Former nurse breaks the rules to help her patients

Maryann Austin knew from a young age that she wanted to be a nurse, but she didn’t plan on being a trailblazer as well.

Holding a number of nursing jobs, Maryann, who was widowed in her mid-20s, tackled such issues as racial prejudice and was among the first women with dependent children to be allowed to enlist in the military.

Born in the Bronx, N.Y., and raised “up and down” the southern half of the East Coast because her dad was in the Marines, Maryann considers Camp Lejeune, N.C., home.

“It’s the home of the 2nd Marine Division, and I call it the family spawning grounds,” Maryann said. “Three of my four brothers were born there, my daughter was born there, and my brother’s two children were born there.”

Because Maryann was interested in nursing, “My mom said I should be a candy-striper to see if I liked it,” Maryann said.

She graduated from Beaufort High School in Beaufort, S.C. in 1962 and headed right to a nursing school in Spartanburg, S.C., graduating at age 20 and passing the state board “by the grace of God.”

Maryann’s first job was at Norfolk General Hospital in Virginia.

“It was a big sailor town, but I met a Marine – that was my downfall,” she joked. “We met at a drive-in. My dad was not happy about it because he was divorced.”

Maryann and Allan dated for a year and continued to see each other after Maryann moved with her roommate to Springfield, Mass., and got a job at Springfield City Hospital.

“We got married the next fall because it was cheaper to get married than keep paying the phone bills,” she said. “I promised my parents I wouldn’t elope, so we went to Camp Lejeune, but they wouldn’t attend the wedding.”

The couple married in Dillon, S.C., and after seven weeks Allan was sent to Vietnam, so Maryann went to live with her parents and worked at the county hospital.

Maryann didn’t like the segregated hospitals in North Carolina with black and white patients treated differently.

“I got in trouble,” she said. “We were supposed to call white patients Mr. or Mrs. and black patients by their first name, but I called black patients Mr. and Mrs. too.”

Allan served in Vietnam for 13 months and then was transferred to Hawaii, where the couple lived.

“I looked for a job in Honolulu but couldn’t find one at first,” said Maryann, although she eventually found a job as head nurse on a maternity ward.

After 2 1/2 years, Allan got an offer to attend officers’ candidate school in Quantico, Va. By then Maryann was pregnant but managed to hide it “because they didn’t hire pregnant nurses” and got a job at a Jacksonville hospital.

“I wanted to deliver my baby naturally,” Maryann said. “I said that I had stood at the end of the delivery table too many times telling women what to do without knowing why, and I wanted to experience it for myself.”

When their daughter Dawn was 4 months old, Allan was sent back to Vietnam.

When he returned, he was stationed in Atlanta as part of the ROTC program.

“My mom was there helping me,” Maryann said. “Allan made a down payment on a house on a Friday and then went to an Atlanta Braves game. On the way home he had a head-on collision and was killed.

“The next morning my mom woke me up and said a chaplain was there. I thought I had a heart attack – it was like an anvil dropping on my chest. I realized for the first time why people can die of a broken heart.”

Maryann decided to bury her husband in Virginia Beach, Va., where his mother lived, and went back to Camp Lejeune and met his father for the first time.

She also had some unfinished business with her own father.

“My dad said he would acknowledge our marriage after five years,” she said. “My husband was killed 23 days before our fifth wedding anniversary, and I asked my dad, ‘Does that count?'”

Maryann continued working as a nurse for $325 per month, noting, “My brother who was an A&P clerk was making 65 cents more an hour than I was.”

Wanting to secure a better financial future for herself and her daughter Dawn, Maryann decided to join the U.S. Army, which by then was taking women with children.

“Before, women in the military couldn’t have bonafide dependents,” she said. “They couldn’t serve if they had dependent children, so it was a new concept, and not everyone was happy about it. The local newspaper wanted to do a story on me enlisting, and I said no because I didn’t want people throwing eggs at my house.

“I was sent to basic training in San Antonio, Texas, and took my child and my mother. My mother would bring my daughter to the edge of the field where we were training, and my daughter would yell, ‘Mama, Mama, Mama!'”

After basic training, Maryann was transferred to Fort Lee in Virginia.

Maryann had caught rubella when she was first pregnant, but fortunately, her daughter was not affected; however, when Dawn was almost 3 years old, she got meningitis, “and the doctor said she was dying,” Maryann said.

“She was in the hospital for 12 days, and I refused to give God my child – He took my husband, and that was enough.”

Back at work, just as she did in that first segregated hospital, Maryann battled the system in the Army, which used a triage plan to treat enemy soldiers last even if they were more severaly wounded.

Maryann quit active duty after two years but was in the reserves for another 20. She and Dawn settled in Hopewell, Va., and Maryann worked in the Fort Lee hospital for 17 years until Dawn graduated from Chester High School.

Maryann went on to work in Germany, at Walter Reed Army Hospital as a supervisor for 12,000 employees and then as the department head for the Soldiers’ and Airmen’s Home for retired veterans in Washington, D.C.

After Maryann had worked there for more than two years, her brother John grew concerned about their mother. He had moved to Beaverton in 1994 and also bought the house next door, intending for Maryann to live there with their mother,

“I moved here and got a job in occupational health, but my mother wouldn’t come,” Maryann said. “So I would go home for one month a year and take her to doctors’ appointments and help her. On the job, I traveled around the state a lot and worked around the clock on that job too. I never miss a nap now.”

Maryann worked for seven years and was thinking about retiring in 2001 so she could spend more time with her mother. Then she got a call from John, who was with their mother in Whiteville, N.C., saying she was “on the midnight train to Glory.”

Maryann flew there immediately, arriving just a few hours before her mother died.

Back in Oregon, “I was offered an early retirement and took it,” she said.

In January 2005 Maryann had a mild stroke, but it took three weeks to diagnose. People like her brother noticed something was wrong with the way she walked, and she went to a doctor.

“I spent two years in active recovery and was very encouraged,” said Maryann, who spent three years at Woodland Heights Assisted Living in Tigard before moving to independent living at Creekside Village for three years.

Then Maryann fell and hurt her arm badly enough to move back to Woodland Heights two years ago.

“John had advised me not to move to independent living, and he said if I leave here again, he won’t come to visit me,” Maryann said.

Maryann’s daughter Dawn lives in Georgia and has a 17-year-old daughter and a 2-year-old son.