Longest working nurse at Lee Health beats adversity

Reporter: Amanda Hall Writer: Matias Abril
Published: Updated:

A nurse faced patients who wouldn’t let her treat them because she’s black. Doctors who wouldn’t work with her because of the color of her skin.

She persevered and is now the longest-working nurse in the history of Lee Health, and 56 years later, she’s still going strong.

Ruby Hendley could be a historian for Lee Memorial Hospital she’s been here so long.

“I started in 1968, and this area here was where I started, and it was called West Wing, and it was all patient care. We just had this one hospital at the time,” Hendley said.

One hospital and not many staff members who looked like Ruby. She started as a nurse’s aide at the tail end of the civil rights movement, the same year Dr. Martin Luther King was assassinated.

“There was times when some of the doctors would say rude things, and you won’t believe this, but we had a doctor that did not, he had on his door, he did not take care of black patients. Yeah, I’ll never forget him, Harvey Stipe. No black patients period,” Hendley said.

Ruby had never experienced discrimination like that because her hometown in north Florida was still segregated, but she persisted and graduated from Edison College’s nursing school in 1976.

“Back then when I became a nurse, you took pride in your hat,” she said.

And she committed herself to an attitude she said has served her well.

“If I get a patient and patients say they don’t want a black nurse taking care of them, I didn’t make a fuss. I just went and told my supervisor and let someone else go in that they were more comfortable with, so that’s just a part of life. It just didn’t bother me,” she said.

Hendley spent most of her time as a surgical nurse and in post-anesthesia recovery, where she still works one or two days a week.

She actually retired in 2020, but it didn’t last long. After 18 months, she returned.

“I missed the people, and if I went somewhere, they’d say, ‘Why don’t you come back to work?’ And I did, and that’s been the best decision that I could have ever made,” she said.

Hendley said retirement is boring, and besides, she has too many pearls of wisdom for the other nurses and doctors, some young enough to be her grandkids.

“I treat everyone like they’re important. I don’t look down on anyone because I’m a nurse,” she said.

Hendley said she will be 78 in June, and for anyone making the career decisions she was making back in 1968, she said nursing is rewarding and gives you skills you’ll use all your life.

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