Tour of Duty

Feb 21, 2017

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I’m grateful for the opportunity and honor to serve our country as a U.S. Army Nurse

One would be hard-pressed to find a person more dedicated to the concept of service to others than Marge Wheeler. Wheeler has spent the vast majority of the adult portion of her 74 years in the compassionate service of others, be it at the bedside in different stateside facilities; while serving her country and fellow service members in Vietnam; or in other capacities during her career, including serving a stint on the AACN Board of Directors.

Getting Started

“I started thinking about what my occupation would be when I was in high school,” she recalled. “An opportunity came up to be a volunteer at a local hospital, so I tried this and liked the work very much. Our family dentist was on staff at this hospital and encouraged me to apply for the student nurse three-year program at this hospital. I applied successfully with the support of my parents, family and this wonderful family dentist."

“This career choice proved to be the right one for me for my entire working career. I loved nursing and being a nurse.”

The challenges to becoming a nurse back then were very different than they are now.

“Back in 1960 to 1963, nursing had fewer challenges in technology, computers, fewer specialty units and complexities of health care specialties,” Wheeler said. “This three-year program had us working on the wards and going to school at the same time from the second week in training. We were bedside nurses, giving ‘hands-on’ care, trained in the classroom by MDs, and trained on the wards by the RNs. I think that helped us stay focused on the patient. We listened to the MDs and they listened to us about what we saw in their patients’ progress. We stood up when the MD came to the nurses’ station and it did not seem a challenge at the time. Our hospital did not have an intensive care unit and had just completed a recovery room as I was graduating in 1963, which did also serve as an intensive care area."

“Today, I notice huge challenges to using and maintaining computer systems, electronic records, computerized devices throughout the hospital, staying on top of pharmaceuticals and their interactions, complex multiple disciplinary teams with complex role definitions, delegation of some hands-on care to aides and technicians, increased awareness and integration of cultural and lifestyle differences into patient care, impact of insurance and payment systems on care delivery, high expectations for complex end-of-life care at any age this occurs, and violence in the work place. These are complexity challenges that I see in the nursing world today. I think such differences can contribute to information overload and perhaps contribute to difficulty focusing on the patient.”

During Wheeler’s second year of her nursing program, an opportunity came to her that would, in essence alter the course of her career and, in many ways, shape her thinking.

An Army Nurse

“During my second of the three-year nursing program,” she explained, “I had scholarships and worked on the wards in my second year to pay for my nursing education. Then, I learned about the U.S. Army Student Nurse Program in which I could enlist, continue my studies and work at my nursing school the last year. [This program was no longer available a while later.] Upon completion, I would take and pass my nursing board exams, go off to U.S. Army basic training, receive a commission as a 2nd Lieutenant and work as an Army nurse to pay back.”

“So, I joined the Army to complete nursing training and see the world! That fit me to a tee! I loved my Army experience and never looked back. It is still an experience I treasure and I would do it all over again.”

“My U.S. Army experiences started at Ft. Sam Houston, Texas where medical personnel received their basic Army training. I worked on a ward at the hospital during the time after I passed my boards, received my commission as a 2nd Lt., and the next basic training began. I will always be grateful that I had hands-on nursing from the beginning at my three-year nursing diploma program. During this two-year tour of duty, I met and married another U.S. Army officer, Dave Wheeler, and we stationed together both in Germany and later in Vietnam. We were married for 39 years.”

“My next assignment was 2nd Field Hospital in Landstuhl, Germany for two years of a three-year tour of duty. I worked on neurology and psychiatric wards. Once again, I worked with competent, kind, caring MDs and corpsmen, who made the nursing work very rewarding.”

Viet Nam

“The final assignment for me was the 3rd Field Hospital in Saigon, Vietnam. My husband received orders and the Chief Nurses’ Office in Europe called me to tell me I had a choice to stay here and be discharged in a few months when my time was up or to go to Vietnam and the two branches would coordinate our assignment so we could be stationed in the same area. I chose to go because I was very grateful for the last year nursing school paid for by the Army, very successful and satisfying nursing assignments, and my wish to help soldiers who were combat wounded. My experience at the 3rd Field Hospital in Saigon was professionally rewarding and life changing - seeing young men soldiers risking their lives and dying for their country.”

There was one event in particular of which she has previously spoken before that stands out.

“One experience in Vietnam stood out for me so vividly and I never talked about it until [AACN] President Terry Lynn Kiss mentioned it in a Bold Voices article. One day, I was assigned to the ‘expected’ area in the outdoor triage area. These soldiers were not expected to live. As I assessed this soldier, it was obvious that he could not survive. The first comment from him to me was, ‘Am I going to die soon?’ I looked around for the chaplain or doctor, but all were very busy saving lives, so the answer in the blink of an eye had to come from within me. I said something to the effect of, ‘We never know when we are going to die, but I think you will die soon.’ I told him how proud we were of his service to his country. I asked if his mom and girl were home sending their love. He smiled and said yes. I asked if I could give him a kiss from his mom and girl and know that’s what they would do. He answered yes. So, I gave him a kiss for them. Within a minute or so, he died in my arms.”

“This experience was memorable for the young man who gave his life when others back home were protesting and burning flags. Not wanting to lie to a dying soldier by telling him his country was so proud of him, I just thought, ‘No we were all proud of him, and his mom, and his girl, his family.’ I’m thankful to this day, for Terry Kiss bringing up the issue of eminent death when you, the nurse, were the one right there for critical questions and human connection.”

Wheeler has an obvious special connection with and to those who have and continue to serve.

“For those who are serving and who have served, I would say to continue to honor their choice to serve our country. The current and past wars and service duties have put veterans at risk for health problems, some immediate and some long-term. To veterans: thank you for your service then and now. Please always stay tuned in to how you personally can take care of your own health, given your service experience and exposure to environmental, physical and mental stress of service. Reach out for help when you need it and as so many do, offer help when you can to your comrades. You have a unique place as a veteran. You were called to and answered the call to serve your country. Take pride in the uplifting positive things you were able to do. Thank you.”

Looking Back

Looking back on a career of 50 years, there are some highlights that stand out.

“As I look back on my career, which started as a hospital teenage volunteer through today, I’m grateful for the opportunity and honor to serve our country as a U.S. Army Nurse during wartime and to serve a tour of duty in Vietnam, a first exposure to critical care.”

“Also, the professional honor to serve on AACN committees at the chapter and national levels has been truly rewarding.”