Madeline Barnes died November 26, 2012, in Boston. She was 74 years old — a single mother, a nurse and nursing instructor, an eternal dieter, and a determined force who didn’t ask for help, even when she needed it. After her breast cancer diagnosis, she drove herself to chemotherapy. Then, back in her driveway, she would fall asleep at the wheel in front of her house.
Her daughter still has her nursing cap. It required washing, ironing, starching, and re-assembly to keep its shape. Madeline was one of the first black nurses admitted to the ANA, and she represented more than herself.
In 1956, an acceptance letter arrived from Harlem Hospital School of Nursing, with two caveats: the 18-year-old, already-accomplished student had to agree to a neuropsychiatric evaluation by the New York City Department of Hospitals, and she had to take remedial reading classes. Three years later, she and her Afro-American classmates scored so highly on their licensing exam that the credentialing committee grew suspicious. They demanded the class take a second test.
She taught nursing theory and practice for 50 years, in schools across Massachusetts. If a student enrolled anywhere between 1960 and 2010, it’s almost certain Madeline trained her. The family album has photos of graduation after graduation, with a silhouetted Madeline in her lab coat, off to the right or left of the group. It wasn’t lucrative work — one school offered $11,089 as an annual salary, another $4,800. On the other hand, it was a goldmine of social contact. The night she rushed her daughter to an emergency room, the charge nurse recognized her, and their reunion grew so animated they forgot the patient standing between them.
Clinical work — the starched-cap side of nursing — took her to hospitals and homes, where racism was a quiet fixture. When she worked in one geriatric community, a patient refused to let her in the door. She had to try harder, be more precise, and manage paperwork more impeccably than white instructors. She did. Occasionally she commented on the situation in a sideways fashion. “Isn’t it interesting that Egyptians didn’t call themselves people of color?” she once mused.
But mostly, there wasn’t time for bitterness. She was busy getting her nursing degree, then her Bachelors of Science, then her Masters of Science. She was busy teaching and grading, teaching and grading, providing for her kids, moving along.
She worried she was not a good enough mother, she worried about house payments, and she worried about her weight. But she never worried about her nursing. That was a mission.
Did you know Madeline Barnes? Share your memories in the comments section.