By Sarah Wibell
The new Morgan Medical Center has garnered a lot of attention with its state-of-the-art medical equipment, emergency care features, and rehab wing with swing beds for people who require physical therapy in the days and weeks following surgery. One such patient staying post shoulder surgery is Catherine Williams who not only worked as a nursing assistant at the former Morgan Memorial Hospital but was also one of the hospital’s first African American employees.
A Madison local and daughter of Edward Jordan and Lena May Drummer, Catherine grew up with two brothers and two sisters. She had to start working when she was 16 years old and began to clean houses. A few years later, on January 1, 1960, Morgan Memorial Hospital opened.
“I was the first black there. My brother and I used to walk from Bostwick Road up to the hospital, and I was never late. I worked there almost 40 years. I used to help the doctors with the babies and everything; I did it all. Sometimes I helped the doctors deliver babies in the delivery room and get them all cleaned up and we’d be ready to go – there were lots of babies.
“I worked with the doctors: Dr. Lewis, Dr. McGeary, oh all of them. They all been good. I used to help them a lot, especially in the emergency room. When they did operations in the back, I used to be out there helping a lot and Dr. Lewis was right there.”
Dr. Ken Lewis, retired, recalled, “I put the first patient in the hospital at Morgan Memorial, so I was there from the start, and so was she as far as I know. Whether she was there the day the hospital opened I do not know, but Catherine was either the first or one of the very first (African American employees) at the hospital.
“In those days, the hospital – a rural hospital – didn’t have a big staff, so everybody there did a lot of different things; it wasn’t quite like it is now where you’ve got specialists doing this and that and somebody else doing this type of nursing or that type of nursing. We all helped out.
“We didn’t have emergency room physicians; we all took our own calls and looked after our own patients…and we didn’t have a nurse who was employed there all the time, so somebody like Catherine was a little bit everywhere.
“She was a nursing assistant and did do cleaning as well as patient assistance. Her basic job was helping the nurses. She wasn’t a registered nurse or a licensed practical nurse. At that time, I doubt if they even had a designation as far as something certified on paper. It was just nursing assistant. Now there are CNAs – certified nursing assistants – who have to go through certain training, but at that time it was probably on-the-job training.
“I don’t know what training Catherine had prior to coming to work there, but she filled a lot of different roles. She wasn’t just making up beds. She worked in the delivery room, the newborn nursery, and on the floor helping the nurses. At that time, a nursing assistant job covered a lot of territory; it was a small hospital and you did a lot of different things. You didn’t just sit in the corner and do one particular thing; you did whatever came up and helped with it.”
Describing how she began working as a nursing assistant, Williams said, “I think I was cleaning up, and then they come up. Those people (the doctors) came, and I started helping them, and they picked me. It was a nice group of men that was there, and then I was there. So, I started cleaning up behind them, and that’s how I got that (job).”
“She was good with patients and good with doctors,” Lewis asserted. “I never heard any complaints about her work. She was hard-working and there all of the time. The patients liked her, and the doctors liked her, and the administrative staff liked her. She was very, very good, very versatile. I can’t say anything but good things about her work and her attitude. She was just a very personable person.
“She has been a very good friend of mine since that time. She’s also helped me in my house. My wife had a long bout with Alzheimer’s. Catherine helped me with her some when we had to have full-time healthcare at home. When she was helping to look after my wife, I got to know her on a very personal basis, and she was just as good-hearted as she could be. She would come in on a Sunday or whenever I needed. She did a great job (and is) a very friendly and outgoing type of person, just a good people person.”
Williams feels that looking after other people is what she is meant to do. “Most times, if anybody need me, I go and help them.” Even when she worked at the hospital, she would frequently visit with the people at the nursing home across the street; “I liked those little biddies over there. One said, ‘I want to go home with you,’ and I said, ‘Okay, come on and go home with me then.’ I come back by and they asleep! They so funny.”
Catherine, who was married to Benjamin Williams until his death, has two sons and three grandchildren. This caring people person lives in the same house her parents did, loves her Plainview Baptist Church family, and will celebrate her 81st birthday in April.