Chapter 03: A Career at MD Anderson

Title

Chapter 03: A Career at MD Anderson

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Description

Concluding her interview, Balzer talks about her elevation to charge nurse and then night supervisor, the absence of racial segregation at MD Anderson, the early work done with prosthetics, her work on the cobalt radiotherapy machines, her mandatory retirement at the age of 65, and how she was able to cope with the stress of losing patients: “When you walked out of that door in the afternoon, you left your work there, because it was just too touching. You had to tell yourself, ‘This is a research hospital. Someday they’ll find the right way to do it.’”

Identifier

Balzer_OH_01_20030904_S03

Publication Date

9-4-2003

Publisher

The Historical Resources Center, The Research Medical Library, The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center

City

Houston, Texas

Topics Covered

The Interview Subject's Story - View on Career and Accomplishments; Evolution of Career; Patients; Treatment; Survivors; Women and Minorities in Healthcare and Institutions; Healing, Hope, and the Promise of Research

Disciplines

History of Science, Technology, and Medicine | Nursing | Oncology | Oral History

Transcript

Lesley Williams Brunet:

You were saying that they were making Dr. Fletcher pay for his coffee, and he didn’t like that.

Ornell H. Balzer:

Yes, the girl in the kitchen told him that she couldn’t give him any coffee anymore, and, boy, he didn’t mince any words. He got his coffee that morning. But he was walking down the hallway to go to his office, and you could hear him mumbling all the way down the hallway.

Lesley Williams Brunet:

A lot of those early physicians, they had strong personalities, would you say?

Ornell H. Balzer:

Yes. Well, see, the only ones I really knew were Shullenberger, who was Hematology, and Hal [_____], who was Medicine. So those are really the only two that I knew, plus Dr. Fletcher, of course. But those were the only two that I really had any association with.

There was a Dr. . . . I thought about his name a while ago, GYN service. But you see, at that time, we didn’t have any GYN patients in this small unit that we used for the hospital, so I didn’t know him.

Lesley Williams Brunet:

It wouldn’t be [Felix N.] Rutledge?

Ornell H. Balzer:

Yes, Rutledge.

Lesley Williams Brunet:

He’s still out at the hospital.

Ornell H. Balzer:

He is?

Lesley Williams Brunet:

Yes. I just saw him last week.

Ornell H. Balzer:

[laughs] Well, I’ll be.

Lesley Williams Brunet:

Those physicians, they retire and they stay forever.

Ornell H. Balzer:

Yes.

Lesley Williams Brunet:

I mean, they’re busy.

Ornell H. Balzer:

I never did work with Dr. Rutledge much, because when the . . . Well, in fact, I never worked in the new hospital, except in the therapy department. In the department where I worked, they didn’t treat his patients. They treated them in the basement, and I worked on what they called the ground floor at that time. His patients were treated in the basement on those machines, so I never did know him very well.

Lesley Williams Brunet:

When you were still at the Baker Estate, what did your duties consist of? Can you tell me about a typical day or some of the patient care?

Ornell H. Balzer:

My regular duty was supervisor. They had made me charge nurse of the hospital, and, of course, you made rounds to see that . . . I’ll never forget Dr. Trunell [?]. He was a hellcat. [laughs]

Lesley Williams Brunet:

I don’t know much about Dr. Trunell.

Ornell H. Balzer:

Well, he didn’t stay there very long. I don’t think Dr. Trunell was there long enough that when they moved into the new hospital, into the present hospital, I don’t think Dr. Trunell was there anymore. Trunell and [_____] Baker worked together.

Lesley Williams Brunet:

Braile?

Ornell H. Balzer:

B-r-a-y-e-r.

Lesley Williams Brunet:

What was their specialty? Were they medicine?

Ornell H. Balzer:

Yes, I guess. Probably research more than anything in medicine, I guess. I don’t know. The thing that I remember more about Dr. Brayer than anything else is he and the lab technician would go to Huntsville [Penitentiary] once a week, I believe, and those prisoners down there would give blood, and they’d get paid for the blood that they gave. So Brayer and this lab technician—I can see what she looked like, but I don’t remember her name—would go down there and draw blood for transfusions and whatever in that old hospital.

