Community heroes: 'I'm still able to do something for others'

Aug. 27—For 55 years, Charlene Guest has followed a remarkably consistent work routine: Making the short drive south from her Welti home to assist patients at the Hanceville Nursing & Rehab Center. Since getting her LPN Nursing certification at Calhoun Community College at the age of 18 (Wallace State's Nursing program was still in its infancy in those days), it's the only job she's ever had.

Well — almost the only job.

"When I got out of school, I worked for two weeks in labor and delivery, and decided that wasn't for me," she says. "Just seeing some of those young girls come in, screaming and carrying on — I just didn't have the patience with them!"

Working directly with patients and families does take a special kind of patience, though, and despite that early-career self-critique, Guest — a Holly Pond graduate and lifelong Cullman County native — possesses it in spades. After all, she's been demonstrating it for more than half a century.

"Sometimes, when you do the least little thing for some of these people, they will praise you and thank you for it," she says of her longtime job as a charge nurse at Hanceville. "Of course, they can cuss you out sometimes, too! But in the long run, it's just been more fulfilling here."

Hanceville Nursing and Rehab has an enviable reputation, having recently been named by Newsweek as the top nursing home in Alabama. Guest has been a part of it almost from the very start: Founder Jim B. Moody hired her just two years after the facility first opened — almost before the paint on the walls had had time to dry.

"This place opened in 1965. I was hired in 1967, sitting on a big keg of nails," recalls Guest. "Mr. Moody hadn't had time yet to get sitting chairs in his office."

Though the cornerstones of the nursing profession remain unchanged, Guest has been around to witness the many ways in which it has. Teamwork is still as vital as ever, she says, pausing from her shift for a quick chat in one of the facility's meeting rooms.

"I've got 20 residents I attend to, and I usually have two nursing assistants — but on some days, like today, I've got three. We don't hesitate to go out on the hall and help. Any kind of lifting situation, or help with changing clothes — really anything: We just go out there and join up with the nursing assistants and help each other out."

Advancements in technology both big and small have made her work easier over the years. "When went to disposable briefs for the residents, that helped," she says. "When I first started to work here, it was cloth briefs. Even the insulin syringes were glass back then; we would autoclave them after we used them, every time. Those kinds of changes have helped tremendously."

In a fast corporate age when careers seem to change as frequently as the seasons, few people can reflect with authority on the slow, incremental shifts that continually redefine the single role they've always held. But for Guest, the rewards of the job remain the same even as the methods of carrying out her work change with the times. It's clear from her calm, even-keel demeanor that she's an assuring presence in a nursing environment that benefits from having one around.

Nowhere does that manifest itself better than in Guest's interactions with residents, many of whom just need a listening ear — even when their memory and perception aren't what they used to be.

"With the geriatric person, you cannot be forceful. With their cognition, oftentimes you just sort of have to get into their little world," she says with more than a hint of genuine affection. "They might be anticipating catching the bus and going home, so we'll get in that mode and talk about the bus schedule. Or they they might be wanting to get ready to fix a meal for the kids when they come home from school. Whatever frame of mind they're in, you have to go along with them and talk to them where they are — not where you are."

Guest is 73, a widow since her husband, Lonnie, passed away a decade ago. The couple have one daughter, Sonjah Smith (who teaches at Harmony School) and two grandchildren. Guest says attending her grandson's fall football games and encouraging her college-age granddaughter are her pastimes outside of work, as are decidedly indoor pursuits like reading ("I don't like outside work — it makes me sweat!" she jokes.)

But when the topic turns to full-scale retirement, Guest says she hasn't seriously considered it. After all, she's gotten pretty good at this nursing thing after 55 years.

"I've always been a medication nurse. I think it's more rewarding that I'm still able to do something for others, and that I still have the mentality to function well," she says "I think when you stay busy, it keeps your mind off of yourself. I'm just very grateful to still be able to do what I've always done."