In 1972, I entered a world unlike anything I had ever encountered. I began work as a nurse on a locked psychiatric unit at the local VA hospital.
I was issued my keys and told where to go. Two big, burly nursing assistants held the patients back from the door as I pushed in.
The unit was packed with a variety of the mentally ill. The beds in the sleeping area seemed only inches apart. Nursing assistants stood at their posts like guards.
And then I was introduced to the nurse coordinator, Miss Fryman. She was a petite woman, who looked at me over her glasses, like someone had just delivered lunch.
I was not sure who to fear most, the patients or my new boss. She proved to be every bit as formidable as she initially appeared.
When she spoke, the other nursing staff snapped to attention and followed her orders to the letter.
She was the epitome of tough love with the patients too. Even the craziest patient responded when Miss Fryman said, “Get out of my face and go sit down in the day room!”
But the tough part of her was tempered with a heart of compassion. She could wrap her arms around a depressed, anxious patient and convince them they would be ok, even if for just that moment.
I managed to stay out of her firing line until the day I had what I thought was a brilliant idea. One of the patients had been on the unit for several years. In my youthful dream world, I believed if I could only expose him to the outside world again, he would progress toward cure.
I told Miss Fryman I wanted to take him out on a day pass. With great flourish, I gave her a list of proposed activities. She hit the roof! She told me in no uncertain terms that was not happening.
Again in my youthful ignorance and rebellion, I appealed the decision to the chief nurse and physician. I won! Well, “won” is a relative term.
I took the patient out. He actually did quite well for awhile, until anxiety set in. And he began to act out. Fortunately I was able to get him back before he completely melted down.
And of course, Miss Fryman was waiting for our return. After she helped calm the patient down, she turned to me. I was shaking more than he was.
She pulled me into the nurses station and taught me a valuable lesson. She said, “You are going to have to learn life is a balancing act between freedom and security. Too much freedom and you get what you just got. Too much security and you miss out.”
What I expected next was to be fired. However, she said maybe we both needed to learn that. And that was it. We never spoke of it again while I was under her command.
But I noticed my patient got added to more outside activities after that. Gail and I laughed about our “head butting” many times when we later reminisced as friends.
I was moved to another unit when the new city division of the hospital opened the following year. I worked psychiatry and then on surgical units for the next six years.
I lost track of Miss Fryman until I was selected to be the nurse coordinator of the newly formed hospice unit at the old division.
By then Miss Fryman had also changed positions and was the nurse coordinator of the clinics and personnel health. As such, we both attended nurse coordinator meetings.
Many of the meetings were long and dare I say … boring. Sometimes leaders of other services came to speak, the thrust of their presentations being about how nursing could serve them better.
During one of these meetings, I looked across the table at Miss Fryman, who was rolling her eyes. I got so tickled I almost laughed out loud.
When we walked out, she looked at me and said, “Well, that was a load of bull.” We became friends from that moment, two rebels who knew “crap from crisco.”
Miss Fryman became Gail and we began to reflect on life during breaks or for occasional lunches. She told me, “You turned out alright. I can tell people I raised you right.”
In addition to her supervisory duties, Gail was the hands on personnel health nurse. The goal in those days seemed to be to determine if the employee was really sick or just faking it to get time off.
Gail could spot a faker in a minute. She was a master at staying within the approved managerial bounds, but she could construct her questions like a prosecuting attorney.
Employees left her office, either feeling much better for her medical wisdom or genuinely ill because their plan to get off work had been foiled.
We began to get together outside work. Gail was a friend, who could relate beyond just talking about work. We talked about life. We shared our hopes and fears.
Even though many would not think of attacking Gail, cancer tried. Gail was diagnosed with breast cancer. She had surgery. She had followup treatments.
Cancer lost. Gail became a dedicated breast cancer awareness educator. The high point of her recovery came when she got her new nicely, artificially filled out bra.
She called me and said, “Carolyn, I got my new boobs!” Before I could go see, another friend dropped by her office. She invited her to “feel them” to see how real they were. The friend did just that, just as a startled employee walked in to see her friend “feeling her up,” as Gail put it.
I asked her if she thought the word would be out questioning her relationships. Gail just laughed and said, “Let them talk. I’ve always wanted to be interesting!”
Gail was fiercely independent. She acknowledged that while her bark was considerably worse than her bite, some people were put off by that. But, she said, she had always been “plain spoken” and that was not apt to change.
Gail seemed so satisfied to be single, I was surprised when she revealed one day there was a special man in her life. Miss Fryman became Mrs. Stamper.
John was a Kentucky wildlife artist. Those who did not know her well were perhaps surprised that the formidable Miss Fryman also had a love and appreciation for nature and art.
The love between John and Gail was beautiful, but all too brief. John had cancer. I took care of him near the end. When we sat and talked about life, he told me the high point of his life was Gail.
He said, “That woman never gives up. Many times when I said I was down for the count, she wouldn’t let me stay there.”
After John died, Gail did not give up. She became the keeper and distributer of John’s art. When I shared with her what John had said, she said, “We were both fighters. We had a lot to squeeze out of life and not as much time as some get. We had to make the best of it.”
John was Gail’s one human Love of her Life. But she still had love to give and she still wanted to receive love. So she had dogs, one at a time. First Willie, and then when he died, Lucy. She was totally devoted and a wonderful mother to her fur children.
After we both retired from the VA, we kept our friendship going. Gail always teased me about being a “picky eater.”
She suggested early on that we eat at Cracker Barrel. She said, “if you can’t find something you like on their menu, there is something wrong with you!” I ate well.
We also expanded into attending the annual retired nurses luncheon. The first year we attended, Gail looked around the room and gasped in horror.
She said, “They must have sent us to the wrong room. All these people are old!” I asked her if she realized we were old. She said, “I don’t ever plan to get old. The test is whether people can still recognize you.”
About that time, someone came over and said, “Gail, how are you?” Before answering, she turned to me, winked and said, “See, I told you. I am not old!”
In spite of resisting the external signs of aging, the last few years took its toll, resulting in health problems for both of us. We were not able to get together in 2020. We hoped to get together in 2021.
However, that was not to be. Her neighbor found her one morning. She had exited during the night due to a possible heart attack.
She died as she lived. She never wanted to die in a hospital or nursing home. She got her wish. She died at home. She was fiercely independent to the end.
Gail knew I was a writer. She read or heard me read many eulogies or other writings over the years. Once when we discussed dying, I told her one reason she should keep on living was because if she died first, she knew I would write about her.
She laughed and said, “I might take that chance. At least you would make me sound interesting.”
Gail was more than interesting. She was a legend, and I only knew part of her story. If you knew her, perhaps my memories will make you smile and bring to mind your own memories.
If you did not know her, now you have an idea of what you missed.
The memories are sweet, but I miss her already.