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From segregation to Barbie: True tales of a nurse

She wanted to be a doctor. But it was the 1920s, and most medical schools didn't admit women. So she became a nurse instead.

Her name was Betty. She was the middle child of seven children. Her family didn't have much money, and her father wasn't inclined to spend it on a young girl's education, so she paid for nursing school on her own.

One of her early jobs was working at Grady Hospital in Atlanta, back when it was segregated. She was a skinny young blonde girl who had been raised in the South, but she quickly figured out that if she asked to be assigned to the "colored ward" she would be allowed to do more procedures.

There was a tunnel under the street linking the colored ward with the main hospital and the white doctors didn't make the trek over very often. So Betty found herself handling emergencies, dealing with families, and pretty much in charge most of the time.

She may have harbored some of her own prejudices, given that it was the South in the 30s, but she knew where she was needed, and she willingly jumped in to serve a group of patients that many others neglected.

She didn't marry until she was 25, an age when most of her family had written her off as an old maid. However, instead of immediately having babies, she and her new lawyer husband, moved to Washington, D.C., where Betty got her master's degree from Catholic University.

She later became the chief nurse at the U.S. Veterans Hospital in Washington, D.C., caring for yet another under-served group of patients. She had her first child when she was 31, and after she found good child care, she went back to work, becoming a working mother before the phrase even existed.

She had her second child at 38. In the seven years in between her two children she co-authored a textbook, "Anatomy and Physiology" a book that was used by most of the medical schools in the country.

She went on to become a chief of Public Health Nursing, and later an instructor at American University and education director for a major teaching hospital.

Marriage at 25, a master's degree after that, a big job before her first baby, a published book before her second child and a career that included public and private sector work as well as teaching at a University level. It sounds like a path for a highly ambitious woman today, but for a girl born in 1905, it was pretty big stuff.

Betty touched the lives of thousands, perhaps even millions, of patients and students over the years, and it's hard to imagine how many hands she held, how much care she gave and how many lives she saved. In her later years she said nursing was the best profession ever because you touched people in a way that doctors didn't.

After she retired, she spent her time sewing, gardening, volunteering and spending time with her grandchildren. Once she even made clothes for her granddaughter's Barbie.

At that time poor Barbie's wardrobe was limited to go-go boots, swimsuits and miniskirts. But Betty thought it was important for her granddaughter to know that Barbie could have a career. So she helped her granddaughter make Barbie a nurse's uniform, telling her, "The world always needs someone who knew how to take care of people."

Betty was a teacher, she was a nurse and she was my grandmother.

Snellville resident Lisa Earle McLeod is a nationally recognized speaker and the author of "Forget Perfect." Contact her at www.forgetperfect.com.