For the Cooley women, passion for medicine leads to nursing careers

For the Cooley women, passion for medicine leads to nursing careers

( Louise Thomas Cooley exchanged a nursing career to raise a family after marrying legendary heart surgeon Denton Cooley in 1949. But Louise’s nursing skills stayed solid, and carried her through life.

“Nurses must be organized, prepared, and always ready to handle the unexpected,” Louise said. “I raised five daughters, so those skills came in handy.”

“‘Nursing – it’s training for life!’ is our mother’s mantra,” said daughter Susan Cooley. “My mother drilled that into her daughters. We learned it, we lived it, we embraced it.”

Louise, Susan and Susan’s daughter Mary Plumb Senkel – all nurses – recently served as honorary chairs at an April 26 PARTNERS luncheon benefiting The University of Texas Nursing School at Houston. PARTNERS is an organization that raises funds through memberships and events to provide scholarships and research grants to nursing school students and faculty.


Growing up in Maryland, Louise’s father was a general surgeon.

“I was used to my father’s hard work and long hours,” she said, “so when I eventually married Denton, I understood those demands.”

After graduating from William and Mary College with a psychology degree, Louise entered nursing school at Johns Hopkins University, graduated, and worked at Johns Hopkins Hospital as head nurse on Halstead 3 – a male surgical unit.

That’s where she met young Denton Cooley from Texas who was completing his surgical residency at Johns Hopkins.

Over the years, various family members have made the trek back to Halstead 3 to see where the couple met, which Susan calls “romantic.”


Unlike her mother, Susan said she grew up a “hippie,” and wanted to distance herself as far as possible from her parents’ careers.

As an undergraduate at The University of Texas at Austin, she needed to declare a major.

“I really liked the nursing building on the UT campus because it looked like an old Army barracks. I envisioned myself enrolled in the Peace Corps, traveling around the world helping people and taking photos,” she said. “I thought, ‘You know, maybe I’ll go to nursing school so I can travel and get away.’ That was my motivation for entering nursing school.”

Once enrolled, Susan embraced nursing by earning bachelors and doctorate degrees in nursing and a master’s in public health from UT and Texas Woman’s University, and completing advanced training as a pediatric nurse practitioner at the University of California at San Francisco.

Finally it was time to travel, so off Susan went to her first nursing job at the Albert Schweitzer Hospital in Haiti, which prepared her for a long career of helping underserved families in Houston.

“I found my passion in indigent care,” she said.

For 30-plus years Susan taught nurse practitioner students, medical students, and pediatric and family-practice residents in the Department of Pediatrics at UT Medical School while helping newly arrived Hispanic immigrants in Houston’s barrios.

In 2007 she retired from UT and today is vice president of clinical services at RediClinic, one of the nation’s largest providers of retail-based health care services.

“I’m still traveling and I’m still taking pictures,” she said.


Susan’s daughter Mary adored art, and nursing was not on her radar when she entered college. But in her junior year at UT Austin as an art history major, Mary began doubting her career choice.

“I didn’t see myself in a museum or isolated in a gallery somewhere,” she said. “I wanted to work closely with people.”

“Mary began taking pre-nursing classes, and in her senior year applied to nursing school at Johns Hopkins, her grandmother’s alma mater.

“I graduated from UT with an art history degree on a Friday,” she said, “and started nursing school at Johns Hopkins the following Monday.”

“That was a busy weekend,” her mother recalled. “But it’s a plus that Mary has a strong liberal arts foundation. Science courses are essential to a good nursing education, but a strong liberal arts background makes nurses more human and better at the bedside.”

Today, Mary is an emergency room nurse at Memorial Hermann Hospital, and is enrolled in a nurse practitioner program at UT Nursing School.

“Fewer and fewer physicians are going into primary care, so nurse practitioners will have many opportunities,” Mary said.

Nurse practitioners undergo advanced training and can perform many primary care procedures such as conducting physical exams, ordering and interpreting laboratory studies, and prescribing medications through a written agreement with a collaborating physician.

“We’re all nurses at the core, but nurse practitioners have extra skills that can help close the primary care gap,” Mary said.

Nursing’s Evolution

Today, modern technology has changed how nurses go about their duties.

“But the human side of nursing remains the same,” Louise said. “The basics are still there and will never change.”

The way nurses and doctors interact has changed, Louise said.

“In my day, nurses accompanied doctors on rounds and took the doctors’ orders. It was a very respectful relationship between the nurses and the doctors. There was no friction and there were no problems.”

Nurses wore white uniforms, white stockings white shoes, and caps that signified the school they graduated from.

“Today, nurses wear scrubs,” Louise said. “You can’t tell the nurses from the other health care workers.”

Doctors of yesteryear always addressed nurses by their last names, she said, never by their first names.

To this day, Denton Cooley calls his wife “Nurse Thomas,” an affectionate throwback to when they met.

That’s all well and good, Susan said, but today nurses and doctors interact more as partners.

“It’s not nurse or doctor – it’s both,” she said. “We work together for the good of the patient. The doctor treats the illness, and the nurse treats the patient’s response to the illness. It’s teamwork.”

Though it took awhile for nurses to get the respect they deserve, the world is “getting it” now, Susan said.

“Nurses are well educated, nurses are on the forefront of health care, and nurses are a big part of what makes health care run.