolen enrolled evenings at Rose State College and Central State University to pursue a bachelor of science degree in nursing.
Nolen said her work with the Community Action Program proved a real eye opener for her.
“Although I had lived in Oklahoma City all of my life, and my family was of limited means, I had never known of the impoverished circumstances of many Oklahoma County residents,” Nolen explained. “I worked extended evening hours in the neighborhoods attending meetings, speaking at neighborhood meetings and PTA meetings, and working with residents in other ways to help them ‘overcome’ their circumstances.”
In 1971, Nolen’s career took yet another turn. An official with the Oklahoma State Vocational Education Department offered her a position teaching in a Manpower Program at OU Medical Center. The intent of this program, yet another arm of The War on Poverty, Nolen said, was to train people for employment in health careers. In her new position with the Manpower Program-funded Oklahoma City Skill Center, Nolen taught ward clerks and nursing assistants and also led enrichment classes for Licensed Practical Nurses.
Nolen says she found much satisfaction working at the OU Health Sciences Center through a program called the Health Occupations Training Program, commonly referred to as the H.O.T. Program.
“I could see that I was actually positively impacting my students’ lives,” she said. “Many of my students were single mothers or men who had never been employed; rather, they had lived off of public subsidies.” Federal funding for the H.O.T. Program was decreased in 1973, and Nolen again went to work for the Oklahoma City VA. She continued her studies at Oklahoma City University, earning a bachelor of science degree in health education in the spring of 1975.
That fall, she received a full-time fellowship from the OU College of Nursing and resigned her position with the VA to pursue a master’s degree, declaring medical/surgical nursing as her clinical pathway and management as her leadership pathway.
“I was fortunate to have Dean Lorraine Singer as my adviser,” Nolen said. “We spent many hours together.”
Her plan to graduate in spring of 1976 was put on hold, however, when her father became ill and died over the Christmas holidays. When she returned to school in the spring of 1976, she was able to take only a couple of classes. Although she had to return to work at the VA and go to school part time, she was active in student organizations and, with her classmates, organized the Graduate Nursing Student Association in 1975. Beverlyn “Bitsy” Gunning served as the group’s first president; Nolen the secretary. When Gunning graduated, Nolen was elected president.
Nolen earned her master of science degree in nursing in spring of 1977, the same year she was listed in Who's Who Among Students in American Colleges and Universities.
She then returned to full-time work in the same critical areas she had worked part time during her last year in graduate school. A few months later, she was appointed nurse manager on a 40-bed Internal Medicine floor.
“It was considered to be the ‘cardiac specialty nursing unit,’ as all patients being transferred from the Coronary Intensive Care Unit were admitted there and all new patients with a non-emergency cardiac diagnosis were also admitted there,” Nolen said.
She also was appointed to a Nursing Education Task Force. “I took great pride in receiving new graduate nurses on my unit, and helping them develop into a confident, V.A. staff nurse,” she said.
In December 1980, she received a call from the dean of Academic Affairs at Langston University, which had been given preliminary approval to start a school of nursing. While they had already hired a director, they as yet had no full-time faculty.
While the offer interested her, Nolen says, she faced two obstacles: she had never held a teaching position in a school of nursing, and the Langston campus was 45 miles away, and she was afraid to drive on the highway. Again, OU faculty member Marie Mink came to the rescue.
“She encouraged me to go for the interview, and she drove me to the campus on a Saturday for my interview,” Nolen said. “I subsequently applied, was approved by the Oklahoma Board of Nursing, and was hired as an assistant professor. My intent was to just remain until adequate faculty was hired. I converted to a minimum, part-time status at the VA and worked occasionally in the coronary intensive care unit.”
Nolen solved her highway driving fear by carpooling with other employees who lived in Oklahoma City. Her “short-term” stint at Langston lasted for 15 years, until June 1995.
Nolen left Langston in 1995 to return to the VA full time in order to improve her retirement benefits.
Although retired from nursing and teaching, Nolen maintains an active Oklahoma State Nursing License, regularly attends continuing education programs and volunteers in the community.
Nolen credits her graduate nursing education at OU – especially the Cross Clinical seminars and educational concepts taught to her by Constance Baker – with increasing her knowledge and utilization of the nursing process, as well as providing the foundation upon which she could build her critical thinking skills and analytical abilities – attributes that allowed her to pursue a successful and wide-ranging career in nursing and then teaching career at Langston.
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