Ninety years have passed since the opening of Spectrum Health Zeeland Community Hospital, and it would be nearly impossible to mention all that has changed in health care over that period.

Technology. Medicine. Knowledge. You name it.

And yet, Kathy VandenHeuvel believes there is one thing that has remained constant at her friendly, bustling hospital near Lake Michigan’s shore.

“When I think back on my 49 years, we have never strayed from providing excellent nursing care,” said VandenHeuvel, a nursing technician in the Family Birth Center at Zeeland Community Hospital. “Our integrity has not wavered. Young and old in the community agree. I hear it all the time.”

She would know, of course, as the longest-serving employee of Zeeland Community Hospital.

And now, after half a century of service, she is on the cusp of retirement.

The obstetrics department at the Pine Street location hired VandenHeuvel in 1968 after she graduated from the licensed practical nursing program at Grand Rapids Community College.

“I always had a love for babies,” she said. “My mom did foster care and her passion rubbed off on me. It’s just what I was meant to do.”

Dads in delivery      

VandenHeuvel has seen tremendous changes in technology, processes, documentation, treatment options and knowledge of conditions.

When she began her career, the delivery room had been off limits to dads. A dad would have to wait patiently on a couch near the nurse’s station until the doctor informed of him of the baby’s gender. And in those days, free of televisions and cell phones, a dad had to use a pay phone to share the news with family members.

“I remember a time when mothers, doctors, nurses and visitors were able to smoke in the patient rooms and lounges,” VandenHeuvel said. “At one point, there was even a cigarette vending machine in the hospital lobby!”

The scene would be unimaginable in a modern health care facility.

Other archaic practices included the use of glass IV bottles and thermometers, para cervical blocks (instead of epidurals) and ether for use as anesthesia during delivery.

Many procedures that are now automated in current hospitals were manual in VandenHeuvel’s early years. The IV drip rate, for example, was regulated by hand and blood pressure was assessed manually. Nurses used a manual crank to raise and lower the head of the bed.

Countless changes have led to vast improvements in patient care.

In short, modern health care has come a long way—and VandenHeuvel has had a front-row seat to the action for five decades.

“The patient experience is the area that has seen the largest transformation throughout the years,” VandenHeuvel said. “Moms used to be wheeled by stretcher from delivery to their room. During delivery, beds were required to remain in high position and patients were restricted from getting out of bed for eight hours following delivery. On the plus side, the mothers were pampered with three backrubs per day, as a standard practice.”

Family, friends, babies

One of VandenHeuvel’s best memories came early in her career.

At a time when hearing tests were a new type of diagnostic screening, she cared for a maternity patient who was deaf and mute. VandenHeuvel waited with the mother and her husband, also deaf and mute, while they awaited results from the baby’s hearing assessment.

“You should have seen their faces when I was able to show them the ‘pass, pass’ results written on the paper,” recalled VandenHeuvel, tears in her eyes. “It was so special to share that moment with them. They just squealed with delight. That memory will be with me forever.”

VandenHeuvel’s love of babies has translated into her personal life as well.

She and her husband, Les, have four children and 16 grandchildren, all living within five miles of each other.

She plans to retire once she hits the 50-year milestone in February. Her plans will then include camping, cross-stitching—holiday stockings are her specialty—and spending time with family.

“Kathy loves working in the Family Birth Center and she will be sorely missed when she hangs up her scrubs,” said Julianne Carey, nursing director at the Family Birth Center. “She knows her job well and really helps the team exceed expectations for our families. She loves people and is a shining example of caring people … caring for people.”