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A nursing career that saw many changes closes at Bethel

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NORTH NEWTON, KAN. – Verda Deckert didn’t think she’d be at Bethel College long enough to retire.

Eighteen years later, however, she finds herself ending her nursing career there – one that has covered everything from supporting a voluntary service unit as a nurse in Saskatchewan, working as a public health nurse in Oklahoma, weathering the merger of Bethel Deaconess and Axtell Christian Hospitals into Newton Medical Center, and teaching nursing management to at least 500 different students in 18 class years of nurses at Bethel. Deckert is perhaps the only person to have graduated from both the Bethel Deaconess and Bethel College (B.S.N., 1965) nursing programs who later went on to teach in both.

One day, fresh out of nursing school and working at Bethel Deaconess Hospital, Verda Epp met a young man named Geoffrey Deckert on a hospital elevator. He was working at Peterson Funeral Home in Newton – at that time, funeral homes also served as ambulance service and he was bringing a patient in. After their wedding in 1966, the young couple lived for several months in the funeral home before going to Battleford, Saskatchewan, for two years of Mennonite Voluntary Service.

“I earned the money for the unit,” Deckert says, “and Geoff did community development on First Nations reserves. I worked as an R.N. in a community hospital and a Native hospital.”

When the Deckerts returned to Newton, Verda taught in the Bethel Deaconess school of nursing until it closed in 1974. From 1974-75, they lived in Okmulgee, Okla., where Geoff went to baking school and Verda worked as a public health nurse. Back in Newton again, Deckert worked in a variety of roles at Bethel Deaconess Hospital – staff nurse, house supervisor, staff development. “My job would change every two years or so,” she says.

At the time Bethel Deaconess and Axtell Hospitals merged in 1988, Deckert was assistant vice president of nursing. She had begun working on her master’s degree at Wichita State University “for self-actualization, really,” she says (she finished in 1990).

Sometime early in 1990, Bethel’s director of nursing mentioned there was an opening for nursing faculty. “I talked to faculty, and they said this would be a good place to come and work,” Deckert says. “I was told this would be a good place to retire from. I said, ‘I don’t know that I’d be there that long.’”

Every year for 18 years at Bethel, Deckert taught the Management class. For many of those years, she also taught Community Nursing. In the former, she taught “not just [how to manage] a group of patients, but also basic management of staff, quality improvement, performance appraisal and a mini-introduction to the finances of health.”

The latter course, Community Nursing, is one of the Bethel program’s particular emphases. Community Nursing teaches students “the role that B.S.N. nurses can have in the community,” Deckert says. “They don’t usually get into that right away [in a first job] but they need to know where patients can get care besides at the hospital – for example, community health agencies, hospice, public schools, home health agencies or [on-site in] industries.” It also focuses on care of various culture groups intensively enough to meet “cross-cultural learning (CCL)” requirements.

Two of Deckert’s favorite memories from her time at Bethel involve her daughters, Natasha and Maria, who both completed the Bethel nursing program, in 1995 and 1996, respectively.

A number of things have changed in 18 years. When asked the question, Deckert’s prompt first answer is “Computers,” followed by “Cell phones and PDAs [personal digital assistants] for the students. They have their nursing diagnosis book, their drug book, their Taber’s Medical Dictionary, all on the PDA.”

Other significant changes have included the ability to search online for any journal article, lecturing with PowerPoint® and the use of computer simulators in teaching.

“When I graduated from nursing school, we didn’t know CPR – they were just beginning to teach it,” Deckert says. “ICUs [intensive care units] were just coming into development.” Since she began teaching at Bethel in 1990, “we’ve gone [technologically] from having nothing – not even e-mail – to having it all.”

In addition, she says, “Every year when I go back to the hospital [for clinicals], I notice that the patients are so much sicker. On the one hand, people are living longer. But because of lack of health care coverage, they wait longer [to get care]. There is more diabetes and heart and lung disease – more ‘lifestyle diseases.’”

She notes, however, that some things in nursing haven’t changed. “Giving a bath, giving shots, inserting a needle for IVs. We still use many of the same medicines. There are certain basic things you have to stick with – you can’t skip steps.”

What she’ll miss, Deckert says, will be “working with students, keeping up with new developments, and the many friends I’ve made in clinical settings” – she has particularly fond memories of the days when Halstead Hospital was one. The academic schedule has been nice overall, she says, “although one doesn’t think so when one has to get up at 5 a.m. for clinicals.

“The students have been challenging in good ways. They bring a lot of energy,” she says. She has been “privileged to work with good faculty, both here in the department and across campus. I have appreciated the conversations and emphasis on good teaching.

“I always looked forward to going to convocation,” she says. “The students never understood that. That was a place where you could go and hear or learn about a wide variety of topics. I realized, from my years as a Bethel student, that many of those things come back to you later.”

In retirement, Deckert looks forward to taking occasional trips with Geoff, a long-distance trucker, spending even more time with her five grandchildren, who all live in Newton/North Newton and range in age from 11 to 3, and being able to read, garden and sew. When Bethel Deaconess Hospital closed, Deckert bought a table loom that had been used for physical therapy, “and I would love to figure out how to use it.”

Bethel College is a four-year liberal arts college affiliated with Mennonite Church USA. Founded in 1887, it is the oldest Mennonite college in North America. Bethel is known for its academic excellence and has been named a Top Tier college by U.S. News & World Report every year since 1998. For more information, see the Bethel Web site at

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