Then, gradually, from this one ward they increased the hospital ward to minor surgery and Ward B and C—Ward A is where I started out. That was the research ward. Then B was medicine, and C surgery, or vice versa, I don’t remember which, but one was medical and one was surgical. Then I was made night supervisor of the whole unit there.

Lesley Williams Brunet:

Of Ward A?

Ornell H. Balzer:

The whole unit, the hospital. And they had a minor surgery. And the girl . . . what is her name? She was a black lady that was at the head of the hospital of this new institution. What was her name?

Lesley Williams Brunet:

I don’t know, but I think I know who you mean.

Ornell H. Balzer:

She started out as a night nurse under my supervision, and then, of course, she worked herself up the ladder to where, I don’t know . . . Was she director? No, she wasn’t director.

Lesley Williams Brunet:

No, that was [Renilda] Hilkemeyer.

Ornell H. Balzer:

She was pretty high up in the . . . I’ve even forgotten what her name is.

Lesley Williams Brunet:

The director?

Ornell H. Balzer:

No, the black lady.

Lesley Williams Brunet:

No, but I can fill it in, and then you can check it when I send you the transcript. I know who you mean.

Since you mentioned the black nurse, were things segregated at the Baker Estate? Was there still segregation at the Baker Estate; separate bathrooms and—

Ornell H. Balzer:

We did not, no. When I first started there, we could have a census of seven patients, and, of course, most of them were surgical patients. Because after that, yes, then they had added Ward B and C, and one was medical and one was surgical, and A was the experimental or research ward, and then we had a minor surgery that was put in out at the old place. Then after that, I quit, I think.

Lesley Williams Brunet:

You quit for a while and then came back.

Ornell H. Balzer:

Yes, and then came back because Paul Yoder kept hounding me all the time. Paul said, “Come back here. Come back here.”

Lesley Williams Brunet:

Were things segregated racially? Did they have white bathrooms and colored bathrooms that they used then at the old estate?

Ornell H. Balzer:

No, no.

Lesley Williams Brunet:

Or drinking fountains or anything like that?

Ornell H. Balzer:

No. We had one bathroom, and everybody used it. I don’t think we even had any drinking fountains out there. If you wanted a drink of water, you went and got a paper cup and went to a tap someplace and got water.

Lesley Williams Brunet:

How about patients? Were patients segregated white and black?

Ornell H. Balzer:

I don’t think we had any black. We had one black patient there. I can’t remember what her diagnosis was or anything about her. The only thing is, the doctor said she can’t live longer than, say, two weeks. Well, she lived on and on and on and on, and she was in that hospital six weeks before she drew her last breath. So medicine, you know, they don’t know anything either. They can’t predict when your last minute is up.

Lesley Williams Brunet:

Was that unusual to have a patient stay that long?

Ornell H. Balzer:

Well, it was a little bit unusual, so far as I can see, for the doctors to say she can’t live any longer than two weeks. Well, how do they know how long that ticker’s going to go?

Lesley Williams Brunet:

I guess she had more of a will to live than they realized.

Ornell H. Balzer:

Evidently, and had a much better heart than what they thought she did, because that’s what kept her going. But she was flat in bed. We had to bathe her in bed and everything.

Lesley Williams Brunet:

So did most patients not stay that long?

Ornell H. Balzer:

Well, I can’t remember. I don’t really remember that. I think the most impressive thing that I can recall about this old hospital was these poor people that had gum cancer. Honey, the whole lower jaw would be removed, and then they had to wear these heavy gauze flaps with a mask. I guess they still do for those, because they salivated so.

This one patient, she was such a comic. I think she lived in Dallas. They had removed part of her nasal cavity and put a prosthesis in there. Then one Monday she had to come back for a checkup, and she said, “That damn bus ran through a hole, and my whole prosthesis fell out and fell in my lap.” She said, “You should have seen the people look at me.” [laughs]

Lesley Williams Brunet:

They were doing prosthetic work that early?

Ornell H. Balzer:

Yes.

Lesley Williams Brunet:

In the late forties, early fifties?

Ornell H. Balzer:

Yes. See, that was still in the old hospital.

Lesley Williams Brunet:

Do you remember who did the surgery?

Ornell H. Balzer:

I don’t remember who the surgeon was.

Lesley Williams Brunet:

Okay. That’s interesting.

