A Nurse, or 3, Named Mary

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by Helen Baldwin |

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My teaching career started at Brockman School in Columbia, South Carolina. Nestled in the corner of a quiet neighborhood resembling a forest, Brockman was a self-contained school for children ages 3-21 with orthopedic and multiple handicapping conditions. My assignment was the kindergarten class.

Several other new faces became Brockman Bears that year. All were enthusiastic, creative, caring, and smart. We bonded quickly in learning the ropes of our respective new duties, thanks in large part to seasoned teachers, incredible teachers’ assistants … and the school nurse.

Mary Wooldridge was our nurse, although we shared her with another self-contained school across town. Mary’s hearty, mischievous laugh and tell-it-like-it-is persona filled the halls, as did her compassion and determination to help guide us newbies through relentless challenges.

In the summer before my sixth year of teaching, Mary kept me posted on the status of my class — rather, the class we hoped I would have. Because of new inclusion guidelines, I still had just one student on my roster. During a teacher in-service a mere two days before students were to report, Mary tracked me down. I was giddy with relief to learn I had a class! Mary told me to sit down so she could tell me a little about my new charges.

In a nutshell, my final year of teaching demanded primarily skilled nursing. My eclectic group’s collective needs didn’t leave much time for anything but tracheostomy care and suctioning, transferring, positioning, tube feeding, diaper changing, and so much more. Talk about learning on the fly.

Mary was present the day one of my students started gasping for air. Mary floored her compact car to the closest hospital with Tracey, a tall, gangly girl, in my lap. Upon arrival, we raced through the hall mazes, Tracey in my arms, until we were instructed to take her to another local hospital. By the time we reached the second emergency room, Mary was out of breath, I was covered in Tracey’s vomit, and Tracey seemed to wonder what all the fuss was about.

We all reported for duty the following day.


Years after my teaching stint ended and miles from Columbia, our baby Jeffrey was diagnosed with spinal muscular atrophy. I eventually contacted everyone I’d ever known; Mary was the first. She got back to me immediately, and we kept in touch from then on.

Mary passed away earlier this September from COVID-19 complications. I imagine she didn’t waste a minute stirring up joy and perhaps a bit of mischief.

Mary Wooldridge, in her element during Halloween festivities at Brockman School. (Photo by Helen Baldwin)


On October 6, 1997, my husband, Randy, and I drove three hours to what was to be a consultation with a pulmonologist regarding BiPAP and an experimental drug for Jeffrey. It did not go well. We ended up in the ER, where Jeffrey went into respiratory arrest a second time.

When he was deemed stable “enough,” we moved upstairs to a room. Somehow I walked, carrying him. Once our tiny warrior was tucked safely into the oversized hospital bed, I encouraged Randy to step outside for a break of sorts. As soon as the door closed, Jeffrey promptly went into his third episode of respiratory arrest since the office visit.

While nurses tended to him, another one tended to me. Her bear-sized hug replaced some of my indescribable anguish and fear with some of her energy and assurance that all would be fine. I never saw her again, but I never forgot that brief, timely interaction or her name.

Her ID tag said Mary.


After our return home from the fateful pulmonologist’s consultation-that-wasn’t, our local hospice was called into action. After a meeting with several staff members, one called back and introduced herself as Jeffrey’s hospice nurse.

Her name brought a smile. Mary.

Mary Ward was a perfect fit for Jeffrey and for me. Seasoned from myriad occupations, she exuded confidence, expertise, and sincere compassion from the get-go. She admitted that because Jeffrey, at 5 months, was the youngest patient our local hospice had ever cared for, they’d be learning from me.

Mary made sure we had the “wonder medication” (morphine) in place before Jeffrey needed it. She stressed that, while we could call her anytime, she also respected our desire to be as independent as we could be as our Jeffrey assignment wound down.

I particularly appreciated Mary’s wit and sense of humor. I craved humor in any form; it later seemed quite morbid to have considered laughing as our baby hovered close to death. It provided a necessary balance, however, and I’m thankful I was open to it.

Mary and I don’t keep up with each other too often now, but when we do, it’s obvious that our unique bond remains steadfast.


Mary, Mary, and Mary.

Earthly angels, perfectly placed exactly where and when I needed them.


Note: SMA News Today is strictly a news and information website about the disease. It does not provide medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. This content is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. Never disregard professional medical advice or delay in seeking it because of something you have read on this website. The opinions expressed in this column are not those of SMA News Today, or its parent company, BioNews, and are intended to spark discussion about issues pertaining to spinal muscular atrophy.


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