By Matt Skoufalos
During her senior year of high school, Martha Becker informed her mom, Edith McCarren, that she was going to take a year off after graduation to figure out what she wanted to do. Her mother informed her that she’d better figure out something else.
Amid a nursing shortage, McCarren, a former teacher, had been trying to re-enter the workforce via a competitive nursing program at Montgomery County Community College in Blue Bell, Pennsylvania. She told Becker to fill out the paperwork to enroll, too. After they both interviewed, Becker got into the program; McCarren did not.
“A hundred of us were accepted for the class to start, and I was one of five who were just outside of high school,” Becker said. “It was really an education to see how women could juggle divorce, kids, jobs, and still be going to school.”
A year later, McCarren joined her daughter in the RN program. She died in May 2018, after having worked 26 years in the field, fully retiring when she was 84.
“It was interesting to go to school with her,” Becker remembers. “She was a lifelong learner; she was still in book club when she died. She truly was a role model of learning, learning, learning.”
McCarren’s career took her throughout Abington Hospital-Jefferson Health, in Abington, Pennsylvania, where her caregiving approach served her as an inpatient psychiatric nurse, and also as a a fill-in nurse in the Philadelphia public school system. Abington is also where Becker’s career was established. In 1980, she began working as a charge nurse at the age of 20. After 38 years in the field, she can still recall how she was too green to be scared at the beginning.
“People would say, ‘Oh you’re so calm,’ and I said, ‘Do they know something I don’t know?’ ” Becker laughed.
She stayed at Abington for four years, until she had the oldest of her three children. Becker didn’t return to full-time work right away because the health system froze hiring while it evaluated the impact of the newly rolled-out Diagnosis Related Groups (DRG) system for reimbursement. She ended up in the operating room at Roxborough Memorial Hospital, eight miles away. While working and raising her daughter, Becker returned to school at Hahnemann University Hospital for her BSN, which she completed in 1989.
“Then I ended up having two more kids, and life got in the way, and along the way, I thought, ‘Maybe I’ll be a school nurse,’ ” Becker said.
After completing her school nursing certification at Widener University, she was in that setting just nine months before she was accepted into anesthesia school at Our Lady of Lourdes Hospital in Camden, New Jersey.
“I loved it, and I’ve been doing that ever since,” Becker said.
Today, she’s back at Abington Hospital-Jefferson Health as a nurse anesthetist with United Anesthesia Services. After nearly 40 years in the field, she still believes “it’s the greatest.”
“You never get punished for changing and doing something else,” Becker said. “That’s of very high value for me. I’ve been able to raise kids, I’ve been able to work part-time, relief time, casual time when I was in school. I could move to a lot of different places to get a job. I had a lot of flexibility. I worked night shift for five years when the kids were really little.”
Although Becker said she wasn’t a strong student at the outset of her vocational path, she truly became a career student. She credits a love of learning, instilled by her mother, and a fascination with the human body and its mechanics that only deepened as she aged.
“All of a sudden, it was so interesting to learn more,” Becker said. “Then I was in the OR for 10 years and then I had to get unit experience. The body is very interesting. That’s what you’re learning about all the time, what your body is experiencing.”
An intimate understanding of what happens to the human body, particularly during end of life, has informed Becker’s bedside manner and assessment of what patients and families need. She recalled how, when McCarren was hospitalized by illness in her final days, a young resident doctor asked whether she’d considered intubating her 88-year-old mother – until the fire in her eyes sent him hustling out the door.
“Family members should really know what they’re signing up for,” Becker said. “I think patient education is a huge priority.”
After years in the profession, Becker said she’s also learned a lot about self-advocacy and finding her voice at work, whether in the operating room, at the patient bedside or in circulation. Nobody is tougher on nurses than they are on themselves, at times, she said.
“I think doctors are figuring it out finally that we’re actually their eyes, ears and everything else while they’re not there,” she said. “I think we’re valued a lot more than we were when we first started. We all have a voice; I think that’s all part of team building.”
Becker also applied her lifelong love of learning to medical mission work in Central America. She’s participated in two different missions there, helping with outpatient surgeries where there aren’t the skills or resources to resolve without visiting support. Even though she acknowledged the same work is needed stateside, Becker said the experience of being able to take her family with her for the same kind of education has been a big piece of her participation.
“I’ve been able to take my kids to these trips,” she said. “They can’t get this exposure in America. Let them see, let them work, let them do screenings. It was great.”