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Excerpt from Oral History Interview with Gemma Ziegler, June 22, 2006. Interview U-0181. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) See Entire Interview >>

Decision to pursue a career in nursing and managing as a single mother

Ziegler describes her decision to pursue an education and her experiences in nursing school. She begins by explaining how her first husband was abusive. At the advice of a counselor, Ziegler determined to return to school so that she could become self-sufficient. She recalls the process by which she obtained her degree, her eventual decision to leave her husband, and how she managed to combine her new career with the responsibilities of childrearing as a single mother with the help of her aunt.

Citing this Excerpt

Oral History Interview with Gemma Ziegler, June 22, 2006. Interview U-0181. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) in the Southern Oral History Program Collection, Southern Historical Collection, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Full Text of the Excerpt

My first husband had a horrible temper and he wasn't physically abusive, but very verbally abusive. So at one point when my children were small, I went to see a counselor and it was a woman counselor. I had wanted him to go with me. He wouldn't go, so I went by myself and we didn't have a lot of money. I told her what was going on and she said, "You need to find a profession. Will he object to your going back to school?" Because I only had a high school education at that time and I think I was like about, oh twenty-four or twenty-six, something like that. She said, "You need to go back to school and get you a degree to raise these children, because he sounds like the type, he's not going to pay child support and you could have a lot of problems. You need to set some goals." So I did. That night I went home and thought about it and the next day, I called the community college here and went back to school. My husband had his own business, a very successful business, but the money didn't matter. It was peace of mind. He was a good person. He just had a lot of problems. Anyway, that's a whole other story. So I was taking my core classes and sat next to a woman who was in a nursing program. She said, "You should go into nursing." She said, "It's a great profession." I said, "Oh God, I wouldn't—." I asked her what were the classes. She said, "Chemistry." I went, "Oh God, I would never pass chemistry." I made good grades in high school. Grade school and high school, I was always an A/B student, but for some reason, I had a very negative feeling that I couldn't do math or I couldn't do chemistry. Just the sound of geometry and chemistry just like freaked me out. She said, "You really should try it. You really should try it." So I applied and was accepted. Out of like six hundred applications, they only took, I think, a hundred and twelve and I got in. So I figured it was meant to be. And I passed chemistry with flying colors and geometry and all the other things I had to take, and pharmacology, and got out of nursing school. I loved it. I loved nursing school.
SARAH THUESEN:
Where did you do those courses?
GEMMA ZIEGLER:
Jefferson Community College and then I had an AD in Nursing. And of course having children, being around sick kids, you learn a lot just from having children. So nursing seemed very natural to me. Anyway, I had told my husband when I started school, and it took me like six years, six or eight years to get through a two-year program, because I lived out in Oldham County, which is right out of Jefferson County. It is like a suburb of Jefferson County. I actually lived in Peewee Valley and I had to commute between there to school. My son was like four. My daughter was in school. So I had to do daycare with him, pick her up from school. My husband would not help me at all. If he had to watch the children, he called it babysitting. So I was the one that had to arrange, so it took me quite awhile to get through school. The last two years, I carpooled with another nurse who lived out that way. It made it a little bit easier and we'd watch each other's children when we had classes that were different. Anyway, when I started school, I told him, I said, "If things haven't changed when I graduate, I'm leaving." And I did. Things didn't change.
SARAH THUESEN:
What year would that have been?
GEMMA ZIEGLER:
That was 1975. I think I was twenty-nine. So then I started work and initially, I was making like four dollars and seventy-five cents. Now I just graduated from nursing school. They were putting me on the eleven-to-seven shift. I was going to be charge nurse and they said they were going to give me six weeks training on the floor. So after two weeks, they put me to the night shift and the first night, I had a supervisor with me and the second night I show up and no one's with me. And I'm like, [unclear] . There were two LPNs, but I was still in charge. We had like forty-eight patients. We had two aides. But back then, I mean we did everything on the floor. It was supposed to be a cataract unit. That's when they used to put cataract patients in the hospital. We had GI bleeds. We had people with lung cancer. We had everything. So anyway, I said something and they go, "Oh, you can do it." I learned later on that that's what they do. They put young people in and they go, "Oh, you can do it. Don't worry about it." And they put you in a position that you're risking someone's life, plus your license, plus your psyche. If anything were to happen, how could you live with yourself? I really was just out of school. So anyway, I did that, but I was making like four seventy-five an hour. I thought, "This is great." I chose to work eleven to seven, because my aunt—I could have gone three to eleven—I had an aunt who was about sixty. I moved to an apartment, let my husband have the house, because he ran a business out of our home. I took the kids and my car and their beds and moved. My aunt lived in the apartment right behind us. Our walls were connected and I put in an intercom system. My daughter at the time was, I guess, around twelve and my son was about seven. I would put them to bed and then I'd knock her on her door and tell her, "I'm leaving for work." She would turn on the intercom and she would listen for them and then she'd go over in the morning and get them up and get their breakfasts. Then I'd get home after and then I'd sleep during the day and be home for them in the afternoon. It was crazy. I hated that shift. But that's what I had to do. I couldn't afford a sitter and my aunt did it for free. She's still living. She's ninety-six. So anyway, she was wonderful.