by Corbie Hill | Photography by Diana Matthews
When David Beam’s wife went into labor with the couple’s second child, it was 4 a.m. on a Saturday, but Beam knew who to call. The senior pastor of Pinehurst United Methodist church called Shirley Baldwin, who stayed with the couple’s two-year-old, allowing them to rush to the hospital. This is simply what Baldwin does. As Pinehurst UMC’s parish nurse, she’s there to help — no matter the hour, no matter the need.
“She has journeyed with hundreds of church members and non-church members alike through sickness, grief and uncertainty — offering them a calm presence and a word of hope every step of the way,” Beam writes in an email.
Baldwin accompanies parishioners to their surgeries. She visits hospitals and does follow-up care. Parishioners call, describing their symptoms and asking if they should see a doctor. She cooks for people, and she’ll drive them to their appointments — even if it means a trip to Raleigh or Chapel Hill. Baldwin takes her calling as parish nurse very seriously. And she does not sit still. Cathy Wibbens compares her to the Energizer Bunny.
“We feel very fortunate as a church to have Shirley,” says Wibbens, Pinehurst UMC’s ministry assistant. “We say she’s part of our staff. She’ll tell you that she just volunteers, but she’s an integral part of what we do.”
Yet what drives Baldwin? How did the little girl from rural Columbia, Kentucky with a passion for nursing grow up to travel the world, working as a coronary care and ICU nurse and nursing instructor? Why, when she retired, did she not step away from her beloved job, but lean into it as a parish nurse and a Moore Free Clinic volunteer? And how does a woman who survived the September 11th attacks move forward with grace and confidence, tirelessly helping others?
“As a pastor, I couldn’t be more thankful to have Shirley as part of my church community,” says Beam. “As a friend, I couldn’t be more thankful to have her as part of my life.”
Baldwin sat down with OutreachNC to speak about her life. Our conversation has been edited for length.
Corbie Hill: When did medicine first appeal to you?
Shirley Baldwin: At the age of six. At that time I realized that I really wanted to be a nurse, so I spent my high school years studying mainly sciences. I came from a very poor background — my parents could not afford to send me to college — so the only way I could get to a college was to make sure I had good enough grades to get a scholarship.
After I graduated from high school I applied to Midway Junior College. It was a girls’ school that was going to start a two-year nursing program, which would then be a part of the University of Kentucky. They did not get a nursing program; therefore I applied to Kentucky Baptist School of Nursing.
I applied there and was turned down because they said I didn’t make the grade. A week before I was going back to Midway Junior College, I got a call from Kentucky Baptist saying they apologize for the miscommunication, but they had given me the pre-med exam instead of the nursing exam. After they reevaluated, they decided I would be a good candidate for the school.
So they gave you an exam that was how many levels above what you were applying for?
Several (laughs). After that, I went to Kentucky Baptist, was there for three years. My next to the last rotation was in the intensive care unit. I really enjoyed it except that one of my instructors at that time said that I would never make an ICU nurse. I was too compassionate. That didn’t sit real well with me. After graduation I started working in the ICU.
That doesn’t sound like the kind of quality one would perceive as being negative.
I don’t know if she was being negative or if she was pushing me. Anyway, she pushed the right button because I started in intensive care. From then on, throughout our travels, I alternated between coronary care and intensive care.
What drew you to the ICU?
It was challenging. I guess I was an adrenaline junkie at that time. People could come in and they were on death’s door. The next minute, they were sitting up, laughing, talking, carrying on.
You moved all over the country because your husband was in the Air Force. What were some of the places you lived?
We lived in Illinois, New Mexico, California, Florida, Alabama, Virginia, England, and then we kept bouncing from Alabama to Virginia. My husband went to the War College and then spent time in the Pentagon and then back to Alabama, where he was on faculty and I, after I got my master’s, was on faculty there as well.
What were some of your favorite places?
My favorite place actually was England. It was unique. They spoke English, but not English. The neat part about it was I got to travel. Being from a small town of 1300 people that had never been out of the state of Kentucky, when we were in England I was able to visit the continent as well. It was just phenomenal to see history living. We visited all the cathedrals in England. I got to go to Greece and Corinth.
I stood on the rock where Peter preached. That was fascinating.
We actually were in Russia in 1976, during the time of pure communism, and my husband had just received his top-secret clearance. We were followed, and the reason we know we were followed is because when we took pictures, there was the same man in every picture, regardless of the day.
During my travels I had been working on my bachelor’s degree. For 12 years I had been trying to get my bachelor’s. Each time you moved, each university had their own ideas for nursing, so I lost all my credits. When we got to Alabama, Auburn had what they called an RN mobility program, which meant that if you took 23 credit hours a quarter, you could graduate within a year. I decided to do that, and that’s when I graduated from Auburn with my bachelor’s in nursing.
That sounds pretty intense.
