Joan Caldarella, R.N., is celebrating her golden anniversary as a nurse at a Massachusetts community hospital by riding her Harley Davidson motorcycle over the Golden Gate Bridge. Despite decades of change in the nursing profession, the 72-year-old Mrs. Caldarella has helped at least 80,000 patients in a career of extraordinary stability at Beth Israel Deaconess Hospital-Needham. "I enjoy it so, I hate to let it go," says Mrs. Caldarella, who has no plans to retire. "I get as much from my patients as they get from me." She has also logged more than 80,000 miles on a series of Harley Davidson motorcycles since the day in the mid-1980s when she started riding as a lark. Soon her late husband joined her. With him and, after he died, with motorcycling friends, she has traveled all over the West and Canada on her big Harley Road King.
In mid-May, she said, she and a friend will leave for a month-long cross-country trek. Around June 1, she expects to fulfill a long-time objective of crossing the Golden Gate Bridge on her Hog. Mrs. Caldarella's reputation as a Harley-riding Florence Nightingale has made her something of a hospital celebrity as she makes her way from room to room. "She told me about her trip when she changed my IV this morning," said Patrick Bentz in Room 235, age 65, who was recovering from knee surgery. "I forgot all about the pain." A petite woman with a soft voice, who dotes on her five grandchildren, Mrs. Caldarella cuts an unusual figure in black leather, helmet and boots. The vanity license plate on one of her bikes says "GRAM." She says she is especially proud of a black leather vest covered in pins marking her participation in countless rallies and other cycling events that raised funds for health care-related causes. During the summer months, mounted on a bike with a sidecar, she delivers Traveling Meals to senior citizens near her residence in Mendon, Mass. Mrs. Caldarella, who keeps getting back on her bike despite a couple of minor accidents, commands respect. "She is an incredibly conscientious, hands-on nurse," says Heidi Alpert, R.N., a clinical director who oversees the inpatient unit in which Mrs. Caldarella works. "Patients love her. She really focuses on ensuring that her rooms are clean and well-organized, and her patients are comfortable."
Over the years since 1955, when Mrs. Caldarella walked into her job as a pediatric and medical/surgical nurse at the Needham municipal hospital, she has witnessed dramatic changes in health care. She saw many community hospitals in the Boston area close. While her hospital survived, serving much the same middle-class, suburban community as it always has, it is now a private institution affiliated with Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in downtown Boston. The hospital's patients today are older and sicker, Mrs. Caldarella says. Back in the 1950s, she recalls, "After patients had been here a week or two, doctors used to say, 'Are you ready to go home? No? Well, why don't you stay another night.' " But shorter hospital stays are really a good thing, according to Mrs. Caldarella. "We didn't have IV antibiotics when I started nursing. Patients recover more rapidly now and they do very well going home quickly." Another change Mrs. Caldarella favors is the advent of hospitalists, often younger doctors who care for other doctors' patients while they are in the hospital. "There's always a doctor a few steps away," Mrs. Caldarella says. "It's an efficient way of delivering care." In the 1950s, hospitals provided nurses with free food, starched uniforms and a residence, Mrs. Caldarella recalls without sentimentality. However, one thing she does miss is the sociability that nurses used to enjoy. "We were always busy, but the pace has really accelerated," says Mrs. Caldarella, who says she met her dearest friends at the hospital. "I still come in an hour early so I can take a break, but there's often no one in the nurses' lounge to take a break with." Much of the sociability these days is with patients. "They all have something to give back to you," she says. April 13, 2005