Chapter 01: Among MD Anderson's First Nurses

Title

Chapter 01: Among MD Anderson's First Nurses

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In this chapter, Ornell H. Balzer, RN, she talks about her early career as one of the first nurses at MD Anderson in the 1950s and her work in the fledgling Radiotherapy Department

Identifier

Balzer_OH_01_20030904_S01

Publication Date

9-4-2003

Publisher

The Making Cancer History® Voices Oral History Collection, The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center

City

Houston, Texas

Topics Covered

The Interview Subject's Story - Joining MD Anderson/Coming to Texas; Joining MD Anderson; Women and Minorities at Work; Institutional Mission and Values; Character and Personal Philosophy

Creative Commons License

Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 License.

Disciplines

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

Transcript

Lesley Williams Brunet:

You were telling me about how you got your R.N. degree from Breckinridge in Austin. What year was that?

Ornell H. Balzer:

1949.

Lesley Williams Brunet:

Did you go to work for M. D. Anderson right away?

Ornell H. Balzer:

Yes. I finished at Breckinridge and took state board before I ever finished all of my subjects at Breckinridge. I knew I had passed state board, but I had to stay there because there was still some required subjects that I needed to take. So I took all of those and finished there on the tenth of August in ’49. I believe it was either ’48 or ’49, but I believe it was ’49.

Then I came home, picked up my children at Mother’s house, came to Houston and bought a [Houston] Chronicle, and looked through the want-ads. That was where M. D. Anderson was advertising for R.N.s. They were just getting a staff together. I went out and made application, and Paul Yoder [?] was the guy that was in Personnel. For some reason or another, Mr. Yoder liked what I was telling him, and he said, “Miss Balzer, I think we have a place for you,” because they were just getting nursing staff together there at Anderson at that time.

So I accepted the position there and stayed there. Then they wanted to make me . . . I had to rotate night duty, the three-to-eleven, you know, the different shifts. I had two teenage children, one a girl and a boy, and where I lived at that time I didn’t feel quite safe in leaving the two children there on that night shift, because I didn’t know the people that lived there. The lady that owned the project was one of the secretaries at Breckinridge, and that’s how I found that apartment when I came to Houston. She knew that I was finishing, and she said, “I’ve got a place in Houston. I’ll let you have that. I’ll rent that to you.”

She told me what it was, and I said, “Yeah, I’m familiar with that part of Houston.” So she didn’t tell me, though, that she was . . . She could have called us on the phone, because I had a phone. Then I was on night duty, and my children called me around eleven o’clock or a little after eleven that night, I guess around midnight, and said, “Mother, I’m so excited. I’m so scared.”

“Why? What happened?”

“Well, this lady that owns the apartment came down and she knocked and knocked and we didn’t hear her, so she broke the lock on the door and came in.” Well, that was no way of doing it. She knew that I had the two children there and, renting the apartment, that I lived there, so why couldn’t she along the way someplace from Austin to Houston stop and call and say, “We’re on our way to Houston. We don’t know just what time we’ll be there, but we’re coming in and we want to sleep there”?

Well, my daughter called me around midnight. Well, I was on duty; I couldn’t come home. I said, “Well, honey, go lie down on the couch,” because they took over her bed. It just had two bedrooms. I said, “Go lie down on the couch. I cannot come home, Hermanelle [?], because I’m on duty here. And if they’re there, then probably nothing will happen to you because they’ll be there to hear with the door lock being broken.”

Well, she and I tied up the next morning. She was a secretary at Breckinridge. I knew her. That’s how I got the place when I came to Houston. She and I really had locked horns the next morning. I said, “When my month expires, I’m leaving.”

“Oh, Miss Balzer, you can’t leave.”

I said, “You better believe I’m going to leave. You think I’m going to leave my children here and have somebody come in and break in at midnight?” I said, “No, sirree.”

So that’s what I did. I moved to a little duplex apartment, which was just right around the corner there, almost directly behind where we were living, and that was just a young couple. They had built a two-unit house. They lived in one side and rented the other side. When I saw that ad, I went and talked to him and I told him, I said, “Now, I have two teenage children, a girl and a boy, and I need to know that when I have to do night duty, which I don’t want to do, but when you have a position sometimes you’re forced to do that, that my children will be safe.”

