Betty Giffin, November 6, 2021 (video)


Betty Giffin, November 6, 2021 (video)
Betty Giffin
Gabriel DeJoseph
Cooperstown, New York
New York City
Open Heart
Operating Room
Patient Care
Presbyterian Hospital
Rural Healthcare
Elisabeth Giffin worked for decades as an operating room nurse at Bassett Hospital in Cooperstown, NY. Giffin was born in Baltimore, Maryland in 1929. She completed her education at Presbyterian Hospital in New York City before moving up to Cooperstown and accepting an Assistant Supervisor position at Bassett. Giffin performed many operating room nursing duties during her long career, including sterilizing instruments, handing instruments to the surgeon, and pre-op patient care.

Healthcare evolved, improved, and expanded during the mid-20th century. Throughout her time in the operating room, Giffin witnessed cutting edge advancements in surgical techniques, some of which were pioneered at Bassett. Giffin also comments on the expansion of both the Bassett Healthcare Network, now comprising over five separate healthcare facilities, and the Village of Cooperstown itself.

Giffin's anecdotes about the healthcare field demonstrate the transitioning role of hospital nurses. From initially being viewed as simple "handmaidens" to the doctors, many female healthcare professionals fought to establish nursing as a "free and independent profession" worthy of respect. In addition, some of the most fascinating points in the interview came from her humorous stories of life as a nurse, including a memorable incident during the 1960s where the Bassett Chief of Surgery performed an emergency operation on Giffin's beloved Sheltie to remove a steak bone from its esophagus.

I interviewed Miss Giffin at her longtime home in Cooperstown, NY. Bassett Hospital lies almost directly at her doorstep, close enough that Giffin recalls frequently running across the street to respond to late night emergency calls. During our interview, the hospital served as an ever present reminder of her former profession.

Miss Giffin speaks clearly and eloquently, and I have attempted to recreate her tone and cadence in the transcript. However, many of Giffin's anecdotes are punctuated with a dry humor difficult to reproduce textually. I encourage researchers to consult the audio recordings for a fuller sense of Giffin's humorous storytelling style. In addition, Giffin sometimes refers to her Bassett friends and former colleagues by solely their first name or last name. I have chosen to include these colleagues' full names and titles in brackets to prevent confusion with other local healthcare professionals who may share the same first or last name.

*This interview is not authorized to be used in public programs or made available to other educational institutions for use in programs.
BG = Betty Giffin
GD = Gabe DeJoseph

[START OF TRACK 1, 0:00]

This is the November 6th, 2021 video interview of Betty Giffin by Gabriel DeJoseph for the Cooperstown Graduate Program's Community Stories Oral History Project, recorded at Betty's home in Cooperstown, New York. Betty, thank you for talking to us today.

You're welcome.

[TRACK 1, 0:18]

How did you come to work to work at Bassett?

After I had finished nursing school in New York at Presbyterian and worked in the OR for five years there, I decided it was time to get out of [New York City]. I wanted to walk out of my front door and not have to get on an elevator to put my feet on the ground. There was a connection between Bassett and Presbyterian because surgical residents here at Bassett came to New York for a year of experience in surgery. So, I had met at least a few of the doctors up here. When I decided it was time to leave New York City after five years of working and three years of nursing school, [Bassett] was the first of three different hospitals – what I used to always say was – the first of the three Mary hospitals where I was going to look for a job. I came up, I stayed with friends, and I went in to apply for a job with the Director of Nursing. It was back in the days when if you were a nurse and wanted a job in the hospital as a nurse, you went to the Director of Nursing. You didn't go to HR or Personnel or anything like that. Anyway, I was lucky that the Assistant Director, Assistant Supervisor in the OR, the Friday before I came for my interview on Monday, had just said "I'm ready to come back from my maternity leave, but I don't want a job as the assistant supervisor." So that position was open, so I got it.

[TRACK 1, 2:07]

Which just meant a title back then, because if you worked in the OR as a nurse you had to be able to scrub, hand instruments, circulate, and get things that were needed. You had to know everything that went on in the OR. If you had dirty instruments and the person in the room that was supposed to scrub them up for you, get them ready for the next case, wasn't available, you did that. You did whatever needed to be done. It wasn't departmentalized the way things have evolved. And I think it sort of had to evolve that way because way back in those ancient days when I first went into nursing school, nursing was not a free and independent profession the way it is now. We were the handmaidens of the doctors. But, starting back with Florence Nightingale, nursing has evolved into this independent profession. Actually, one of our Directors of Nursing here, Alberta Bowes, was very good at working in this procedure of getting nurses out from under – that doesn't sound right to say – out from under the doctors, but it sort of was. Despite the fact that Bassett was a small hospital, we did a lot of surgery that bigger hospitals did. We weren't doing open heart surgery, but that was new even back at Presbyterian. When I initially started working there, we didn't do it. It wasn't done. But we did practically everything else. [We] did not do craniotomies initially, but as we got a neurosurgeon, we did that. Anything else that came along that was new in surgery, we had doctors that learned how to do it and we did it. So as scrub techs and nurses in the operating room, we had to learn how to do that too.

[TRACK 1, 4:42]

And we were a very cooperative group, by and large, that worked together. It was a small number because we only had three ORs initially. We could interchange jobs, and as I said if instruments needed to be scrubbed, we did it. If a patient needed to come into the room and the orderly was busy, whoever was free did it. I could remember one time I was on call, and usually you were on call with a nurse and a tech. I can remember coming in for something or other and saying to the tech, "Do you want to scrub, or do you want me to scrub?" She said, "Oh, you can scrub." So, we worked that way. I guess law came into it a little bit, because it evolved out so that you had to have a nurse to circulate. You could have a nurse scrub, but you had to have a nurse circulate. So, it became that, and as new surgical procedures came along, we learned how to do them. And actually, some of the things that happened at Bassett were done initially here, not just in surgery. For instance, you didn't get a patient up post-op for maybe a week or two, which certainly was not very helpful we know now. So early ambulation was instituted, and some of the first of it was done here at Bassett. And if my mind were a little bit sharper I could remember and tell you the name of the surgeon that initiated it. Not just for Bassett, but worldwide. So we weren't quite as backward as a three OR hospital might be thought to be.

Well Betty, thank you for your time once again.

You're welcome.
Cooperstown, NY
Gabriel DeJoseph
Cooperstown Graduate Program, State University of New York-College at Oneonta
Cooperstown Graduate Association, Cooperstown, NY
651 mB
Moving Image
Track 1, 00:18 - Arrival at Bassett
Track 1, 2:07 - Nursing Duties