Florence Rigney was at a Starbucks last week with her niece when two women approached and asked if they could have their photo taken with her.
“I was flabbergasted,” Rigney said. “They’d seen me on TV or the Internet and recognized me. One of them said, ‘I went to Clover Park High School,’ and I said, ‘So did I. I graduated in 1943.”
Then, she was Florence May Kulenski, born in a Tacoma house at 1434 E. 28th St. All she wanted to be was a nurse, and she went to nursing school at Tacoma General Hospital, graduating in 1946.
Since then, she married twice, outliving both husbands. She adopted two children and watched one die in his 30s. She traveled the world, once driving in an RV from Tacoma to Buffalo, New York.
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And last week, when Rigney turned 90 years old, the CEO of MultiCare hospitals, Bill Robertson, confirmed that she is the oldest working nurse in America — still on staff at Tacoma General two days a week.
“I think I celebrated my birthday for three days with everyone,” Rigney said. “I’m told I’ve gotten interview requests from Europe and Australia. I do have Internet, and I went on and saw my story popping up as far away as Africa.
“At first, it was a little embarrassing. But I do feel honored. It’s just a little out of proportion.”
As long as the international media is going to tell her story, Rigney said, she does wish the facts would be ... well ... more factual.
“They’ve gotten dates mixed up and said I no longer work with patients!” Rigney said. “I work with patients. I’m an operating room nurse. That was my first love in nursing, and I’m still doing it.”
Rigney started nursing at Tacoma General and — nearly 70 years later — is still working there. That doesn’t mean she stayed put her entire career.
“In 1947, I decided I was going to California,” she recalled. “I went with friends and got a job in Oakland, moved into the nurse’s home. Two weeks, I got homesick. I left and came home again.”
She met John Rigney and the two married in 1950. He was in the service, and everywhere he went, she went — as a nurse.
“I worked at Georgia Baptist Hospital in Atlanta, then in San Antonio, Texas, for more than a year,” Rigney said. “John went to Korea, and I came back to Tacoma General. When he came home, they sent us to Wyoming, and I worked in Cheyenne Memorial.”
The couple returned to Tacoma — and Tacoma General Hospital — in 1953, and four years later adopted daughter Doralyn. In 1960, they adopted a son, Johnny, and Rigney became a stay-at-home mom.
“I went back to work at TG when my daughter went to college,” she said. “Then my husband died too young, at 49, in 1977. Our son Johnny died in his early 30s of congestive heart failure.”
Rigney kept nursing.
“I retired on Oct. 31, 19. .... I keep forgetting,” she said. “It was 1990. I had 17 years in as a full-time nurse at Tacoma General. I stayed home six months and came back — and I’ve worked 25 years since then.”
Rigney doesn’t pretend things haven’t changed throughout her career, although not everything has.
“I still stand when a doctor comes into a patient room,” she said, “and I won’t address doctors by their first names, though some do now.”
Aside from manners?
“Operating rooms are so much more technical!” she said. “Patients have shorter hospital stays, robot surgery has been a tremendous boon. Student nurses now learn monitors and more tech knowledge. And actual patient care has improved considerably.”
Three years ago, Rigney lost her second husband, Rudy Holt. She lives alone now, using the last name of her first husband.
“I’ve got three lovely grandchildren, and Doralyn lives in Gig Harbor,” she said. “Some day I’ll probably give this nursing up, but I don’t know when. Every February now, I get together in Palm Desert, California, just three widows, and we relax.
“I look back at the opportunities I’ve had, the things I’ve done, I feel blessed. I’m still a surgery nurse.”