News & Events

Miss Miller marks end of an era

March 7, 2013

For the past 48 years, Miss Dorothy L. Miller, RN, has been a vital part of The William W. Backus Hospital.  Respected by colleagues and community for her professionalism and achievements, her retirement Thursday signified, in a sense, the end of an era.

It was an era of hands-on nursing before the advent of high technological advances and before the societal changes of the past several decades; when high fevers were reduced by alcohol sponges rather than by injections of antibiotics; when the standard work week for just about everyone was 52 hours; when coffee and cigarette breaks were unheard of; when it was mandatory for nurses to wear, as a symbol of their profession, the starched crisp nurse’s cap.

Miss Miller began her nursing career on Sept. 6, 1939, when she entered The William W. Backus Hospital Training School.  She was 17 1/2 years of age and had just graduated from Stonington High School in June.  She had no idea that she was to spend her entire nursing career at Backus Hospital but commented this week that she has never regretted the choice.

Opportunities open to women at that time, Miss Miller recalls, were to marry, find employment in a mill or store, or become a teacher or nurse. She chose nursing because she felt that she wanted to do something special with her life.

Hers was a small class of 17 students of which only nine graduated three years later.  The nurses’ training program ran for three calendar years with just four weeks off each year during the summer.  Curfew was 10 p.m. each night and the dormitories and “recruits” were managed in a modified Army mode, Miss Miller said with a smile.  She recalled one incident when classmates out for a night on the town were to throw pebbles at her window to awaken her so she could let them in.  She slept through it all and was encountered by very angry classmates the next day.  “The rocks weren’t big enough,” she commented wryly.

She also recalls an incident in which she was to clean a medicine cabinet on one of the hospital floors.  She re-arranged all the bottles, grouping them according to color with labels facing the rear because they were soiled.  “I thought it looked pretty that way.” she said, “but needless to say my supervisor thought differently and I did it over the right way.”

Student training during the 52 hours a week of classes and work allowed for much exposure in the hospital itself which provided invaluable experience for the novice nurses.  “We got to do things many, many times on the floors under supervision before we were allowed to do them on our own,” she said.  Today’s nursing students have limited clinical experience, she noted, because this has to revolve around their college class schedules.

Miss Miller graduated from the Backus nursing school in 1942 at the age of 20 ½ and began working in the children’s ward.  After a three-week bout of viral pneumonia she returned as staff nurse in the men’s ward and at the age of 21 was named head nurse there.  She was working alternate weeks on the evening and night shifts.  “They figured young nurses could gain much beneficial experience while working these shifts,” she explained.  “You stayed until you finished and there was no one to ask, so you  have to figure out what had to be done and how to do it.”

She continued as head nurse at Backus on several other wards until 1958.  Being head nurse was “most rewarding, “ Miss Miller commented, in looking back over those years.  “People came in sick, we nursed them, they got well and went home.”

In 1958 she was named instructor in the Backus Training School for nurses.  During this time she obtained a bachelor of science nursing degree from the University of Connecticut School of Nursing and a master of arts degree in education from Trinity College in Hartford.

Miss Miller reports that as an instructor she was very strict.  She recalls once when two students turned in identical papers, except for their names on top.  Even today she is shocked that they could have done this.  She said, “I always felt that if you were going to do something you should take pride in it and do it as well as you possibly can.  No matter what you do you should do a good job.”

She was named assistant director and then associate director of the school, a position she held in June of 1972 when the school closed and another chapter in Miss Miller’s career began.  Named associate director of the Nursing Education Department at Backus Hospital she recalls organizing this unit from the very beginning.  The goals were to promote individual development of the nursing staff by orientation and inservice programs, and to encourage continuing education, thereby helping the person provide appropriate nursing care and keep up to date with advances in the health field.

In 1979 she wrote a proposal to form a Community Education department which was approved by hospital administrators.  This unit, which operates in conjunction with Nursing eduation, includes in-patient teaching for self-care at home as well as out-patient programs for the community such as blood pressure screenings, a diabetes support group, better breathing club and CPR instruction.

In 1984 at the request of the state Department of Health Services, Miss Miller applied for a grant for blood pressure screenings, nutrition courses and an exercise program to be held in the town of Griswold.  In 1986 and 1987 she applied for and received state grants for similar programs in the Norwich area.  Last year, the Backus Community Education department performed 900 blood pressure tests at various screening sites.

In recalling highlights of her career, Miss Miller included the awarding of these grants because the programs they have provided have literally benefitted thousands of people.  Another highlight was the accreditation of the Backus School of Nursing in 1967 by the National League of Nurses, a first for the school.  And, a “great honor” was when the nursing students dedicated their yearbook to her, “…even though they thought I was strict,” she said.

Miss Miller said it’s impossible to judge whether nursing was easier when she began her career than it is now.  Some things remain the same.

“We were taught to always think of the patient.  And little things are so important such as having the nightstand within reach, little thoughtful things.  A patient might not know what medical procedure is being used but he does know if you give him a smile and if you really care about his getting well.  An that still holds,” she said.

“Nurses also always have had to make every minute count.  We have to be organized and organize our time around the patients’ needs.”

She feels, however, that it was more rewarding being a nurse when she began her career “…because patients stayed in the hospital longer and we were able to get to know them and their families.  They came in sick and went home well.”  She added, “Now they come in sick, stay a short specified time accordning to government regulated DRGs (Diagnosis Related Groups) and leave before fully recuperated.  And we don’t really have time to get to know them.”

Also, it’s tougher being a nurse today because of having to keep abreast of the ever changing technology.  But, she would not have changed anything in her career, she said firmly.  “I’m not a wanderer.  I was asked to work at Backus Hospital upon graduation from nursing school and this is where I have chosen to remain.  I’ve never even applied for a job anywhere else.”

Miss Miller’s retirement will not involve a complete breaking away from the hospital where she has spent almost half a century.  She will continue to administer the state health grants for Community Education through 1988 and will be available to assist with ongoing Nursing Education and Community Education Department programs.

Her plans for retirement include day trips to places of interest, visiting with friends, redecorating her Waterford home, and continuing caring for a niece and nephew whom she has raised.  She is leaving Backus Hospital with  the sincere best wishes for all who were privileged to know her and with assurance that she has set exceedingly high standards for those who follow.

To view  a photo gallery of the Nursing Alumnae Association’s 100th anniversary, click here