A career in caring

Kathy Hedberg, Lewiston Tribune, Idaho
·5 min read

Mar. 2—Marie Eier, of Lewiston, says her motives for becoming a nurse weren't high-minded.

"I must admit, I didn't go into nursing to save humanity," said the diminutive 93-year-old woman, a fierce defender of Republican politics and sometimes fiery writer of letters to the editor.

She grew up on a family farm in Center Valley near Sandpoint about 65 miles from the Canadian border.

"I wanted to see the world. I wanted to be an airline hostess. I didn't want to be a secretary. I didn't want to live on the farm and I didn't want to be a housekeeper.

"And at that time (in the mid-1940s), I had heard they needed nurses. My mother said, 'Well, if you're going to be a nurse, you'd better take science courses.' "

In 1943, during the height of World War II, President Franklin Roosevelt created the U.S. Cadet Nurse Corps to help alleviate the nursing shortage during the war. The program was open to all women between the ages of 17 and 35 who had graduated from high school and was the largest of the federal nurse training programs.

Eier had finished high school at the age of 16 and was casting about for a career. She found only two nursing schools in the country that would accept someone her age, and the St. Joseph Hospital nursing school at Lewiston was the one she chose.

There were only seven in her entry-level class, of which Eier is the only one still living. A larger class followed in September of that year.

Eier recently donated a school album from her graduating class of 1947 to the Nez Perce County Historical Society Museum.

Eier, whose main traveling adventure before nursing school had been to ride a train to her grandfather's farm at Prosser, Wash., arrived in Lewiston by bus in June 1944. She walked from the bus station to the hospital on Normal Hill and was set up in a room in an old farmhouse that had been converted into a nurses' residence.

"We lived in the old nurses' home and had classes in the hospital and in an old house across from the hospital," Eier said. "The reason we were in nurses' training is we were replacing nurses that had gone into the service. And we went right to work. What we did at the very first was to give fresh water (to the patients) and personal care."

The nuns were often the instructors for classes and involved in their students' lives, she said. They were also frugal.

"I remember Sister Huberta told me: 'You can dry your hands very well with only one paper towel.'"

The nursing students were paid $15 a month for the first three months, followed by slight raises in salary as they gained experience. By the time they were seniors, they were earning about $45 a month from the government.

The St. Joseph School of Nursing was established in 1919 following the founding 16 years earlier of the hospital, with just three Catholic nuns providing all the nursing care and housekeeping duties.

According to Lewiston historian Steven Branting, local physicians and lecturers brought the curriculum up to certification standards. The criteria included courses in bacteriology, anatomy and chemistry that were essential to meet Idaho's requirements.

The first class of St. Joseph nurses graduated in March 1922, and the final class of 17 men and women graduated in 1952. A licensed practical nursing program survived, but it was not until 1966 before Lewis-Clark Normal School accepted new students for a registered nurse program.

Eier remembers classes in pediatrics, dietetics, surgery and obstetrics.

"I found out I liked the maternity ward," she said. "It seemed a happy place."

After graduating in 1947, Eier and her fellow nurses were required to take a state exam before qualifying as RNs, which Eier achieved.

Shortly afterward, she moved to Sandpoint and worked for a few months in the Bonner County hospital.

"That was an experience," she said. "There were three floors and if you needed any help physically, you called the police to give you a hand. Because you were just by yourself at night or even at daytime and it was a little hospital."

Eier eventually married and moved to Hanford, Wash., where she worked as a nurse. The marriage didn't work out, she said — possibly because she hadn't learned to cook.

"I didn't cook like his mother," Eier said, chuckling. "I went to nurses' training and I never learned to cook. I could boil an egg ..."

Eier and her three children moved back to Lewiston, where she went to work at the hospital and for John Braddock, a local physician.

One day while working for Braddock, she got a call from Doug Eier, an insurance salesman who wanted to get an appointment right away for a physical exam.

Eier had been warned.

"A friend told me: 'Don't let Doug Eier talk you into making appointments. He can wait just like the rest of them.'"

Eier said she and her future husband fought over the phone about scheduling his appointment with the doctor.

Later, the two met again.

Doug Eier "said, 'Do I know you?' and I pulled myself up to my full height and said, 'Yes, you should.'

"Then one day he showed up at my house. And at that time, I thought he was trying to sell me insurance. He did sell me insurance, but he married me first."

The couple and their combined family of seven children settled in Lewiston. Marie and Doug remained married until his death in 2005.

These days, Eier lives quietly with her cat, Cheetos, and enjoys reading the newspaper and tending to her own health.

"I am not afraid of the (corona)virus," she said. "Occasionally over the years (she has had) bronchitis, but (I) have learned to get antibiotics early. I think being a farm girl, I have good resistance. Or just good genes."

Hedberg may be contacted at kathyhedberg@gmail.com or (208) 983-2326.