My journey to become a nurse started in utero (yes really!). I cannot remember a time when I wanted to be anything else.
When I was five years old, I was in a hospital for a ruptured appendix. One night, a little boy was admitted to the pediatric unit. He was crying in pain and because I wanted to help, I removed his wound dressing and replaced it. He told me he felt better.
This was my first experience as a nurse. At the age of FIVE! Of course, I should not have done that, but he was in pain, and I was brazen enough to try to help.
There was a nurse in the unit named Ellen. Since I was in the hospital recovering from my appendix operation, she took me to the men’s unit to pass the time. I spent a good portion of each day there. I learned how to talk to patients and elicit great information about them. From Ellen, I learned compassion and kindness.
When I was finally discharged, I looked for her to say goodbye, but she was in a hospital bed. My mother explained that she was very sick. I was overwhelmed with sadness. I needed to do something, so I gave her my blanket to keep her warm. Subsequently, I found out that she had died. I was devastated; she was my muse. I would always ask myself, “Would Nurse Ellen approve of my work?”
My parents always put up with my chatter about what I would do when I became a nurse. My father was more interested in my becoming an English teacher. In the end, I prevailed.
I had two brothers. My older brother, Bill, ignored whatever I said. (Today, he is 80 years old and plays tennis every day.) My little brother, Phillip, nine years younger than I, knew me as his loving babysitter. He had Crohn’s disease and suffered throughout his life. When our mother died, I became his surrogate mother and remained in this role until he died at the age of 59.
I always did volunteer work. I was the president of my youth group and that is where I began to learn the leadership skills – public speaking, long-term planning, utilization of resources, goal setting and how to delegate – which I employ to this day.
I was educated at the Jewish Hospital and Medical Center of Brooklyn’s School of Nursing. I was a mediocre high school student, but once I got to nursing school, I soared. I had a fabulous education.
While in nursing school, I was chosen by the student assembly to attend the Student Nurse’s Convention in San Francisco. My instructors then decided I should attend the American Nurses Association Convention. I had a marvelous director of the school (Mrs. Charnes), and she gave me permission to stay an extra few days. I was one proud student! My instructors were very accomplished nurses and they always offered help when necessary.
While attending school, I was introduced to Nathan Lafer, and we got engaged just before my graduation. We married in 1967 and left for Ohio University where he was doing his master’s in botany.
My mother’s sister was curious as to what Nathan would do with this degree and my mother, always quick on her feet, said “Why, he will be a tree surgeon.” My aunt only wanted us all to marry doctors and my mother’s response gave her pause.
We were in Ohio for one year and I secured a position at the local hospital. The people I met were fascinating. On the weekends, I helped Nathan with his thesis. He was in the process of determining the population and age of an oak forest in Dysart Woods, Belmont, Ohio, which dated back to the era of Christopher Columbus. Through his research, it was determined that it was a white oak forest. It was fun to be able to work on this together. It was where we learned how to work as a team for a common purpose. We employed these interpersonal skills throughout our marriage.
We only had one car so my nursing supervisor, Mildred, drove me to work every day. Mildred was also a pig farmer and sometimes we had to stop to pick up the pig feed. I was very young, and I was fascinated that she could be a nurse and a pig farmer.
This was my first job as a professional nurse. The college and the hospital were in the heart of Southern Appalachia. I will always remember this experience as I learned so much. Stories about this time in my life would make the hair on your head stand up!
One incident stands out for me. While working at the hospital in Ohio, one of my responsibilities was to oversee the emergency room. My aide Yvonne came up and asked me to go to the ER with her. I could see that she was very disturbed. When I got to the ER, there was a young mother crying uncontrollably. Next to her lay her lifeless newborn. The mother, who had taken the baby to nap next to her, had fallen asleep and rolled over on the baby. We immediately summoned help, but the baby was already dead. I had to console this mother, digging deep within myself to remain nonjudgmental during our conversation.
I have had a rich and celebrated career as a nurse. I started out as a hospital nurse and from there I worked in a nursing home, did private duty for hip-replacement patients and later worked as an infertility nurse. I also worked in a school for handicapped children and as a school nurse in the town we lived in.
We moved to Tampa, Florida, in 1998, where I secured a position at Menorah Manor, a nursing home in St. Petersburg, FL where I developed and ran the Toby Weinman Jewish Hospice for six and a half years. This was my final job as a nurse; I retired in 2006.
People frequently ask how I could do hospice work and my response is simple: the wisdom the residents imparted was priceless. They gave me more than I gave them.
If I had to choose my favorite specialty, it would be infertility. It is a life-affirming specialty. There are quite a few “Susans” named after me thanks to the work I did in this fertility office. I absolutely loved working in the field of infertility. I surprised myself because I became an infertility educator, which I never considered as part of my nursing work.
When I was a young mother, I read about Henrietta Szold and her undying need to help the people of pre-Israel Palestine. She was a true and tenacious leader. I decided to become a member of Hadassah to help carry on her dream. In my own professional work, I drew strength from her story and example. I learned that I could be a great nurse and I worked very hard to do just that.
In 2015, I became president of the Hadassah Florida Central Region, which encompasses 22 chapters. In 2018, I joined the National Nurses Council and more recently, the Hadassah Nurses & Allied Professionals Council. Shortly thereafter, National Past President Ellen Hershkin recruited me to co-chair the Council with Nancy Rappaport. We served together for one year and then Robin Shuman stepped into the co-chair position.
Nancy and I established a steering committee and a comprehensive database. We offered webinars and free CEU’s (Continuing Education Units) necessary for licensing every two years. We raised funds to convert the Goldwurm Auditorium at Hadassah Hospital Mount Scopus into a state-of-the-art learning center. Thanks to our generous donors, we were able to raise $1 million and in June of 2022, the Henrietta Szold Hadassah-Hebrew University School of Nursing opened its New Learning Center with the Jean Goldwurm Auditorium.
As a local leader in the global movement that is Hadassah, I am proud of the role my organization plays in facilitating medical care for more than one million people of all races, religions and nationalities each year. Building bridges to peace through medicine – something for which the Hadassah Medical Organization, Hadassah’s medical center in Israel, earned a Nobel Peace Prize nomination in 2005 – and providing safe spaces for healing are more crucial than ever in today’s divided world.
Susan Lafer is Past Co-Chair of Hadassah’s Nurses & Allied Health Professionals Council.