NEW YORK NURSE: March 2009
by Mark Genovese
“As a float nurse, I was in a unique position,” recalled Terry Lee Christy, who retired in December 2007 from Brooks Memorial Hospital in Dunkirk. “It gave me an opportunity to follow patients all the way through – from the ER, to the ICU, to the floors. Sometimes, I’d even discharge them!”
“I loved floating. I loved the autonomy,” she said. “I was in the ER, intensive care, maternity, chemotherapy, ambulatory, pediatrics, recovery on weekends – everything but OR surgery. I worked very hard to find out everything I could about each unit. I never wanted my day to get routine.”
Even when Christy was little, she knew she was going to be a nurse. She tagged along with her father, an emergency response volunteer, when he took part in community disaster drills. “I enjoyed the energy and the activity,” she said.
Christy worked as a private-duty nurse for a short time after graduating from the Deaconess Hospital nursing program in Buffalo in 1963. She then took 17 years off to raise her children, working occasional private-duty. She returned to full-time nursing in 1981. “I still knew how to give a patient a bath and I knew what Demerol was. But everything else had changed!”
She became a float nurse at Brooks after orientation and continued in this role for the better part of 26 years.
Christy was one of a small group who organized the 100 healthcare professionals at Brooks in 1990. At the time, all Brooks’ employees were represented by another union. But the professional staff felt their specific concerns were lost in a wall-to-wall unit and contacted NYSNA.
Among her cohorts was Eileen McEntarfer, now Eileen Schneider, who is now an associate director in NYSNA’s Economic and General Welfare Program; and Kathy Briggs, who at first was considered to be a spy for the other union, but became one of NYSNA’s biggest supporters and long-time grievance chair.
They worked behind the scenes to develop a core group. Meetings were held secretly at homes. Others were included when it was determined they could be trusted. “We would tell one person, and then tell them not to tell anybody else. No one knew who else knew!” she said. “It was about a year and a half before management was aware of what we were doing.”
The organizing effort was met by legal challenges by the hospital and attempts at coercion by the other union. “Our tires were slashed, our windows were broken, and our children were threatened,” she said. “As a single parent, coming home after working a double shift, it was frightening to hear that someone called your child and said: ‘Tell your mom to watch out. We wouldn’t want anyone to be hurt.’”
But Christy and her colleagues knew exactly who would vote and how they would vote. “We were off by only two or three,” she said. She then served on the bargaining unit’s executive board until she retired.
“Our employees wouldn’t have survived if it hadn’t been for collective bargaining, which helped us to recruit and maintain professional staff,” she said. “Collective bargaining can be difficult, but it’s something you have to do if you want to stay strong and protect everything you’ve worked so hard to achieve.”
Over the years, Christy developed a reputation in the close-knit southwestern New York community as a compassionate RN who truly cared for her patients as though they were family. “I thought of my patients as my children for the day. I’d love them the same,” she said. “At least once every hour, I’d stick my head in to every room and say: ‘Hi, are you okay? Is there is anything you need?’ No matter how many patients I had on a given day, the bell rarely went off. It only takes a couple minutes out of your day to care, but it makes a big difference.”