3 generations of nurses work in same specialty at same hospital system

PHOTO: Left to right; Christina Harms, 31, Sue Hoekstra, 56, and Mary Lou Wilkins, 86, are photographed at Spectrum Health in Grand Rapids, Michigan.PlayHealth Beat, the news service of Spectrum Health
WATCH Grandmother, mom, daughter leave a nursing legacy

Christina Harms, 31, a labor and delivery nurse in Grand Rapids, Michigan, is celebrating National Nurses Week this week, as are her mother and her grandmother.

The three generations of women have all followed the same career path, working as labor and delivery and postpartum nurses, at the same Michigan hospital system for a combined nearly 83 years.

“When I started working at Spectrum [Health] I thought, ‘This is incredible,’” Harms told ABC News. “My grandmother worked here and my mom worked here and now I work here and we’re all doing the same care for moms and babies.”

Harms, a mother of two, began working for Spectrum Health in 2012 after deciding to give up a career in music to follow the career paths of her mom, Sue Hoekstra, and grandmother, Mary Lou Wilkins.

PHOTO: Left to right; Christina Harms, 31, Mary Lou Wilkins, 86, and Sue Hoekstra, 56, are photographed at Spectrum Health in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Health Beat, the news service of Spectrum Health
Left to right; Christina Harms, 31, Mary Lou Wilkins, 86, and Sue Hoekstra, 56, are photographed at Spectrum Health in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

Harms works nights in the labor and delivery department while her mother works day shifts in the postpartum department at the same hospital. Hoekstra helps care for Harms’ children during the day, just as her mother, Wilkins, did when Hoekstra was a young mom working the night shift.

“My kids grew up with [Wilkins] as their day care provider as I slept and now I’m doing the same thing for my daughter,” said Hoekstra, 56, the mother of two sons in addition to Christina.

Family tradition

It was Wilkins, now 86, who began the family tradition when she started her nursing career in 1949.

She worked the night shift as well so she could be home with her three children during the day. Wilkins described herself as “really pleased” when her only daughter, Hoekstra, chose to enter the nursing profession too.

Hoekstra graduated from the same nursing school as her mom and, in 1981, started working at the same Michigan hospital.

The pair overlapped in their time at the hospital for nearly a decade.

“It was fun because I could tell right away, especially when I was working with her, that this was her real niche,” Wilkins said of her daughter. “It was rather unusual, the fact that we were able to work together in the same unit, a mother and daughter.”

Wilkins retired from nursing in 1991. She called it a “once-in-a-lifetime moment” when, 20 years later, she traveled to Colorado with Hoekstra to watch Harms graduate from nursing school in 2011.

PHOTO: From left, Christina Harms, Sue Hoekstra and Mary Lou Wilkins are seen in each of their nursing graduation photos. Courtesy of Christina Harms, Sue Hoekstra, Mary Lou Wilkins
From left, Christina Harms, Sue Hoekstra and Mary Lou Wilkins are seen in each of their nursing graduation photos.

Harms is still stopped at work to this day by people who worked with Wilkins.

“It is cool share little laughs and stories,” she said. “Most of the nurses have retired but there are still secretaries there who remember her fondly.”

Harms and her mom have also had instances where Harms will help deliver a baby and then send the new mom off to her own mom, Hoekstra, for care in the postpartum department. In one instance, Harms helped deliver the third baby of a family whose first child had been taken care of by Hoekstra.

“It is so incredible that all three of us have helped build so many families and we have such a passion for these moms and their babies,” Harms said. “We love taking care of them.”

Harms’ supervisor at Butterworth Hospital, Annie Evans, said she often sees moms and daughters as nurses but three generations of nurses all working in the same specialty is more unique.

“A common trait for nurses is they’re a strong caregiver type and that really does get passed on generation to generation,” said Evans, whose mom was also a nurse.

"We’re just really proud to be able to be a part of the legacy and to have these women here it means quite a bit,” she said. “They’re very professional about it and it’s just kind of a nice gift that they’re able to share their traits and strengths with us.”

The miracle of birth

PHOTO: Sue Hoekstra, Mary Lou Wilkins and Christina Harms are photographed together in this undated family photo. Courtesy Sue Hoekstra
Sue Hoekstra, Mary Lou Wilkins and Christina Harms are photographed together in this undated family photo.

Wilkins said she loves being able to “relate visually” in her mind to what her daughter and granddaughter are doing at work. The three generations also swap stories about how much has changed since Wilkins started as a labor and delivery nurse in 1949.

“Babies all slept in the nursery and were all fed with bottles overnight,” recalled Wilkins, also remembering the days of cloth diapers and paper records. “In the morning, we’d ring a bell down the hallway to get the moms up and ready for their babies.”

Hoekstra said there were “no dads around” when she started, adding that the hospital now features cots for dads to sleep in the hospital.

“Now it’s a family affair,” she said.

Even with the changes, all three generations of nurses separately gave the same answer when asked what stands out about being a nurse in their specialty of labor and delivery and postpartum care.

“The actual miracle of birth, becoming a parent, the whole process, it’s just a gift that I can be a part of that with families,” said Hoekstra.

“The miracle of birth is still in my mind just so incredible,” said Wilkins. “We call it God’s gift, that first breath, and when that baby is put up on its mom, that’s just incredible.”

Said Harms, “At every birth you get emotional and there is nothing sweeter than the sound of a baby starting to cry.”