Carolyn Henderson: A Nursing Leader

Carolyn Henderson: A Nursing Leader for All Times

Carolyn Henderson just retired as the Associate Director of Education Services at Durham Regional Hospital and Duke University Health System. She is also Chair of the North Carolina Nurses Association Commission on Nursing Education. She recounts her story of growing up in eastern North Carolina and the barriers she encountered and the encouragement she received to pursue a career in nursing.

Nursing... An Inevitable Career

It was my father who solidified my decision to become a nurse. He was my first patient. Although my father wanted me to be a teacher because he considered it to be the female profession of choice during the fifties and sixties, I was convinced that I wanted to become a nurse following his death when I was only sixteen years old.

After my high school graduation in Kinston, North Carolina, I did not have a sudden urge to leave home as I continued to grieve the lost of my father. So in 1965, I became employed at Lenoir Memorial Hospital in Kinston as an aide in the operating room. This was my second official job since my summer experience of working on a tobacco farm and in a factory following graduation.

As an operating room aide, my primary responsibilities were to prepare supplies and operating instruments for sterilization. At that time, operating gloves had to be washed, dried, powdered and sterilized for all operations and over a thousand different instruments had to be washed, sterilized and labeled. Very few supplies were considered disposable. It was a challenge to learn all the instruments, supplies, procedures and specifics for each surgeon's operations. However, within a year I had been promoted to an Operating Room Technician position. A position I accepted with pride, this was based on my achievements as an Operating Room Aide, observations from the operating room staff and rare recommendations from the surgeons. I remember being given the dubious honor of working with Chief of the Surgical Staff who was fast and demanding on all of his operations. Not many staff relished the idea of working with him, but he was an excellent surgeon. Little did I know that he would have a role in my future as I aspired to be a nurse.

Almost two years later as an Operating Room Technician, the nurses, physicians including the Chief of Staff and technicians encouraged and supported my decision to continue my dream to become a nurse. So with much enthusiasm, I sent my application to Lenoir Memorial Hospital School of Nursing where I was denied entry during the segregated years of the sixties. Although disappointed, I was not discouraged. With a brief period of dismay, I was determined to continue my nursing pursuits. So I sent two applications, rather than one this time, to Lincoln Hospital School of Nursing a predominately black nursing school in Durham, North Carolina and Winston Salem State Teachers College also a black institution (now Winston Salem State University) in Winston Salem, North Carolina.

The good news came in 1968 when I was admitted to Lincoln Hospital School of Nursing which closed in 1971. I was proud to be one of the fourteen graduates in that last class in 1971. Next year, the alumni will celebrate in Durham, North Carolina, the 100th Anniversary of the School of Nursing which was incorporated in 1903!

Following my acceptance at Lincoln Hospital School of Nursing, I received my acceptance to Winston Salem as well. I am proud of my choice to become a ALincoln Nurse". I did not accomplish this dream alone. My Kinston extended family, foster parents, teachers, operating nurses, physicians and technicians gave me a heroine send off when I came to Durham to nursing school. Although I was not able to fulfill my nursing career in my home town, it was my hometown support both black and white who packed a trunk of books, nursing paraphernalia, wrote letters of recommendations and enhanced my courage to become a nurse. That is why I have chosen several personal mottos throughout my nursing profession and educational achievements. They have included from high school to nursing school: "behind us lies the barrier; before us comes the challenge" and from nursing school to college/university; "wisdom is the principle thing, in all thy getting, get understanding."

Today, I'm grateful for my undergraduate degree in Commerce and Health Administration from North Carolina Central University, my graduate degree in nursing administration and education from the University of North Carolina at Greensboro and my post graduate and pre-doctoral studies from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and North Carolina State University. Currently, my daily motto is "thank you Lord" and this one has permeated my nursing positions as operating room nurse, a continuing education nurse educator and an educational administrator.