The amazing and inspiring career of Molly McLaughlin, VA hospital nurse

Michael Vitez for Yahoo News

­­Molly McLaughlin, 87, started nursing school on the day World War II ended, in 1945, at the dawn of the age of antibiotics, and is ending her career treating victims of a disease that didn’t even exist then. In her 67 years as a registered nurse, she’s cared for veterans of the Spanish-American War, vaccinated thousands of children with the then new Salk polio vaccine, and was among the first to report the outbreak of Legionnaires’ disease. For the past quarter century, until her retirement this month, she has been caring for HIV and AIDS victims at the Veterans Administration hospital in Philadelphia.

“When you have a passion and you impact people’s lives on a daily basis,” she says, it gives you a purpose.”

As a nursing student, one of her very first patients was a 12-year-old boy, Tommy Rios, who was riding double on the handlebars of a bicycle when he fell and was hit by a car, fracturing his skull and breaking his femur and pelvis. He was in a full body cast, in the hospital, for six months. Molly not only cared for him, but also brought him hoagies — the Philly word for submarine sandwiches — because he wasn’t eating the hospital food.

Molly’s niece Anne Harriott asked her the other day what ever became of the boy.

“I had lunch with him last week,” Molly replied.

Indeed, Rios, now 81, always felt enormous gratitude to Molly. He’d look her up whenever he returned to the hospital for follow-up visits, and they became lifelong friends. Years later, he taught Molly how to drive. When Rios married and had a daughter, he asked Molly to be godmother.

“Molly is a very caring person,” Rios said the other day. “When I was in the hospital for the six months, she was the one who kept me alive.”

Molly grew up in Philadelphia and says she’d wanted to be a nurse since the seventh grade. Her graduation present from Catholic high school was a bandage scissors and syringe, back in the day before disposables.

Molly’s interest was always public health.

After her graduation from Fitzgerald Mercy nursing school, she worked for the Philadelphia health department. She administered the newly discovered polio vaccine to thousands of schoolchildren. She has no idea how many thousands of shots she’s given since starting nursing school 70 years ago, but confesses, “I’m pretty good at it. I’m fast.”

In 1960, she went to work for the Philadelphia VA Medical Center — and spent the next 55 years there.

When she started, she was caring for veterans of the Spanish-American War of 1898.

“One man was 93 and worked for the state, and he was still working,” she recalls. “He was my inspiration. Another man was a stockbroker, and in 1929 he watched all his friends jump out of windows on Wall Street.”

Molly has built relationships with patients from many wars. She has the most affection for Vietnam veterans because they were treated so poorly by the public when they returned home.

One Vietnam vet, Ed Henry, was ambushed by machine gun fire at age 19 and had both legs amputated. Molly helped Henry in many ways, even filing paperwork to get him better compensation. Henry grew to trust Molly and rely on her. He’d bring in other vets who were reluctant to get care and escort them right to Molly’s office.

 After Henry died in 2012, one of the first people his wife called was Molly.

“He had a lot of faith in Molly,” said Linda Henry, “in her judgment and kindness and just her.”

Molly was working in a VA clinic in Center City, Philadelphia, the second day of August in 1976 when a veteran she had been dating, a member of the American Legion, came in and told her that many fellow Legionnaires attending a convention at a nearby hotel the previous week were sick and four had died.

Molly holds up a retirement banner signed by many of her patients. Her colleagues are holding a farewell roast for her on Jan. 15. (Photo: Michael Vitez/Yahoo News)

She called the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta, and the doctor there told her he needed more information. So Molly called the state Legion office and found out that, in fact, 11 had died.

“I called back to this doctor at the CDC,” Molly says, “and I said there are 11 dead, and I can hear him in my head right now, his saying, ‘Oh my god!’” Molly believes she was instrumental in sounding the alarm about Legionnaires’ with the CDC, although all these years later it’s hard to say who was first. Pennsylvania health authorities were already on the case.

Molly helped start the HIV-AIDS program at the VA in 1989, when few health professionals wanted anything to do with the deadly disease. She made a point of shaking hands with every patient. “People have to be told you’re not afraid of them,” she says. “I saw so many die,” she says of those early days. She felt a true sense of purpose in the AIDS program, and that’s where she stayed.

“She is the face of taking care of patients with HIV here, period,” said Jo Ann Seppelt, a nurse manager and Molly’s supervisor. “I don’t know how we’re going to replace her. Actually, we can’t replace her. It’s not just taking care of patients. It’s the passion behind it.”

The HIV program is part of the infectious diseases clinic, and Molly cared for patients with a variety of illnesses. As care and treatments have improved, Molly’s gotten to know many clinic patients for more than 20 years.

Julia Kent, 58, one of those clinic patients, came in the other day — Molly’s second to last — just to give her a present.

“I don’t want Molly to go, and I wanted to do this for her. We’ve been through so much,” Kent explained as Molly unwrapped a green wool scarf Kent had knitted just for her.

“Oh, that’s beautiful!” Molly said.

Molly tried it on, over her white nursing coat.

“For when you travel the world in the cold weather,” Kent said.

Molly’s first trip, planned for February, is to Venice.

“Please keep in touch. Send me postcards,” Kent said.

“Listen, I’ll never forget you,” said Molly. “And I have the scarf to prove it.”

Postscript: Molly, who said she was retiring because she was “tired of getting up at 6 a.m.,” announced on her first day of retirement, “I slept in till 10 o’clock this morning.” But quickly added, “I don’t expect to do that every morning, you understand.”

Why not? She’s earned it.

Michael Vitez (@michaelvitez) is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and published author known for his human-interest stories.