09/07/08 — Despite initial misgivings, Health Department nurse marks 35 years

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Despite initial misgivings, Health Department nurse marks 35 years

By Phyllis Moore
Published in News on September 7, 2008 11:50 AM

Sue Jennette didn't always want to be a nurse.

She wanted to go to school and study art, but she was told she couldn't make a living that way.

"Mom pushed me toward nursing," she says now, adding, "I have never regretted it."

Then in nursing school, one of her instructors almost thwarted her efforts.

"He said I would never make it as a nurse because I was so shy," she recalls. "I have wanted to go back and tell him that I did make it."

Around patients, the shyness seems to melt away. It's only when there are large crowds that it even creeps in, she says.

"When I first came to work here (at the Health Department) I remember we had these lines of people outside the building and you had to go out and call these people in. I hated it," she said.

One-on-one, though, working with individual patients, Mrs. Jennette said she "always liked that, even in school."

The nurse practitioner in the Health Department's family planning clinic started out as a visiting nurse 35 years ago. But her favorite job along the way was that of STD nurse, a position she held for 15 years.

"I probably enjoyed that more than any job I have had here," she said. "I think mainly because you saw all the different age groups -- you saw men and women and you saw them on a different level."

What might have been a challenging proposition, proved to be a place where Mrs. Jennette seemed to thrive.

It was around 1985, when HIV testing was just being introduced. There was little information about the illness or treatment practices.

"I actually was the first person (in the Health Department) who started doing HIV testing and was the only one who did it for probably 10 years," she said. "At that time the only training we had was how to fill out the form.

"There wasn't that much known about it so you really didn't know how to counsel (patients). And some of what we told them then was wrong, because we didn't know what we do now."

Despite the challenge, Mrs. Jennette said she enjoyed her work.

"At that time, was when they only did anonymous testing," she remembers. "Most of the time I was the only one who had any contact with them because we didn't make any record on them. We even had to make up a name when we made doctor appointments for them."

Ignorance about HIV and AIDS was accompanied by fear, the nurse said.

"Most people then were scared of AIDS and wouldn't want to have anything to do with them," she said.

But for the nurse, it became an opportunity to show compassion and lend support where needed. And as unfamiliar as some of the terrain was, then as now, Mrs. Jennette says she's really never had many bad experiences.

"I think here you actually are on a more personal relationship with the patient because here you're dealing with their sex life, STDs -- that's a personal, personal thing-- they end up telling you things that nobody else knows -- previous pregnancies, partners being unfaithful," she said. "You do see some things that you don't really agree with, but you still have to treat them regardless of how you feel or how they treat you.

"Even if they come in with an attitude, if you treat them, their attitude will change."

It would be all too easy to respond in kind, especially to those who may be impatient or angry, but, Mrs. Jennette says, "I just know that that's not the way to do it."

"A lot of these people, the majority are nice, they want a better life," she says. "They may be poor but I think the general public thinks they choose to be that way. Most try to do better and they try to do better for their children.

"We see lots of people that are hard workers."

Mrs. Jennette has no regrets about her career path. And while she may have had a smattering of part-time jobs when her children were small and she was a single mother at the time, she says she never wanted to leave her job at the Health Department.

Retirement for the 61-year-old is not even a consideration. Although technically she retired two years ago, she still works two or three days a week.

"I guess because I have always worked," she shrugged. "Even now it's hard to think about not working. I still enjoy it."

Patients still request her, some who started out as young girls and now she is seeing their children and grandchildren.

Carolyn King, health education supervisor at the Health Department, calls Mrs. Jennette a "diamond" and a compassionate caregiver.

"She's one of those rare people that you don't find any more," Mrs. King said. "She's somebody that I think people have come to care for for many years."

For Mrs. Jennette, it's enough to believe she's done a good job.

"I feel that I was meant to be a nurse and I think that I have helped a lot of patients," she said. "I feel like I have contributed."