COWGIRL IN SCRUBS
JOSEPH Amidst all the changes she has seen in a half-century marriage and over 30 years of dedication to Wallowa Memorial Hospital, a stalwart Vera Isley remains the same, true to the principles and values of her rural upbringing.
"Straight talking, honest, loyal, hard working and willing to take on anything thrown her way" are words peers use to describe her. Yet, a modest Isley talks of simply doing her job, and is quick to credit others, like her mentors Marcella Britton and Edna Ollis.
For over three decades, Isley has remained a constant on which doctors, staff and the community could depend.
"Vera epitomizes customer service. They don't make them like her anymore," said nursing director Gail Johnson, who worked with Isley since 1973.
The place where surgery technician Isley spent a career passing instruments, her operating room is still located where it was when the hospital was built in 1951.
In Isley's time, she's seen all the adjacent departments expanded and moved. For example, the obstetrics ward and nurses station are now at the opposite end of the hospital.
Changes Isley's seen in the O-R include new flooring, lighting, and two years ago, the "first ever brand-new, never-been-used" operating table.
"It'll be nice when we get our new surgeon," Isley said, referring to general and vascular surgeon Dr. Robert Berecz of John Day, who will begin a six-year contract with the hospital on July 1. "He'll be a real asset."
With 30 years of experience, he has logged nearly as much O-R time as Vera.
Looking ahead the next couple years, Isley speaks of "us getting a new anesthesia machine.'' Though officially retired, her heart's still in the O-R.
"She not only became the head, but also the heart of the surgery department," Dr. Lowell Euhus said. "A surgeon needs good assistance, whether it is another physician, or a surgery tech like Vera. She was very dependable, conscientious and talented. She was very aware and anticipated the next move so well that often all I had to do was extend my hand and she knew what was needed next. She was really on top of things and took it upon herself to keep them going smoothly."
Johnson, the nursing director, said Isley "had a tremendous sense of ownership of the O-R. She received her training from local people and evolved as the O-R evolved."
When Isley began at the hospital there were separate men's and women's wards. That was before creation of the health care district, when the hospital was a county entity.
Decades on call
During the first half of her career, pagers were not available. On call after work, she had to remain close to the phone and within 20 minutes of the hospital. "Whenever the phone rang, I'd think, I hope it's not the hospital,' " Isley said. It often was, like a call from the emergency room asking where to find certain equipment.
Once Isley was on call 24 hours a day seven days a week for six months.
"A lot of times I thought I could not stand to be on call one more night," she said about missing a lot of her four children's school activities. But she kept doing it one more night, one more year, and one more decade.
Initially, Isley thought she'd only be at the hospital one or two years to supplement the family income. She remembers her first paycheck on March 1, 1971. The pay hovered around the $3.50 minimum wage, but the health insurance was invaluable. Now, she especially appreciates the retirement benefit.
Wore many hats
Isley has retired from her hospital job, where "she wore a lot of hats," Johnson said. She worked E-R and O-R then also took on the added responsibilities of central sterile supply, then purchasing and stocking all supplies for the entire hospital. Other staff members at her retirement party estimated that it will take three to five people to fill Isley's shoes.
"What a workhorse," Johnson said. "We're going to miss her. She taught a lot of us."
"There wasn't anything she wouldn't do," administrative assistant Kathleen Negus said.
Isley began her career by taking a nurse's aide class and working the floor as an aide. That June she began training for surgery.
She became the circulator, making skin preparation and painting the surgery site with disinfectant. She was responsible for bringing in any extra supplies, such as if the anesthetist needed something. Because that involved handling medications, a registered nurse is now required to be circulator.
Isley, though, remained responsible for setting up the O-R with the right instruments and passing them to the surgeon.
Inside job for outside gal
"I felt some reservations at first, but never had a problem like feeling faint," Isley said. "I always had an interest in seeing what was on the inside."
Early on, she spent a lot of time looking at photos of medical instruments so that when a surgeon asked for a hemostat, a clamp or an Alice she knew what it was. She also learned what, when, how and why to do what needed to be done in surgery. She learned what each physician preferred for scalpel blades or sutures, and developed a system of case cards for each doctor.
Isley worked with a number of doctors over the years, and has "been through a slough of administrators.
"I loved every minute of it," she said.
"She's a real buckaroo," Negus, the administrative assistant, said of Isley. "She loves her people, her grandkids and horses. Vera's been around horses all her life. First it was her grandparents' team of work horses.''
When she was about 9 her father began work for Jay Langston, namesake for Langston Lane. That was her first real exposure to saddle horses.
Isley got more practice riding after becoming acquainted with her husband-to-be, Manfred Isley.
She looks back and laughs about a riding experience before their marriage in November 1952.
She offered to help round up some horses that got loose on Manfred's parents' place on the Divide, the plateaus some 20 miles east of Joseph between Little and Big Sheep creeks.
By then Vera thought she knew how to ride, but quickly learned a new type of riding as her mount ran through timber, dodging trees and jumping downed logs.
"Things look bigger and closer than they really are," Isley said.
She would spend 30 years in the guiding and packing business with her husband, the first decade at road's end at Indian Crossing on the Upper Imnaha River. Next, they operated the Eagle Cap Wilderness Pack Station near the end of the highway at Wallowa Lake.
After working all day at the hospital, she'd come home to do the books and bookings of their business. She spent her vacations cooking at elk camp. It could be cold, but "I know how to build a fire and put on enough clothes to stay warm," she said.
The gal who simultaneously juggled various duties wore many hats. Now she has retired one of them.
"I have changed my rubber gloves for leather ones and my nurse's hat for a cowboy hat," Vera said.
Story, photos by