For as long as she could remember, 101-year-old Agnes Hansen knew she wanted to become a nurse. “When I was 6 years old, I said, ‘I’m going to become a nurse,’” said Hansen.

Hansen’s mother wanted to be a nurse, too, but “my grandfather didn’t think that was a nice profession.” So, instead of nursing, she became a teacher. And it’s a good thing.

Hansen’s father was a farmer and mother was a schoolteacher in northeastern South Dakota. Life was hard growing up during the Great Depression. “The reason we even made it was because mother was teaching. I remember my father planting every year for six years, producing nothing but dirt. It was horrible, horrible.”

In her spare time, Hansen’s mother helped local doctors deliver babies at home. One night, she came home from assisting in delivering a premature baby. “She said the little baby fit in a cigar box. And all I could think of was how the baby looked. That’s when I decided I was going to become a nurse and find out,” said Hansen.

Following in her mother’s footsteps

In order to fulfill her dream of becoming a nurse, she had to save enough money to go to nursing school. “We didn’t have any money and I had to work for everything I got,” recalled Hansen. She earned a teacher’s certificate and for a few years taught K-eighth grade.

“I saved my money and told myself, ‘I’ve got to be a nurse and I’m going to have my degree.’ I didn’t want to just be a three-year nurse. I wanted my degree – five years. And so that’s what I fought for,” explained Hansen.

After applying to the University of Colorado School of Nursing (it later became a college), Hansen became one of nine students accepted into the program. “We got one-on-one training, which was excellent. I received a great education. And I appreciate every day of it,” said Hansen.

Nursing in the 1930s and ‘40s

Agnes HansenAfter a two-year probationary period, they became acting nurses for the hospital. “And so we didn’t have to pay tuition or room and board after that because we were working eight hours a day plus having classes. We had one day a week off,” explained Hansen.

“The whole thing was challenging, but I think the most difficult part for me was the scholastic part that had to do with chemistry. I had a difficult time seeing molecules,” said Hansen.

“We had the same professors as the medical students, so we were told we were just as good. The only difference was they had a bit more training and education. And if we wanted to, we could become doctors too,” reminisced Hansen.

In addition to taking care of patient’s health care needs, nurses’ training included cleaning, cooking, giving patient’s back rubs and massaging their feet and hands. It was a holistic approach to patient care.

Hansen graduated from CU School of Nursing in 1941 – the year the United States entered WWII.

Keeping the home fires burning

By 1943, Hansen was working at Fitzsimons Army Hospital. “My folks lived within a mile of the hospital,” she said. By that time she was married, but married life was put on hold when her husband was shipped overseas to build airstrips in the South Pacific.

“He wrote me a letter every day he was there,” Hansen said with a smile. He was gone for 2½ years. In the meantime, she was working day and night at Fitzsimons caring for wounded soldiers. “I was working long hours because those boys would come home from overseas with horrible, horrible things. I just couldn’t go without taking care of whatever they asked for.”

The soldiers even had a favorite nickname for her – “mom.” Hansen said, “I was 28. So, I wasn’t that old. But some of them were only 17 or 18 years old. So to them, I was probably ancient.” When her husband returned, the two of them finally began married life.

Life choices

Before the war, the two sat down and talked about what they expected from marriage and what they expected of each other. They decided that if they ever had children that Hansen would be a stay-at-home mom. After the birth of her children, she lived up to her end of the bargain.

“That hurt like crazy after I had my education. I loved nursing. But we made that rule and I stuck with it, and I didn’t go back to work until my daughter was a junior in high school, and my son was already in college,” she said.

Volunteering turns into second career

While her children were in school, Hansen kept busy volunteering for her church at a nursing home. One day, the director asked her if she would consider working for them. And she agreed. That was the beginning of her second career.

Hansen had been out of the workforce for quite some time, but still had her uniform including her cap and shoes. “I got through that first night because I said to myself, ‘I am an RN and by darn, nobody’s going to know any different.’ And after that first night, I didn’t have a problem,” Hansen recalled.

Keys to longevity

After years of working at the nursing home, she and her husband retired and moved to Arizona where she taught exercise classes for 12 years.  She says that’s what has kept her so spry. In addition to exercise, Hansen doesn’t drink, didn’t smoke and “kept my diet like it’s supposed to be.”

Today, Hansen lives with her daughter and husband and is very self-sufficient — helping with laundry, tending to her garden and keeping busy with great-grandchildren.

Guest Contributor: Dana Brandorff, College of Nursing