It was. Very intense. Then my husband was transferred back to Washington, DC where he worked at the Pentagon and I worked at Fairfax Hospital. Then he was transferred back to Alabama to be on the faculty as one of the directors, and I decided that I was going to get my master’s. I said, “Look, I have to have my master’s in a year,” and they said “No, we don’t do master’s in a year.” I said, “You gotta understand. I move around a lot and I want my master’s in a year.” I had to get special dispensation, so I got my master’s in education human performance, which is exercise physiology, in a year.
You don’t sound like the kind of person who puts aside down time. You sound like you go, go, go — or at least at that time. Is that accurate?
After that, we moved back to Washington and my husband went to the Pentagon and I went to the US Capitol and spent three years there, working in the attending physician’s office, taking care of the members of congress, both House and Senate.
What years would those have been?
Oh, ‘87, ‘88, ‘89.
After that, there was the Pentagon. I was in the Pentagon on 9/11, working in their clinic. I was the nurse educator.
Did you hear the…
No. Did not hear anything, because where the plane hit was not on the river side. The clinic was on the river side. The plan was for the plane to hit in the center of the Pentagon, which would have taken out pretty much everything. But I was involved with triage during that time.
The plane hit about 9:30 that morning and I did not reach
my family until late afternoon around 3:00. They didn’t know if I was alive or dead. My husband was at the Pentagon at that time. He was working as the CIO director at the National Defense University, and he saw the flames.
It was quite intense.
How do you deal with that?
Faith. God was in the midst of all of that. I truly believe that because otherwise I would not have been able to do what I did. I believe He was there during that time and caused the plane not to go where it needed to go. I was in a position to help a gentleman who was badly, badly burned … and got him to the hospital, who is now a senator in Texas. God was there. I kept trying to get to the other side [of the Pentagon], but God had another plan for me. I was to be there to help this gentleman to get to the hospital because he wasn’t finished with his life yet. Through a lot of prayer and knowing, having a good faith is the only thing that kept me comfortable with that.
How did you end up here?
My husband likes golf and we had good friends here we had been coming to visit. He liked the area, so we bought a lot. We moved down in ‘05.
How soon did you find this church?
The second or third Sunday we were here after we moved, I talked to Allen Bingham, who was our minister at the time, and said, “You know, I really would like to be a parish nurse here.” Right before we left Fairfax, we were members of the Fairfax United Methodist Church, and I had heard about parish nursing. [I] didn’t know anything about it, didn’t know why I started reading about it. It was just something that kind of gripped me, and I think, too, that is something we call a God wink — He was moving me in a direction He wanted me to go. So I got the position there, 20 hours a week, paid and approved, and then we moved here.
What does a parish nurse do?
Parish nursing is a part of the American Nurses Association. It has its own entity, so we’re not out in left field somewhere. You have to be certified, and I went through a program through Duke to get my certification. Allen helped me through that.
I call it a bridge between religion and nursing.
What you do mainly is, people who go to the doctor’s office, you sit there, you talk to them, you listen mainly, while the doctor is giving them information. Once you leave, then you heard what the doctor said. Sometimes when a person gets a bad diagnosis like cancer or ALS or any of those things that are devastating, your mind shuts down. You have no idea what the doctor said. Therefore, I could be with them, hear what the doctor said, and after they have gotten over the shock phase I can explain to them what goes on.
With our church members, I explain the medication, explain treatments. When they’re going for surgery, whether it’s 5 a.m. or 6 p.m., I will go and have prayer with them before they have surgery. I do hospital visits. I do nursing home visits. If they want me to come into their home, I will go into their homes. I have office hours every Wednesday from 8:00 until noon here. People are allowed to come in here and talk to me about anything. It’s all confidential — nothing is sent out into the world.[Parish nursing is also] helping them through a grieving process. Being with them when their family member is dying, or being with them after a death, at that time.
It’s religion and medicine combined.
You also volunteer at a number of places.
I volunteer at Moore Free Clinic one day a week. Moore Free Clinic is a free clinic that deals with people throughout Moore County who are uninsured or are working, but cannot afford insurance. We are their primary care facility. I work with diabetic and obese patients. I have my own clientele and I work with them trying to help them navigate their diet, exercise, and to have a healthier lifestyle, if you will. That is where the nursing and physiology comes into play. I do that for them. If they need an extra nurse to triage or whatever, I’ll help them out with that.
Several years ago, my husband and I took the citizen police academy class at Pinehurst Police Department, so we do directing traffic for special events, that sort of thing. I usually spend my Wednesday afternoons doing fingerprinting for them, so that’s an interesting avenue. I help at Habitat [for Humanity] with painting whenever we do Habitat houses. I have been involved with the Red Cross for years and years, and I teach CPR to laypeople, to church people, to anyone throughout the community. My time is free — I only charge for what the cost of the card is.
Why is this the right retirement for you?
It’s fulfilling. It is something that I am excited about. I have a passion, especially a passion for parish nursing, and also for Moore Free Clinic.
I want to help people, and helping people, to me, is the most important thing. And trying to be a servant — a good servant — to the people around me. I just enjoy giving back.