Ornell H. Balzer:

Howe was on Medicine, and Shullenberger was Hematology.

Lesley Williams Brunet:

Dr. White maybe, Ed [Edgar] White?

Ornell H. Balzer:

Yes, Ed White.

Lesley Williams Brunet:

Do you remember Ed White?

Ornell H. Balzer:

Ed White, yes. He was a funny one. He was a heavy smoker. You know, where they had the clinic patients and then the hospital part, there was a big space there. One day they had finished seeing patients in the clinic area, and he came over to the hospital ward to see some of the patients there. He had his hand in his pocket for some reason or another and had some of these little g___ matches, and they ignited. [laughs]

Lesley Williams Brunet:

In his pocket?

Ornell H. Balzer:

Yes. He said he thought he’d have to pull his damn pants off because he couldn’t get his hand in there. Finally, he said, “I finally such grabbed my pants and smothered the fire in my hand.”

Lesley Williams Brunet:

That’s a determined smoker.

Ornell H. Balzer:

Very much so.

Lesley Williams Brunet:

Do you remember Renilda Hilkemeyer? She was the director of the nurses.

Ornell H. Balzer:

Yes, but you see, I didn’t have much to do with Hilkemeyer, because she was strictly in the hospital unit, and I was in the therapy department.

Lesley Williams Brunet:

At the new hospital.

Ornell H. Balzer:

Mary Walker, she was head of the therapy department, and that’s who I worked under, Mary Walker.

Lesley Williams Brunet:

Just one more question about the old Baker Estate. You mentioned you worked in Ward A, the research or the experimental ward.

Ornell H. Balzer:

Yes.

Lesley Williams Brunet:

What kind of work did they do there or what kind of patients were there?

Ornell H. Balzer:

Well, they had all different types of cancer, you know, all different diagnoses. At that time, I worked . . . well, I even worked . . . boy, this is really wracking my brain.

Lesley Williams Brunet:

I interrupted your flow. I’m sorry. It’s funny how our memories work. So let’s come back to that later.

Once you moved to the new hospital, you worked in Radiotherapy, is that right?

Ornell H. Balzer:

Yes.

Lesley Williams Brunet:

What kind of things did you do there? What machines did you work with, and patients?

Ornell H. Balzer:

I worked on the cobalt machines. I worked on the Theratron for a while, and then mostly on the cobalt machines. We had a doctor there by the name of Dr. . . . I thought about his name a while ago. He was a heavy, heavy smoker, and he died of lung cancer, but he never quit smoking.

Lesley Williams Brunet:

Let’s see who it would be. Not Dr. Howe?

Ornell H. Balzer:

No. Barkley. B-a-r-k-l-e-y. Barkley. One day he had a patient there, and I was on the D machine and he told me how he wanted that patient treated. Before we ever went into the room, they had to play with the machine. I told him, I said, “Dr. Barkley, it won’t work. I can’t do it on this machine.”

He said, “Why can’t you?”

I said, “Because I can’t angle the machine to the table the way you want the patient treated.”

He said, “Oh, come on, Ornell.”

I said, “Okay, come on, Dr. Barkley, and I’ll show you.”

He said, “Well, I’ll be damned.” [laughs]

But then on what we call the C machine, the tracks weren’t fastened to the floor. You could move your dumb tracks around because the table was moved on these tracks, and you could move the tracks around so you could angle your table. I said, “Now, you can treat that patient on that machine, but not on my machine.”

“Oh, come on, Ornell.”

I said, “Nuh-uh.” I said, “Come on in here and I’ll show you.”

He didn’t believe me. He had to see it to believe me. He was so funny.

Lesley Williams Brunet:

In what other ways was he funny? Would he listen to the nurses? Did the physicians listen to the nurses?

Ornell H. Balzer:

Well, sometimes he had to see it. You know, he wouldn’t take your word for it. You had to prove it to him. That’s how he worked. You had to prove it to him. When you set up patients, you know, day after day after day after day and work on that machine for several years, you know what you can do with a machine and what you can’t treat. No, you had to prove it to him. He had to see it before he’d take your word for it.

Lesley Williams Brunet:

Did you see the same patients? I guess what I’m trying to find out is how successful was the radiotherapy then.

