99-year-old World War II nurse pins Michigan nursing school graduate

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Paige Kubitski (left), Lois Merwin and Chloe Thomas huddle together. Merwin, a former nurse who assisted wounded veterans during World War II will pin Kubitski at her nursing ceremony on May 7.

Lois Merwin has to strain to remember her time at the Battle Creek and Evanston Hospitals. It was almost 70 years ago - on the tail end of World War II. She was the operating room supervisor, charged with directing the schedule of surgeries and managing the student nurses that filled its halls.

“I like being the boss,” she said. “Being able to direct people, being able to help peoples' lives and getting them into the right role.”

She's wearing a weathered smirk on her face. She liked her job, keeping the hospital running and having rooms prepared for when doctors came in to perform surgery. She was a First Lieutenant Supervisor in the United States Army after all, overseeing the paraplegic unit of 200 patients.

But, even with that shade of rosy retrospection decorating her memory, there were times that don't always bring smiles when she thinks of them. When she wasn't preparing the operating room, she was also tending to the needs of wounded soldiers home from the front lines.

“All these young men would get ready for the families to come and visit them,” Merwin said, “this one young man couldn't hardly stand up, he was hanging on the end of the bed frame of his bed, so his family could see him standing....”

She tears up thinking about the scene. Her granddaughter, Chloe Thompson, holds a tissue out for her.

Recalling her experiences as a nurse spurs on tears of both sorrow and joy, like when she met her husband Clyde working in the same hospital. And you can bet they won't be the last tears shed. On Tuesday, May 6, she'll be pinning her grandson's girlfriend of six years during a traditional nursing ceremony held at Madonna University - a quasi-family affair meant for tears to fall.

“It feels wonderful, it's just an honor,” said Merwin. “She's pretty special. She's just a lovely lady.”

That 'lovely lady' is Paige Kubitski. Soon she'll be in the operating room at the University of Michigan hospital. But before that she'll attend the symbolic welcoming of graduates into the ranks of professional nurses. With soon-to-be nurses standing on one side of the stage and their personally selected 'pinners' on the other side, each of their names will be announced. At that time, they will walk up and meet their pinner. Then they receive their certificate and a picture is taken.

“Most people chose their mom or one of the people that taught them during clinical or someone they met through school,” said Kubitski.

Inspiring professors and guiding parents are the bedrock of inspiration for a lot of up-and-coming nurses. But how many of them were active during World War II? Likely, not many. Which is why Kubitski didn't hesitate when thinks about who she would have picked.

“...for me, when I picked I didn't second guess myself.”

“I was worried she (Lois) wouldn't feel up to it,” Kubitski said, “but it feels really good with all the experience and knowledge she has and what she's been through. She's definitely an incredibly woman, so it feels good.”

Merwin herself was never pinned. She graduated from York College in Nebraska in 1941 with a Bachelor of Science and a minor in Education. From there she earned her graduate credit hours at the Evanston Hospital School of Nursing. Her profession took her to Dayton, Ohio, Battle Creek, Grand Rapids and Detroit.

Through her travels, she fostered the growth of many students that waded into the waters of nursing. Only after directing students for so long would she see them in their professional capacities years later.

“I worked with some of her students and we (would) run into them,” said Chloe Thompson, her granddaughter. “She's had them take care of her. It's very full circle. She's impacted a lot of woman's lives in a very positive way.”

It's not just her students that have benefited from that positive impact either. She also has granddaughters that have gone into nursing and have become doctors.

Despite enjoying the supervisory role she played throughout her years, including the quarter-century she spent teaching at McPherson Community Health Center, Merwin's advice for any young aspiring nurse treads the lines of personal attention and treating patients as humans.

“A lot of women who came into the program were already caring for a family and they had that warmth and caring that they carried to the patients,” she said. “That was really important.”

She also wants future nurses to give everything they have for the job. “Make it as full-time as you can.”
Merwin is now 99 years old. She'll be 100 in August. With her new job as pinner for Paige, it sounds like she hasn't forgotten that advice - still working years later.