Two Crouse nurses: A chance meeting and careers of the heart

Christa Baumes (left) hadn’t seen Emily Williams, a nurse who cared for her during hard times as a child, for more than 15 years. Last month, Baumes – now a nurse – bumped into Williams by sheer accident at Crouse Hospital.

( Christa Baumes was trying to take everything in. A few weeks ago, she began her training in the Perioperative Nursing Academy at Crouse Hospital in Syracuse, where Baumes is learning to play a role in different phases of surgery. As part of the requirements, Baumes and others in the academy are expected to “shadow” nurses in related units.

On a Friday afternoon, Baumes, 33, was assigned to the recovery care center for outpatient surgery. She glanced across the nurse’s desk and saw a face that made her catch her breath, a face that brought her back to some of the most difficult moments of her life.

Even in hard times, that face was always reassuring.

Baumes approached the nurse, who was busy with paperwork.

“Do you remember me? I’m Christa Van Horn,” said Baumes, using her maiden name.

They looked at each other, burst out laughing and wept as they embraced.

“I’ve known lots of kids,” said Emily Williams, 61, the nurse who’d been standing at the station. “Hundreds. Thousands.”

Almost always, as in Christa’s case, she recalls their names.

For Baumes, it was “like my life coming full circle.” She was born with “a complete block” in her heart, which meant — as Williams puts it — “her heart was not beating enough to sustain life.” As an infant, doctors inserted a tiny pacemaker. Baumes began a series of surgeries and procedures that were part of her routine from her first days of life until her teenage years.

“I had at least 20 (childhood) operations on my pacemaker alone,” she said. Many treatments, often painful, took place in a pediatric cardiology unit at Crouse, where Williams was a nurse. Baumes mentally puts herself in the experience of being on a gurney whenever she sees a child getting wheeled toward an operating room.

“It was traumatic,” she said. “I hated the prodding. I hated the sticky electrodes.”

Yet if she closes her eyes and thinks back to being helpless on the table, what she can see — beyond all else — is Emily Williams, the gentle nurse whose warm smile was always just above her.

“She’s my inspiration,” said Baumes, who became a registered nurse six years after graduating from West Genesee High School. “The way she treated me is the way I want to treat my patients. She always treated my mother and I like we were family.”

The relationship created a subtle, almost mystical, distinction for the child:

“I was afraid of what was going to be done to me,” Baumes said, “but I wasn’t afraid of going to the doctor’s office.”

Until the moment when they embraced, the two women had not seen each other for 15 years. Alter the timing by a few months, and the chance meeting might not have occurred. Williams intends to retire next April, after 40 years as a nurse. She said she realized as a child what she would do for a career, after watching her father struggle for years with the cancer that finally claimed his life.

The experience made clear to Williams how the mood of patients can be lifted — and their suffering diminished — by the bedside demeanor and humor of nurses. “Even now,” Williams said, “not a day goes by when I don’t love coming to work.”

She said she is known around Crouse as “a hugger,” a reputation she lived up to in the instant last month when she saw Baumes. They now make a point of finding time for conversation. Williams said she “sent (Baumes) a little card, and in my note I said don’t be afraid to show your emotions — good or bad — as a nurse, and never be afraid to fight for patients and their families.”

After 40 years at the hospital, the decision to retire isn’t easy. “I tell my patients that I get up every day and scrape off the barnacles,” Williams said. She remains passionate about her job, but decided to walk away while she’s young enough to enjoy being a grandmother and to appreciate whatever else life brings her.

As her career winds down, the idea that a young patient grew up to become a nurse because of her serves as beautiful affirmation. “What I do here every day,” Williams said, “someone could offer me a million dollars … and it wouldn’t match it for me.”

Baumes, hearing that, burst into a smile, responding in kind even now to the face above the table.