By Matt Skoufalos
When Vivian Watson graduated nursing school in 1957, life had already prepared her for the unpredictable pace of the health care field.
Born to a family of Mississippi sharecroppers in 1935, Watson entered into a difficult upbringing made harder by a cleft lip and palate. The congenital issue is one that children the world over still experience, but at the time of her birth, surgeons only repaired pediatric patients’ lips.
She was to have had the palate surgery at five, but the doctor who’d done the repairs was killed in a car accident by then, and her father wouldn’t allow her to travel to New Orleans or to Mobile, Alabama to have the surgery out of fears for her safety. Neither was it easy for them to care for Watson’s specific needs while working the fields and raising her four siblings, so she was sent to live with her aunt in Waynesboro, Mississippi.
Even with the support of her aunt, school was difficult because of her physical appearance. The teacher wouldn’t call on her, and other children bullied her, but she never spoke about it to her aunt for fear of getting in trouble.
“I just lived with it,” Watson said.
By the early 1940s, the United States had entered World War II, and her fellow Mississippians were shipping out. Watson still holds a vivid memory of seeing a convoy of doughboys whistling and waving as they drove by her aunt’s home.
“I was playing under a tree with my doll,” she said. “When I asked Aunt Bertie where were all those boys going, she said, ‘They’re serving their fellow man; they’re going to war.’”
“I said, ‘I want to serve my fellow man; I’ll be a nurse,’ ” Watson recalled. “She sat me down and told me I was born different, and the patients would not be able to understand what I was saying. She said I’d have to give up my dream and do something else.”
By the time she was 10, her parents came to reclaim Watson from her aunt’s home, as she was old enough to contribute on the farm, and her labor was required. When she came home to Jones County, she learned to plow, to draw water from a well, and to help her mother care for her brothers. At school, however, Watson was no longer left to her own to deal with bullies.
“If anybody laughed at me, my brothers would beat them up,” she said. “They were football players; I was good at basketball.”
Watson didn’t give up on her education, but her dream of becoming a nurse still seemed out of reach. In her senior year of high school, her English teacher overheard her telling a friend that her cleft palate could disqualify her from her chosen profession, and interceded.
“She said, ‘Vivian, you have too good of a mind to waste. You can be a nurse,’” Watson said.
Her teacher gave her the name and number of a vocational rehab facility in Soso, Mississippi, and told her to keep it to herself until after graduation. When that day came, “I did what she asked me to do,” Watson said.
“We didn’t have a telephone; we lived 10 miles out of town,” she said. “I got up and put on my tennis shoes and my blue jeans and my flour sack shirt, and I pulled out the name of that Mr. Matthews, and I walked seven miles to the highway, and I thumbed a ride.”
When she got into town, Watson called the number, and was received by the Mississippi Director of Vocational Rehabilitation, who invited her into his office, and gave her a stack of papers to fill out.
“It took me almost two hours,” Watson said. “It was sort of like the ACT or the SAT. I turned it into him, and they put me in the waiting room, and all I heard in my mind was, ‘They’ll never help you; you’re not worthy.’”
Instead, the man returned to her and said, “Whatever you want to do with your life, we have already arranged for it to be done.”
He signed her papers in loco parentis, and arranged for Watson to be seen by James Harvey Hendrix Jr., the first plastic surgeon in Mississippi.
“He will accept you as a patient, and he will do all of your plastic surgery, and turn you back over to us, and we will educate you on whatever you want to do,’” Matthews told her.
It took a full year and four separate surgeries for Hendrix Jr. to repair Watson’s palate, including repairs to her lip, the addition of a bone in her nose to form her iliac crest, and extensive dental work. She was all of 18 years old, and he did the work gratis.
From there, she attended Mississippi College in Clinton, and graduated from the school of nursing at Baptist Medical Center in Jackson, Mississippi at 21. Thus began a nursing career that took her from the surgical floor to the emergency room within six years.
“Then they sent me to Dallas to learn how to open an ICU,” Watson said. “I set it up real good, but I never had enough people to work it. I never gave up on anybody, the patients loved me, and I never met a patient I didn’t love.”
In all, Watson spent decades in the emergency room and ICU before she went into the operating room at Baptist to work a daytime shift while she was having her third baby.
“I wound up being in charge,” she said. “We had the largest operating room in Mississippi, and that was in the day when patients were all in-house patients. We had about 150 people and we did about 75 cases a day.”
After she retired and remarried in her fifties, Watson was only out of work for about eight or nine months before the University of Mississippi Medical Center invited her to return as a teaching nurse.
She promised them five years, and had intended to retire again thereafter, but the passing of her father drew Watson back to her family again. So in the 1990s, she spent another decade working at an outpatient cath lab in Laurel, Mississippi, and another three-and-a-half at Oxford Hospital after that.
“Then I came home and said, ‘No more – and then somebody else called, and wanted me to open up the fourth floor of a clinic in Hattiesburg to do outpatient urology,” Watson said. “I went for two years, and I remodeled that place to meet Joint Commission standards.”
Just for good measure, Watson then spent another three years at Methodist Hospital as an OR nurse educator. She became active with the Association of periOperative Registered Nurses (AORN), presiding over its Mississippi state chapter, and becoming its first ombudsman, while also delivering seminars on nursing education.
She also wrote a memoir with advice for OR nurses entitled, “A Passionate Journey: Overcoming Adversity, Realizing a Dream,” and continues to share her experiences with other nurses across the world, thanks to the support of Chuck Hughes of HIGHPOWER Validation Testing & Lab Services.
“I’ve had a wonderful life,” Watson said. “I love the operating room. Everybody said I had a real heart for my patients.”