Ornell H. Balzer:

The only way that you could console yourself when you walked out of that door after doing this, is it’s a research hospital, and someday they’ll find a way to do it.

Lesley Williams Brunet:

And they did a lot better.

Ornell H. Balzer:

Some of the girls would take their work home with them, and you couldn’t do that. When you walked out of that door in the afternoon, you left your work there, because it was just too touching. You had to tell yourself, “This is a research hospital. Someday they’ll find the right way to do it.”

Lesley Williams Brunet:

Did you work with all kinds of patients and all kinds of cancer?

Ornell H. Balzer:

Yes. The only patients I did not work with were gynecology patients, because they were in the basement, and I never worked on the machines in the basement. I worked D machine and B machine. I didn’t work A much at that time.

Lesley Williams Brunet:

Were they different kinds of machines?

Ornell H. Balzer:

Yes.

Lesley Williams Brunet:

Or were they just configured differently?

Ornell H. Balzer:

Yes, A and D were the same type machines. Only the D machine was a little later model than the A machine was. B and C were sort of independent. Now, that’s as far as I can go. I don’t know, you know, in what way they were independent, but that’s all that I know, because I never was that familiar.

I worked with Teddy Raufeisen on—

Lesley Williams Brunet:

Teddy Raufeisen?

Ornell H. Balzer:

Yes, that’s another one. She’s still living. R-a-u-f-e-i-s-e-n. Her name was Teddy.

Lesley Williams Brunet:

And you worked with her?

Ornell H. Balzer:

Yes.

Lesley Williams Brunet:

She was a radiotherapist, a nurse, or a therapist?

Ornell H. Balzer:

Radiotherapist. R.N. See, at that time, they didn’t hire any technicians; just R.N.s.

Lesley Williams Brunet:

Why was that?

Ornell H. Balzer:

I don’t know, just a policy of the hospital, I guess.

Lesley Williams Brunet:

They trained you on the job, I guess?

Ornell H. Balzer:

Yes.

Lesley Williams Brunet:

Did you work with Marilyn Stovall? Do you remember Marilyn Stovall?

Ornell H. Balzer:

I knew Marilyn, but I never did really work with her.

Lesley Williams Brunet:

She’s still there, too.

Ornell H. Balzer:

She’s still there?

Lesley Williams Brunet:

She’s still there working, yes.

Ornell H. Balzer:

Jiminy. Boy, she’s put in a lot of years with Anderson.

Lesley Williams Brunet:

I think she may be one of the longest working, yes. She’s a doctor now.

Ornell H. Balzer:

I was thinking the other day, I wonder if there’s some people left. You know, I think the last two years that I worked at Anderson, Miss Walker had sort of screwy ideas at times. She said, “Ornell, you’re getting too old to work.”

I said, “I like it, Miss Walker, and I want to work. I have to work to get my twenty years’ service in here, and I can do that before I’m sixty-five and have to quit.” At that time, you had to quit at sixty-five or take a severe cut, you know. I said, “I can still work.”

“Oh, you’re getting too old to work.”

I said, “You’re not getting too old to eat, and when you want to eat, there’s got to be food on the table, and I don’t plan on going around begging for food.”

She said, “Well, I’ll see if I can find something for you to do.”

Do you know what she had me do? They had this new hospital that they built, didn’t have any furniture in it yet, but there was supposed to be an examining table and a chair in each examining room, which makes sense. Of course, the examining tables were set up for a GYN patient. She said, “I want you to get a measurement of the examining tables and cut you a miniature model and a chair.”

So I cut a little piece of cardboard about that long and about that wide, and then a square about that big for the chair.

Lesley Williams Brunet:

Measuring about an inch or inch and a half.

Ornell H. Balzer:

That was just a stupid thing to do.

Lesley Williams Brunet:

What was that for, to do a mockup or something?

Ornell H. Balzer:

Yes, so I could complete . . . I was too old to work on the machines, you know, but I needed to do something so that I could get my twenty years in there. And that’s what I did.

Lesley Williams Brunet:

That’s unusual. Would that be the Lutheran Pavilion? This was for one of the additions?

Ornell H. Balzer:

No. Lutheran Pavilion was . . . yes, it was built at that time. But yes, I guess it was . . . oh, Lord, it’s been so long ago. Didn’t they add some more to the basement there around by the D machine?

