Doctors, nurses and other associates who have spent decades at Mary Washington Hospital have some interesting tales about the way things were.

Margaret Alexander, a volunteer for 54 years, remembers when patients would arrive on Sunday night for surgery early the next morning. She would help them unpack their suitcases and settle in for a week’s stay.

“Now they come in one day and they’re out the next,” she said.

Currently in her 50th year at the hospital—and 56th as a nurse—Marilyn Roulley recalls smelling the pungent odor of ether as soon as she walked through hospital doors. Ether is an anesthesia that’s no longer used because of its flammability.

But back in the day, nurses would scrub the arm, leg or stomach area about to be operated on with ether, then gasoline—yes, you read that right—and top it off with tincture of Benzoin, another smelly solution.

That was before the patient ever got to the operating room. Once there, the process was repeated, she said.

“There were some infections then, but nothing like there is today,” Roulley said, referring to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention statistics, that about 75,000 Americans die each year from infections they developed while in the hospital.

And let’s not forget the business offices, where workers have had to keep up with ever-changing technology as well as the mountain of regulations and insurance policies that change every year.

Debbie Lee, a supervisor who’s handled hospital bills for 42 years, remembers the click–clack made by keys on a manual typewriter and having to hit the carriage return to advance to the next line.

When the first electronic typewriter arrived at her office, people took turns practicing on the newfangled machine.

“Everyone was assigned an hour a day,” she said.


Mary Washington Healthcare recently called together hospital associates and volunteers who have worked at the hospital from 25 years to more than half a century. Photos were taken for a pictorial “Wall of Fame”—poster-size pictures that are hanging outside the cafeteria. Each is adorned with stars listing the employee or volunteer’s years of service.

There was lots of hugging among workers who hadn’t seen each other in years as the facility has grown.

“It was like old home week,” said Jeanne Burkett, a marketing specialist with Mary Washington Healthcare.

With 3,724 associates spread across several buildings on an ever-growing campus, it’s almost impossible for long-term employees to bump into others they once worked with, said Wanda Payne, a pediatric nurse for 42 years.

“When I was in the old hospital [on Fall Hill Avenue], everybody knew everybody. But we have grown so much as an institution, I don’t even know people within my own care center,” said Payne, who works in the Women’s and Children’s Center.


Alexander, the volunteer, is at the top of the list of tenure with her 54 years of service. She started in 1952 and has done many jobs as a member of the Mary Washington Hospital Auxiliary. Most recently, she’s volunteered at the hospital’s thrift shop and is sorry to see that close.

Alexander, 84, spends her winters in Florida. Whenever she’s at her Stafford County home, she makes a beeline to the hospital every Monday.

Does she plan to keep up the schedule?

“Oh yeah, until I die,” she said. “When you’re busy and stay going, you live longer.”

Dr. Harvey Allen, an oral surgeon, has the longest tenure of any physician at the hospital: 51 years. When he started in 1966, there were no doctors devoted exclusively to the emergency room, so when “somebody came in and needed your services,” the ER called “and you just had to leave your office and go take care of it,” Allen said.

For more than 48 years, he also ran a practice devoted to dentistry and oral surgery. He closed it in 2015, but he’s still associated with the hospital. He provides care for Medicaid, Medicare and indigent patients, and usually isn’t paid because dental services aren’t covered by those programs.

He’s 80 and would like to continue working as long as he can. Nurses joke he’ll still be treating infections and facial abscesses, even when he has to use a walker to get to the hospital.

“They joke that I’ll pass out on the operating table one day, and that will be it,” he said.


Roulley, the nurse, won’t give her age, but it’s obvious she’s well past the time many people retire. She works several hours every Tuesday in the surgical recovery area.

“I like to try and be an advocate for the older people,” she said.

Roulley has carried on a tradition that was prevalent when she first started caring for patients. She still wears her white nursing cap and white hose. She’s the only one at the hospital to do so.

“That was just a tradition in my day,” she said.

Payne, the nurse who’s worked in pediatrics for more than four decades, acknowledges that procedures and treatments, medicine and how workers record information—from the days of writing everything on a chart to entering the same information into a computer—have changed dramatically in her tenure.

But one thing has stayed the same. When little ones come into the hospital for treatment of childhood ailments that turn into serious problems—or for broken bones or surgeries—they’re understandably scared. So are their family members, who may also be exhausted or at their wit’s end.

“You see so many sides of so many people,” Payne said. “That’s why you have to care for them as much as you care for their children.”

Cathy Dyson: 540/374-5425

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