“Yes, ma’am, they’ll be okay. All they need to do is go out in the hallway and knock on the wall and I’ll come see about them,” which they were just so nice. And he said, “And Miss Balzer, another thing, I’ll secure the windows so nobody can open the windows and come in without making a noise and disturbing the neighbors.”

I said, “Oh, I really appreciate that.”

Well, he was a telephone man, and in ’54, we had that severe ice storm here in Houston.

Lesley Williams Brunet:

No, I didn’t know that.

Ornell H. Balzer:

You don’t?

Lesley Williams Brunet:

I didn’t. I didn’t know that.

Ornell H. Balzer:

Yes. Golly, it was just ice all over everywhere. He had to climb up on the poles in order to repair the line, and he said, “I’m getting out of this doggone business. I can’t stand climbing up on the poles when there’s ice all over the telephone poles.” And they left. Well, they put tenants in there, and sometime those tenants would stay maybe five or six months and then they’d be vacant a while and then there’d be a new one in there. And with a teenage daughter, leaving her, they were just seventeen months apart, but the age difference, you know. The daughter is much more mature than the boy was at that age. I just said, “Nuh-uh, I cannot do that.”

So I quit Anderson, and a friend of mine had a doctor was over in Cleveland, and he said, “Ornell, why don’t you and the children come over to Cleveland. Your kids will love it here,” because we lived in Columbus, which is a small place. He said, “Cleveland is much more like Columbus was. The kids will love it here in school.”

Well, we went, moved over there, and he gave me a pretty good salary. All of a sudden, he decided that I was going to be on call. Well, if you work all day, you need some rest in between. You cannot stay scrubbed in surgery a half a day and then work the other half a day out on the floors, go home, and then be called out again at night. That won’t work. After all, I was human, too.

I stayed in Cleveland about four months, and then I came back to Houston and went back to work at Anderson. They took me right back again.

Lesley Williams Brunet:

What year was this, do you remember?

Ornell H. Balzer:

I think it might have been ’54.

So then I found a position, a doctor’s office out in the neighborhood where I lived, which was just, oh, maybe, fifteen minutes from the house. I thought, “Well, golly, why not go to work there. The salary will be less to begin with, but with driving all this distance and insecurity with my children, everything balances out.” So I went to work for the doctor, did office work for twelve years. I worked for him for twelve years. But he set the limit at three-fifty. He never would raise my salary after that, and I asked him several times, I said, “Doctor, can’t you give me a little bit more?”

“No, Miss Balzer, three-fifty is my limit.” And the man never said an unkind word to me. He was just such a jewel to work for. But you’ve got to eat and you’ve got to live.

Lesley Williams Brunet:

Yes, the cost of living goes up.

Ornell H. Balzer:

So anyway, I told him, I said, “I just can’t, and I have the two children here.” I said, “I just cannot make ends meet, Doctor, and I’d like to lay a little bit aside for a rainy day.” I said, “I just can’t do it.”

“Well, that’s all I can do Miss Balzer. I can’t raise your salary.” Three-fifty was the limit.

Paul Yoder, who was personnel director at Anderson, every once in a while he’d call me. “Miss Balzer, when you going to come out here and see our new hospital?”

“Well, the only time I can come is on a Saturday or a Wednesday afternoon. The doctor closes the office on Wednesday afternoons, or he closes the office at noon at Saturdays.” I said, “Either Wednesday afternoon or Saturday afternoon.”

“Well, why don’t you make it Wednesday afternoon.”

“Okay.”

“But let me know when you’re coming, and I will have everything to where I can take you on a personal tour of the hospital and even take you back to some of the girls that worked out at the old temporary building and let you visit with them a little bit.”

So I did that. Golly, it was after five o’clock already. I said, “Well, Mr. Yoder, it’s time for me to go home and time for you to be off work.”

“Oh, that’s all right.” He said, “Now, when do you want to come to work here?” [laughs]

I said, “Well, you know, if you could put me in a place where I have Saturday and Sunday off, I might consider coming over here, because I’m already used to having Saturday afternoon and Sundays off to be with my children.”

“Well, I’ll bet you we can fix that.” So he said, “Come on, let’s go back to the office,” and he called Rita Harris. Did you know her?

Lesley Williams Brunet:

No.

