By Betsy Rosenblatt Rosso
When Sue Waddingham was 16 years old, she came upon the scene of a bad motorcycle accident. “It was pretty clear that it was going to be a fatality,” she recalled. “And I felt a strong need to ease this man’s suffering.”
“A lot of what nurses do is ease suffering. We save lives too, but a lot of it is trying to make life better for the patient.” As a high school student, Waddingham volunteered as a candy striper at her local hospital to see if she liked working in a medical environment, and then went on to earn her nursing degree at Niagara University. Waddingham has been a nurse for 30 years, half of which she’s spent as a visiting nurse for the Navy-Marine Corps Relief Society.
As a new military spouse, fresh out of nursing school, Waddingham took advantage of the opportunity to gain a broad range of nursing experience. “I worked mainly in small hospitals—both military and civilian—doing everything from A to Z,” she said. “I learned a lot about assessment, different skills, and working autonomously.”
She worked a lot of night shifts until she had children, which was also when she became a client of the Society. “I remember having a Society visiting nurse call and come check on me when we were stationed at NAS Whidbey Island and my first child was born,” she explained. “It was helpful to me. I was having challenges with my newborn and worried I would have to go back to the hospital. My daughter wasn’t feeding well and the visiting nurse reassured me we would be fine.”
Then, in 2001, Waddingham applied for that visiting nurse’s position with the Society—which had become vacant—and ended up working with moms and babies there for five years. “It was rewarding as a nurse and mother to connect to individuals and be a major means of support to them at a really pivotal time in their lives. If you talk to any mom about her child birthing experience, no matter how many years ago it was—she remembers it in minute detail.” Waddingham’s own children are now ages 27, 24, 21.
She continued working as a traditional visiting nurse based out of the NMCRS Portsmouth, Virginia office when the family PCS’d to Norfolk, Virginia. “When NMCRS expanded the visiting nurse program to include a focus on combat-casualty assistance (CCA), Ruthi Moore [director of nursing for NMCRS] asked me if I would see CCA clients along with traditional nursing clients,” she explained. “I considered it a huge honor. I felt that was an incredibly meaningful mission for the Society. I remember tears streaming down my face when I found out we were taking on that mission.”
“By then we were stationed at NAS Corpus Christi so I worked with moms and babies and retirees there for three years. My clients, moms and newborns, were also from NAS Corpus Christi and my CCA clients were all at Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio. Occasionally the two roles would intersect when a wounded service member was having a baby, and I used both skill sets.”
When Waddingham’s husband was PCS’d to Washington, DC, she became a full-time CCA visiting nurse, and continued to work with her CCA clients in Texas and take on new clients in DC, primarily out of Walter Reed National Military Medical Center. “It was life-changing,” she explained. “I really love serving the combat-injured veterans and their families. I try to help service members thrive—not just survive—in post-combat world. Ultimately, my goal is to identify what’s keeping them from achieving their best possible physical and emotional health, and to help them achieve better health all around.”
“I worked with a Marine who was wounded in Fallujah and had been through multiple substance abuse programs. He had a lot of challenges with pain and narcotics addiction. He had real challenges getting the appropriate services and care and even getting the surgery he needed from either civilian or VA programs. I was able to facilitate medical appointments and visits. He finally had his surgery. About six months later, out of the blue, he texted me and said ‘I’m off all my meds and I have a job and you saved my life. I’ve never had anyone who really doesn’t know me care so much about me.’”
When Waddingham’s husband retired from the Navy in 2013, the family moved back to Texas, where Waddingham continues to serve as a NMCRS CCA visiting nurse. “I had a special forces Marine who was suffering from TBI and PTSD and was repeatedly turned away by the VA. He was having seizures and tremors and it was difficult to diagnose what was going on. It wasn’t until he went to a civilian brain center that they validated his injuries and helped him sleep well for the first time in three years,” she said. “For three years I worked very hard to help him to move forward. Now, he’s starting his own business, enjoying life, and has a lot of hope for the future. He bought some property and hopes to open a veteran’s ranch where others can come and heal. If I was able to have a small part in that, I consider it a huge honor and a success.”
Like all nurses, Waddingham has always known about Florence Nightingale, the founder of modern nurses. “But I didn’t realize until recently that she nursed soldiers in the dark,” Waddingham explained. “She was called the lady with the lamp. Now I’ve been a nurse for 30 years and I’m taking care of warriors, just like she did. I’m going back to the roots of nursing.”
Congratulations on 15 years of service to the Society, Sue!