Four decades of helping others

Nurse who helped design Legacy Salmon Creek Medical Center’s family birth center bids adieu to patient care and mentoring other nurses

By Erin Middlewood, Columbian special projects reporter

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Much has changed in maternity wards since Gretchen Amacher entered nursing school in 1966.

Then, mothers were sedated to deliver their babies. Fathers were sequestered in waiting rooms. Once born, babies stayed in the nursery and were wheeled to their mothers every three to four hours for feeding, mostly by bottle. Fathers were allowed only during visiting hours and didn’t get to hold their babies until they were discharged.

Four decades later, Amacher helped design hospital rooms to comfortably accommodate mothers, babies and fathers together.

These families might never have met Amacher, who retired this month, but she shaped the experience for some 9,000 deliveries at Legacy Salmon Creek Medical Center since it opened in 2005.

After establishing, and then managing, the family birth center at Legacy Mount Hood Medical Center in Gresham, Ore., she took on the task at Salmon Creek. She helped design the facility — dads, you can thank her for your roomy beds — but she also set high standards for patient care.

“If you nurses aren’t wonderful,” she told her 117 staff members, “the beautiful building doesn’t matter.”

As much as things have changed, Amacher kept in mind that today’s young nurses still face a challenge she faced early in her career: finding a balance between work and parenting. So even as she worked 60-hour weeks, she did her best to accommodate her staff’s family responsibilities because she thought that would make them better nurses.

She arrived at work at 5:45 a.m. each weekday and stayed until the shift change at 6 p.m., overseeing all aspects of the hospital’s family birth center. She pushed for novel ways of caring for patients, even beyond their hospital stay. She instituted a postpartum clinic in which mothers and babies return to the hospital two days after discharge to be examined by a nurse. The clinic has reduced the number of babies admitted to the emergency room with jaundice by catching the problem early.

“She was just an excellent, dedicated nurse,” said her supervisor, Lani Gaskill, Salmon Creek’s nurse executive.

A lifelong calling

Amacher, 62, said she always knew she wanted to be a nurse, ever since she watched her aunt prepare for the night shift.

“I thought it was so great,” Amacher said. “She wore her white hat, white nylons and white uniform, and she got to stay up all night.”

Amacher entered nursing school at Portland’s Emanuel Hospital right out of high school. She paid $100 for her uniform and $1,000 for the first of year of instruction. (The second and third years were $300 each.) Like the other nursing students, she lived at the hospital. Her days included classes as well work with patients.

“You really got a lot more hospital experience than now,” Amacher said.

Hierarchy, however, was more rigid. When a doctor entered the room, a nurse was to offer him her pen and chair. Nurses never called doctors by their first names.

The very night she graduated from the nursing program, she reported to her first job as a nurse in Emanuel’s operating room. She went on to work in the open-heart surgery unit.

These days, patients go home in four days, but then, open-heart surgery put a patient in the hospital for 28 days.

After five years at Emanuel, Amacher took a job in the maternity ward at Vancouver’s Memorial Hospital. By the time her first child was born, she had worked 10 years in labor and delivery.

“I had a lot more empathy for patients after that,” she said.

She led the Clark County Childbirth Education Association in the late 1970s. She worked at the Vancouver Women’s Clinic, and later, at a Portland outpatient surgery center.

Life’s chapters

Her children, now 29 and 33, were young then. Part of her yearned to be at home, pulling cookies out of the oven for them when they got off the school bus.

“I realized that was a dream from my mother,” she said. “I decided I was going to be working for the rest of my life, so I wanted to be at a great hospital.”

She returned to Emanuel in 1985. As she climbed the ranks, she drew on business skills she had learned handling the books for her first husband’s hair salons and managing an apartment complex early in their marriage.

As her children grew and she moved into management, she never forgot what it was like to balance family and career, she said. Many of her staff at Salmon Creek were mothers with young children. At any given time, one in 10 was pregnant.

While most of Legacy Salmon Creek’s 12-hour nursing shifts start at 7 a.m. and 7 p.m., Amacher set family birth center shifts to start at 6 a.m. and 6 p.m. That works better for patients reporting to the hospital early in the morning for planned Cesarean sections. It also let nurses get home to see their kids off to school in the morning or off to bed at night.

She gave mothers with young children the first day of school off. Amacher’s nurses had the chance to switch between full- and part-time work as positions became available. She reassured nurses who shouldered the heavy demands of caring for young children at home that they would have a chance later to pursue their ambitions at work.

“Life has chapters,” she told them. “Be happy in the chapter of your life you’re in.”

As she leaves 60-hour workweeks and a 24-hour-a-day pager behind, she’s looking forward to a new chapter for herself.

“I’ve been too busy to do anything because work involved my whole life,” she said.

Now she’s gardening more, and catching up on things around the house. A recruiter has already contacted her, however.

“He told me that people like me don’t retire; they go on sabbatical.”

But she’s intent on giving retirement a go.

“I’ve been living by the calendar for years, doing whatever the calendar said to do that day. I’m finally going to make some choices.”