On Dec. 30, a retiring health care executive turned off her office lights for the last time, after 50 years of working on the Mercy Hospital St. Louis campus.
And just like that, a career spent entirely on Ballas Road was over for Christine Crain, one that began in 1973 as a 19-year-old graduate nurse in a white uniform and ended as chief operating officer of Mercy Kids.
“I was a bit emotional,” Crain said. “As I walked out, I was just thinking that I hoped I’d made an impact along the way.”
Back in 1973, Crain was assigned to the “medical” floor, the unit reserved for patients hospitalized with everything from heart disease to diabetes to cancer.
“I remember walking in at times, praying that everything would go right. Especially at night, when you were the only nurse on the floor,” she said.
And it wasn’t as if she could rely on technology.
“You basically had a stethoscope, your ears, eyes and instincts,” she said. “I always told my nurses to trust those instincts, because they’re usually right.”
I’m guessing a nurse’s instincts are among the most powerful tools known to humankind, right up there with a mother’s intuition and a saint’s grace.
Crain, a diminutive 69, has all of that, along with a quiet, unflappable demeanor that has served her well. By 21, she was assistant head nurse. By 25, she was head nurse, responsible for scheduling, evaluations and implementing policy.
In 1987, at 33, she was appointed chief nurse, just as health care was becoming more corporate. But Crain never forgot the “ministry” part of administration, modeled by the Sisters of Mercy who started St. John’s Mercy Hospital.
When faced with a challenging issue, she’d head to the hospital’s chapel, a beautiful, stained-glass, mid-century marvel. In 10 minutes of prayer, she could get her head on straight and be able to enter a difficult meeting with deliberation and thoughtfulness.
Crain was at the fulcrum of labor issues twice, as nurses unionized in the late 1990s and went on strike again in 2005. Those were tough days, she said. In March 2020, she was the administrator on call when the hospital admitted the region’s first COVID-19 patient. The days that followed were even tougher.
So many days, good and bad, in 50 years of nursing. So many lives touched, too.
Her most memorable patients? She recalls the oncology floor before advances in fighting cancer, where the essence of care expanded beyond the patient, where it became “just as important to send home a healthy family.”
She remembers with great detail a handful of families over the years who lost loved ones.
“It was an honor to walk with them on that journey,” she said.
Rest assured, the families remember her, too.
And three weeks ago, she walked away from her 50-year career on Ballas Road, simply hoping she’d made a difference.
“It’s a place I’ve given a lot,” she said, “but I’ve gotten back so much more.”