The Perth, Australia native and mother of five is a third-generation nurse who entered the field later in her life, after a career as a nanny, a military marriage and a life as a mom. She’s seen places as far-flung from her native continent as Canada and Japan, but never felt out of place.
Penny said she started traveling “just to see different countries and see how they work.”
“I love change and I love meeting new people,” she said. “I don’t have too much trouble meeting people. I think it’s my Aussie streak.”
Penny just didn’t think that the place she’d feel most at home was as the assistant director of surgical services at St. Louis University Hospital.
“My husband was military and we had ended up in Virginia when he got out so I could go into nursing school,” Penny said. “I thought let’s try it; I’ve never lived in St. Louis.
“I’ve loved it ever since,” she said.
Even though she came to the field late, Penny had a nursing pedigree that she said was passed down to her for two generations. “My Nana used to call the OR ‘the theater,’ ” Penny said. “My mom was a general nurse.
“I always wanted to do it, but nursing school was so out of reach with having kids and being able to take care of them,” she said. “It was something I wanted to do for so long.”
So when her husband retired from the U.S. Navy, Penny pulled out all the stops to realize her dream. She began working full-time and attended classes at night. She completed an accelerated course in 15 months.
“I don’t like anyone to tell me I can’t do something,” Penny said. “I gave up a year and a half of time, but the outcome was so worth it.”
She makes no bones about how difficult the process was for her. Penny came into the course with some medical background — she’d been a dental assistant in an oral surgery practice before — but some of her classmates had no
“This accelerated program was sink or swim,” she said. “We had 10-hour clinicals on weekends. I think everything else was a blur. It took everything I had to push through, to make it, because it was so many hours and so much. I think I slept for a year after I graduated.”
Among the things she gave up to hone her focus on school, Penny remembers sacrificing her football fandom — a minor loss, as her beloved Rams were in a down period at the time — but the sense of accomplishment she had upon graduating was irreplaceable.
“It was really, really hard, but I loved every minute of it,” Penny said. “I felt important. Nurses are important to me, and to think that I was studying towards that end … I love that it may have taken me that long to get there, but I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else.”
Penny said that going to nursing school as a career change at age 41 gave her “the advantage of a little bit of wisdom.”
“If you want to do something it doesn’t matter if you wait until you’re 60 or 70 before you do it,” she said. “My biggest wish was to be a nurse. There can’t be enough excuses. If you want something, you’ve got to do it, or you’ll regret it for the rest of your life.”
Penny parlayed her enthusiasm into a return trip to school to earn a bachelor’s degree.
“The job I’m doing, when I took on the assistant director’s job, requires a bachelor’s of science and I only had my nursing degree,” she said. “I’m a full-time student at SLU, and doing it again. I really want it. I’ve still got a good 20-30 years of work in me.”
As much as Penny loves continuing her education, she said the bachelor’s degree is likely to be as far as she goes. She loves her job because it combines clinical as well as managerial skill sets. She credits her supervisor with creating a workplace environment that allows her to thrive.
“I absolutely love this assistant director position that I have here at SLU,” Penny said. “My boss has really walked me through everything. I have a great, awesome group of people here in the OR. This is where I’ll stay for the next 30 years of my career.”
In addition to the opportunities of a supervisory position, Penny said she loves the personal touch that her job affords her the opportunity to deliver. Modern-day nursing is awash in rules and regulations and policy, but “there’s so many people that just want a smile and to say ‘Hi’ as you pass,” she said.
“We’re scared to say hello to each other these days,” Penny said. “I’m not old, but I see changes. I think they’ve lost a lot of the basics that we need to go back to — making sure that the patient is still our No. 1 priority, regardless of how much time they say we can spend with them, or remembering the patient’s feelings. “We’ve got to slow down,” she said.
“The hospitals and the powers that be want us to treat so many patients, and that’s great, as long as it’s done faithfully and with the patients’ interests in mind.”
Looking ahead, Penny said she can see one of her four children following her into the healthcare field. Her four adult sons might not follow in her footsteps, but her 9-year-old daughter is interested in medicine.
She’s the one Penny thinks is likely to continue the professional legacy begun by her daughter’s great-grandmother.
“She’s adamant that she’s going to be a doctor,” Penny said.