7 Sr. Catherine and my Lab Coat

Patrica Cleary

The author's lab coat hanging in a closet.

I miss the days when my children were young. An abundance of energy filled the space in our home. Now, all I see are their empty bedrooms. Don’t get me wrong, I am happy for them. They have flown the coup. That is natural.

I refuse to drown in a sea of self-pity tears so I clean and organize a closet. My old lab coat I wore at the U and Kaiser suddenly appears and beckons my attention. It brought me back to my years as a nurse and nurse practitioner. I have been told by many that I am a natural nurse – I still question that – like a shoe that is the right size but doesn’t quite fit.

Sr. Catherine was an overweight nun who never smiled. She had white curly hair, a ruddy face and wore a black polyester long sleeve dress year-round. I am pretty sure her armpits were never exposed to deodorant. I can’t remember if I feared her in high school or was simply stunned and confused by her presence. Yet, she was powerful. She decided my fate – I was going to become a nurse.

I don’t know what my college professor saw in me or why she thought I would be a good psych nurse. Yet, there I was, 21 years old, immature, and idealistic in my first real job. The neo-gothic building on York and 68th became a place where I would grow up quickly. The main lobby was adorned with beautiful mahogany wooden walls, upholstered velvety sofas, a grand chandelier and fireplace with a marble plaque inscribed with the words, Payne Whitney. I felt a familiarity with the architecture of this building – it certainly did not resemble my home in Yonkers, but a ghostly echoing of the all-girls college on the Hudson.

I worked the evening shift on the 7th floor, a locked unit. The unit was a drab green devoid of any lobby lushness. My duties were to give out medications and oversee patient activities. On one occasion, I decided to bend the rules a bit. I allowed several psychiatric patients out on a “pass” with me to the local ice cream shop. Miraculously, we all made it back without incident. At the time, I didn’t really see the chance I was taking or the legal and medical implications. What I saw were individuals starving for daylight, communion, acknowledgement, and I suppose ice cream too. They needed love. Being the youngest of seven, I was no stranger to chaos or rigid rules.

One day, decades and countless nursing experiences later, while chatting with a group of moms at my children’s school, I told the story about Sr. Catherine hoping for a laugh or two and some consoling. Instead, I received what I perceived as more Catholic guilt. One of the moms asked me, “Well, did you say thank you to Sr. Catherine?”

Standing there in my closet holding my lab coat, I too felt the need for light and communion with others. Yet holding this lab coat, I felt the presence of the many lives I touched and that have touched me. A warm sense of grace and gratitude came over me. I think I will hold on to my lab coat and maybe have a scoop of ice cream. Thank you, Sr. Catherine.

Media Attributions

  • Photo: The Author’s Lab Coat © Patricia Cleary is licensed under a All Rights Reserved license


CE Student Voices--the Best of Short Memoir Spring 2023 Copyright © 2023 by Patrica Cleary. All Rights Reserved.

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