Passion after a lifelong career in nursing

BY DAVID BLUMENKRANTZ • Originally published in Scrubs DECEMBER 1, 2009


What can nurses expect to take away from a long career—assuming they avoid being eaten by their crustier superiors?

Lillian Goodman, 78-year-old nurse, health career educator and administrator gives one of her classic answers: “The idiotic saying, ‘a job well done.’” Then seriously, she adds, “There should be a lot of satisfaction from a career in a field that has an impact on society. I would say that along with teaching, [nursing] is one of the few fields where you could say that.”

For Lillian, it seems her own expansive career in nursing has brought her decades of satisfaction and continues to do so. Her journey through life began in a small town in New Hampshire, where she was raised. “In the era I grew up in, there were three ways to go,” she recalls. “You got married, you became a teacher or you became a nurse. I had an incredible high school biology teacher, Mr. Flaherty, who was also the football coach. He inspired me tremendously to think about scientific questions. My mother’s stories about growing up amidst the Armenian Genocide, along with Mr. Flaherty, pushed me toward nursing.”

In 1949, Lillian enrolled at Elliot Hospital in Manchester, N.H. “We were what was in those days called ‘diploma school nurses.’ We trained, worked and lived there.” With self-deprecating humor, she shares an embarrassing memory from those formative days. “When I was a student nurse at Elliot, I was on evening shift. It was very busy—the charge nurse went to dinner and put me in charge. I was very excited and anxious, and we had a new admission, a very young, good-looking man. I was 18, he was 18 and I was so nervous! I said, ‘Excuse me, sir. I have to take your vital signs.’ I picked up his arm and started taking his pulse, and everyone started laughing. I asked, ‘What’s so funny?’ He said, “You took my brother’s pulse, not mine!’”

From those youthful misadventures, Lillian went on to earn her OB-GYN and RN licenses in 1952, and went to work at the Margaret Hague Maternity Hospital in Jersey City. Three years later, she found herself in California working as an OB Supervisor at Kaiser Permanente Sunset. In 1957, she married a physician and started a family, taking nine years off to raise her two children. When she returned to the workforce, it was as an OB-GYN and med-surg nurse at Holy Cross Hospital in Mission Hills.

At a certain point, Lillian recalls, she became interested in teaching, and obtained a vocational credential and a B.A. in Liberal Arts from Redlands College. By the early 1970s, she had embarked on a new phase of her career, as the director of a private vocational nursing school, training LVNs. In 1978, she joined the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD), supervising high school and adult education health career programs for LVN, CAN, EMT, MA, X-ray and dental assistants. Along the way, she picked up her M.A. in Education Administration and an administration credential. By the time she retired after 27 years of service, she held the position of Director of Vocational Nursing Program/Health Careers Specialist.

With more than 60 years of experience in the field of healthcare, Lillian is outspoken about changes that she has seen in the system over the years. “Hospitals are now owned by large corporations,” she laments. “It’s not [supposed to be] a product. Efficiency models shouldn’t be the criteria.” Of her many passions, nursing remains first, and Lillian expresses concern that the field is under threat. “We need to put more money into educating nurses. At the community college level, there are waiting lists so long that potential nurses give up. We also need the pay to be commensurate. Nursing needs to be a viable profession.” To this end, she feels that negative practices such as older nurses eating their young are anachronistic, and can be addressed and minimized through “professional development and education for the more experienced and seasoned nurses to interact with the new nurses.”