Starched uniform over a kind heart

Nurse: For decades, Jean Akehurst was the picture of the chilly head nurse. Her love for Johns Hopkins Hospital and her generosity became known only after her death.

August 06, 1999|By Diana K. Sugg | Diana K. Sugg,SUN STAFF

When Jean Akehurst patrolled the floors at Johns Hopkins Hospital on the evening shift, insecure young interns felt safe. They knew that every nursing position would be staffed, every difficult patient calmed, every hard-to-find medicine located.

She was the classic head nurse, and for more than 30 years she dressed and acted the part. No one remembers a wrinkle on her starched, white uniform, or any time that she stepped outside her businesslike demeanor.

But after Akehurst died last fall at age 79, she surprised former colleagues with a bigheartedness many never knew she had. Hospital officials learned in May that she had left the institution $1.2 million.

Hopkins' treasurer, Thomas Trzcinski, used to those sorts of contributions from trustees, believes it is one of the hospital's largest donations ever from a line worker.

"I don't think she showed much affection to anyone, and I don't think she showed it in nursing," said Anna Flatley, a fellow nurse who knew Akehurst for 58 years. "But she must have had a generous heart after all."

As unusual as the gift might seem, it isn't.

In the past five years, about 10 other retired nurses have each donated amounts ranging from a quarter-million dollars to a half-million or more, in their cases to the Johns Hopkins University School of Nursing.

Another former nurse, Mildred Struve, who worked her way up to being a key nursing manager, recently left $900,000 for nursing school scholarships.

Most of these women came of age at Hopkins during World War II. They lived, learned and labored together, even stepping in to run the hospital when dozens of Hopkins nurses were shipped overseas with the troops.

`An amazing group'

"The only reason the hospital was able to retain high standards of care during that period was the cadet nursing program," said Linda Sabin, a Hopkins nursing graduate and associate professor of nursing at Northeast Louisiana University. She is working on a history of Hopkins nursing.

"They were an amazing group in that period. They just did extraordinary things."

Now, it seems, many are giving back to the institution that made them who they were.

Some saved the money from nothing more than their nurses' salaries. In Akehurst's case, she had inherited stock from her father. But she apparently rarely tapped that wealth in her personal life, where her style was as Spartan and disciplined as her hospital demeanor.

She lived for many years in a tiny two-story rowhouse in old Dundalk with her husband, Ernest C. Akehurst Jr., a firefighter. She never indulged in fine clothes or expensive vacations. She bought her sole luxury, a 1978 light blue Cadillac, the year her husband died.

"It's amazing to me because she never really did anything, never went anywhere or anything," said Flatley, 83, of Akehurst's wealth.

"Maybe this was her way of saying, `That was the happiest time of my life.' It was for me."

A private person who revealed little of her feelings, Akehurst gave a one-sentence explanation for her act.

"Hopkins is my family," she once confided to a hospital staffer.

In a sense, the institution was in her blood: Her father, Warren Leaper, earned his medical degree there in 1911; her mother, Florence, trained as a nurse. In 1939, Akehurst followed her parents.

In those days, nursing training was as regimented as the military. The students lived together in Hampton House, a dormitory across the street from the hospital. There were impromptu room inspections.

Student nurses lined up in their spotless uniforms at 6: 50 a.m. each day for a few prayers and to get the day's assignments. Then they marched off, two abreast, in order of seniority, shouting hellos to the front doorman polishing the brass rails.

During the war, students often worked split shifts, staffing a hospital unit during the morning, attending afternoon classes, then returning for an evening shift.

Any nurse not present 10 minutes prior to the beginning of the shift was counted tardy. And certain practices were expected of every nurse: Beds were made with sheets tucked under the corner in a triangle shape, and even though the nurses bathed patients, a Hopkins nurse never got her long sleeves wet.

Akehurst graduated in 1943. At the time, Akehurst and her fellow nurses also stood up each time a doctor entered the room.

"She was a real proper, old school nurse. She would stand up and help you put your coat on," said Dr. Theodore Baramki, who remembers Akehurst from his residency days.

An associate professor of gynecology and obstetrics at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, he is director of reproductive endocrinology at Greater Baltimore Medical Center. "She wouldn't accept mediocrity," he said of Akehurst.

Akehurst didn't worry about people's feelings. She spoke the truth as she saw it, say those who knew her, and she didn't put up with any nonsense.

"I used to laugh and say, `I bet she was just like Nurse Ratched,' " said friend Dottie Whittle, referring to the disciplinarian nurse. "She was a strong-willed woman."

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