Ornell H. Balzer:

She was in the Radiotherapy Department at Anderson. Rita said, “Yeah, I’ve got a place open for her. I need somebody.” So it was Rita Harris who was my supervisor and then Ann Rakestraw was her assistant.

Lesley Williams Brunet:

She worked in Radiology also? What did Ann do?

Ornell H. Balzer:

Ann was also in the [radio]therapy department. Ann was more of Rita’s right-hand person, because she had worked there quite a bit, and they were responsible for the application of radium and also worked in the therapy department, where they had the cobalt machine. And that’s where I went to work.

Lesley Williams Brunet:

What year was this?

Ornell H. Balzer:

What year?

Lesley Williams Brunet:

Do you remember?

Ornell H. Balzer:

Golly, ’54 or ’55, somewhere along in there. I don’t remember just when.

Lesley Williams Brunet:

That’s fine. I can probably find out.

Ornell H. Balzer:

Oh, golly, one day, just hell broke loose, really put the period on what happened there, and I thought, “Lord, why didn’t I stay in that office job where I knew what was going on?”

Lesley Williams Brunet:

What happened on the day that all hell broke loose?

Ornell H. Balzer:

Well, just everything. I think Ann was sick, I believe, that day, and I was so new there. And Rita was just . . . I think she sort of got uptight when the pressure got heavy, you know. She would take it out on her help there, and I was just miserable. But one thing I made up my mind to do is never . . . When I walked out of that door in the evening to go home, I left my work there, didn’t take it home with me.

So the next morning, everything seemed a little bit calmer. I think Ann had come back to work again. I believe she was sick. That’s what happened that one day. So then I stuck it out there, and finally I got to where I felt comfortable working with those machines there.

I know Dr. [Howard K.] Barkley . . . you didn’t know Barkley.

Lesley Williams Brunet:

No.

Ornell H. Balzer:

Because he died when I was still working for Anderson. Of all things, he died of lung cancer.

Lesley Williams Brunet:

Actually, quite a few physicians have died of various cancers through the years.

Ornell H. Balzer:

Yes, and a heavy smoker. Lord, that man smoked like a fiend.

Lesley Williams Brunet:

Well, everybody . . . there was still smoking all over the building, wasn’t there, when you were there?

Ornell H. Balzer:

You know when they first started getting so heavy, what was it, the American Cancer Society got so heavy on these cigarette machines, Anderson was one of the last places to move cigarette machines out of the building.

Lesley Williams Brunet:

Oh, that’s interesting. I know I do having pictures of ashtrays in the library, which always seemed strange.

Ornell H. Balzer:

That’s what we kept asking. What are the cigarette machines still doing in the Anderson Hospital?

Lesley Williams Brunet:

So how long did you work there, then?

Ornell H. Balzer:

At Anderson?

Lesley Williams Brunet:

Yes.

Ornell H. Balzer:

I had to retire at sixty-five at that time.

Lesley Williams Brunet:

So you worked the rest of your career then at Anderson.

Ornell H. Balzer:

Yes. I went to work there and got familiar with the machines, and then they moved me. I don’t know whether they still have the machines labeled A, B, C, and D then on ground floor. I don’t think so, because they made a huge change there since they added some new area. But that’s where I worked.

Then, at that time, it was the law that at sixty-five you had to retire, and so I was going to be sixty-five in November. Then I thought, “Well, I’m going to work from . . . .” See, our year began on September 1.

Lesley Williams Brunet:

Right. It still does.

Ornell H. Balzer:

Does it? “I’m going to work September 1 for four months, that will give me credit for a full year, and then I’m going to quit.” And that’s when I quit, on January 31.

You know Mary Walker, don’t you?

Lesley Williams Brunet:

I know about her. Is she still alive? I can’t remember. I’ve heard the name many times.

Ornell H. Balzer:

Yes. The 31st of November, I told her, “I’m going to quit the last of January,” and that happened to be on a Monday, and she did not give me credit for that Monday. She had my party and everything on Friday afternoon, because we don’t have parties here on Monday, “But you come back to work Monday morning.”

“Yes, Miss Walker, I’ll be here.”

Lesley Williams Brunet:

Was she your supervisor? What was her position then?

Ornell H. Balzer:

She was supervisor of the Radiotherapy Department.

Chapter 01: Among MD Anderson's First Nurses

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