Lesley Williams Brunet:

They’ve added on the Gimbel wing.

Ornell H. Balzer:

I think that’s where it was. I cut those little bit of . . . Then I’d have to show her, draw the dimensions of the room, put the cabinets. You know the cabinets were built in. Then a stool for the doctor was already in there. All I had to plan was an examining table and then the chair, and then show that to her, which was so stupid, an odd way of killing time there.

Lesley Williams Brunet:

It is a little bit odd, yes. Was that just in the last few days or something you were there?

Ornell H. Balzer:

No, about the last two years.

Lesley Williams Brunet:

Oh, really.

Ornell H. Balzer:

Yes. And then, of course, she had new girls coming in. Then she said, “Okay, why don’t you take these new girls and give them a sort of a quickie introduction to what we expect of them.” Well, now, I enjoyed doing that.

Lesley Williams Brunet:

The training.

Ornell H. Balzer:

Yes. Showing them around and lecturing to them, you know, the do’s and the don’ts, and then taking them around there. She also said you have to give them a test to see , , ,

Lesley Williams Brunet:

If they were paying attention?

Ornell H. Balzer:

Yes. This one girl, Ida. What was her name? I thought I never would forget her name. She was a loner. She was the only one I had, and she had been on night duty at Hermann [Hospital] for I don’t know how long. Well, and then the daytime was her sleep day. So I’d be sitting there talking to her and explaining things to her, and Ida would sit there [demonstrates]. [laughs]

One day—this was a long time after that; we got to be real good friends—a group of us used to go down to the beach, rent houses down there for the weekend, and Ida would come down there with us. I told her about that one day. I said, “You know something, Ida, I think about that so often, I can still see you sitting there nodding. And I’d say, ‘Ida, did you hear what I said?’ And you’d shake your head.”

Lesley Williams Brunet:

Ida. But we don’t know her last name, do we?

Ornell H. Balzer:

I can’t remember what her last name was. See, that’s the bad part about it; everybody knew each other by first name only. They said the reason they do that is that the patients cannot, if they have anything come up at night, that they can call, look in the telephone directory and call the therapist, if they have any problems, to call the doctors. So that’s why our patients just knew us by first name.

Lesley Williams Brunet:

I don’t understand. So that they could call you, or so that they could call the doctor?

Ornell H. Balzer:

No, so they could not look us up in the telephone directory at night.

Lesley Williams Brunet:

Oh, and call you at home or call you in the hospital?

Ornell H. Balzer:

Well, see, we went home, and if they knew our last name, they had the opportunity of looking up our name in the telephone directory and calling us instead of calling the hospital, where they could get the help they needed. So that’s why nobody knew our last name.

Lesley Williams Brunet:

That makes sense.

Ornell H. Balzer:

Yes.

Lesley Williams Brunet:

I’m about to run out of tape, and I know you have to go to lunch at twelve, right?

Ornell H. Balzer:

Yes.

Lesley Williams Brunet:

Anything you want to add? Or we can always come back and add some more, or you can tell Dr. Olson when he shows up.

Ornell H. Balzer:

Yes. What happened to him?

Lesley Williams Brunet:

Nothing, I hope. He probably got the time wrong. I’ll find out if he’s going to come down and talk to you again. But before I run out of tape, I do want to thank you for taking the time to talk to me. You have a very good memory and you are quite spry.

Ornell H. Balzer:

I enjoyed that, because Anderson has a big part of my heart.

Lesley Williams Brunet:

Yes, it does for a lot of people, and you obviously spent a lot of time there.

Ornell H. Balzer:

Yes, I saw Anderson go from nothing. In fact, my daughter and I were out there on the grounds the day they had the groundbreaking ceremony.

Lesley Williams Brunet:

For the new building?

Ornell H. Balzer:

For the new hospital.

Lesley Williams Brunet:

I don’t suppose you have any pictures from that?

Ornell H. Balzer:

Yes. There’s one picture there, and my son and his wife, we went to a luncheon there one time a couple of years ago. It’s up on second floor, I believe.

Lesley Williams Brunet:

So you saw the picture?

Ornell H. Balzer:

Bertram looked and he said, “No, we couldn’t see you and Hermanell in that group.” But my

Chapter 03: A Career at MD Anderson

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