“We’ve been married 40 years this year. That’s a long time,” Mike Smith says. Turning, with a smile, to his wife Debbie, he asks, “What’s the secret?”
Debbie is quiet and reflects for a moment.
“We’re best friends. I think it’s the fact that we’re best friends,” she says, nodding her head as if to confirm her take.
Mike laughs and says, “I just do what she says. We have two sons, but she really raised three boys.”
Mike and Debbie are celebrating 35 years of service at East Alabama Medical Center, where they have endured the ups and downs of hospital life — with each other’s help. This holiday season will be no exception.
“I’ve got her back, she’s got my back,” Mike says. “We have the same goals in life. It’s family first and we take care of ourselves. We just wanted to be independent and have a family and raise them right and see grandbabies one day.”
Another grandbaby is on the way, due near Christmas, making this holiday season especially exciting for the couple. But getting through the holidays at the hospital isn’t always easy. Perhaps it’s gone smoothly for the Smiths thus far because they are best friends. They talked about their marriage and careers with the same reverence, indicating that nobody lasts this long without a partner in crime — in work and in play.
Mike and Debbie, who met their senior year of high school in Huntsville, got married during their college years, and graduated in 1982 from Auburn’s nursing program. They weren’t sure where they wanted to build a house and start a family, but they really liked East Alabama Medical Center and decided to stay in the area. They have two grown sons and a growing role as grandparents.
Indeed, what has sustained them in their long marriage has also sustained them in their long careers in health care — having a passion for what they do, Mike says.
“Really you have to have a passion, what they call a ‘servant’s heart,’ you have to want to help people,” he says.
Though they have ventured from where they started at EAMC so many years ago, they both have backgrounds in nursing.
“I went to work in the ICU and was there for a year and a half, then I moved to a surgical ICU,” Mike explains. “I went on to work in the Cardiovascular ICU where we recovered heart bypass patients. I did that for a dozen years. Then I went into education for a while, managed a step-down unit, and then came back to education.”
Mike says he has been back in education for eight or nine years, and his job is much more instructional than it used to be.
“I used to be right at the bedside with the patients; I did that for many years, but now my main role is education and training,” he says. “I develop and deliver training for nurses and nurse techs. Anything that comes through the hospital that requires training, I’m involved with that.”
Debbie also came into the field by way of the ICU but has focused on a different area of health care — labor and delivery.
“I worked in the medical ICU for about three years and then I decided I wanted to do something different. Mother-baby stuff always interested me, even in school,” she says. “I got lucky when there was an opening in the nursery, so I switched over there and I’ve been there ever since.”
Mike and Debbie say they can’t imagine doing anything else, and that working at EAMC over the years has been a true calling for them.
“It was a very good choice. When I was in high school, trying to decide what I wanted to do in college, I thought I wanted to be a teacher,” Debbie says. “There was a bad nursing shortage at the time, so I looked into it a little more and decided to try that route. I knew nothing about it, went in totally blind, but now it’s the best decision I ever made. I can’t imagine being a teacher.”
Debbie works directly with patients as a patient care coordinator, overseeing shifts, assisting her manager and fulfilling a leadership role with other nurses. She physically takes care of patients on the night shift from 6:45 p.m. to 7:15 a.m., a shift she says she wouldn’t trade for anything.
“I love the night shift. I’ve had many opportunities to go to day shift, but I love nights. For personal reasons, when our children were growing up, the night shift gave me flexibility. I could be home when I needed to be, I could be at games when I needed to be,” she says. “Now I’m just so used to it and I love the people who have the night shift mentality. I can’t imagine getting away from the bedside; I like it too much.”
The “servant’s heart” mentality that Mike mentioned is evident in the couple’s eagerness to work holidays. They know the duty comes with the job, and they say they’re proud to do it. Debbie, who does more traditional shift work than her husband, says she often volunteers to work for her colleagues so they can have time off or travel if they need to.
“It can be really busy during the holidays, believe it or not. You’d think only emergency things would be coming in, but you never know when a baby’s going to come,” she says. “Everybody that’s working is usually in good spirits. I’ve had good experiences working on holidays. It’s not been difficult for me. We each step up to the plate and work for each other when we need to.”
Mike, who works a more administrative role, typically has the holidays off now because he’s not taking care of patients directly, but he says he remembers those days.
“I remember when I was taking care of patients, and again it was never a problem,” he says. “It goes back to that servant’s heart, it’s just part of the job and you know, it’s hard when you have little kids, but we’ve had Christmas on the 24th of December, or the 26th of December, little kids don’t know the date. It’s all about your family and how you react to it and you make it work.”
Debbie says a major benefit to working the holidays is all the food that’s brought in.
“There’s always a lot of food so that makes everyone happy,” she says with a laugh.
Working at the hospital is primarily a happy job for Debbie, but she says it’s not always a celebration.
“Working with babies and people having babies, the majority of the time it’s happy and joyous but then we do have cases that are not. I can think of times that are both ways that I’ll never forget, times that tug on your heart,” she says.
Mike echoes her sentiment.
“There’s so many positive things that have happened at work, but then it’s a hospital and sometimes it’s a sad place and that’s hard. So many examples of both happy and sad situations.”
Some of the happier moments for Mike involve a sense of playfulness that is often in short supply in hospitals. He says he used to make up nonsense holiday words and decorate patient doors with them.
“I made up sleble glinge and nöetlin shin,” Mike says, laughing. “Those words don’t mean anything, but people to this day still ask me about sleble glinge and nöetlin shin.”
Mike says a little sense of humor will help anyone get through the rougher parts of the job and life in general.
In addition to the support of her husband, Debbie says what makes the unhappy times more manageable are the relationships she’s built over the years with fellow nurses and other staff members.
“I’m proud of the relationships I’ve had over the years; that is probably the most rewarding thing for me, is seeing the people I’ve worked with and trained, and knowing that I’ve been a part of their training and seeing what great nurses they’ve become. That’s really rewarding,” she says.
Debbie adds she is also touched by the ordinary little moments she’s able to witness in the rooms with the mothers and babies.
“My favorite thing is when the rest of the family gets to come in the room to see the baby after it’s born,” she says. “Usually, it’s the mom and her significant other but not a lot of other family in the room when she delivers. And I’m at the deliveries taking care of the babies. I always like it if I’m still in the room when the rest of the family comes in. Seeing the family bond with the new baby is always fantastic; it never grows old.”
The Smiths seem to have navigated the terrain of life, love and career and seem grateful for the chance to explore it together. While EAMC can be a crazy place during the holidays, Mike and Debbie Smith seem confident they can handle it, and their holiday spirits are in high gear.
“We’re excited for another grandchild, and I’m supposed to work Christmas night, so that’s fun,” Debbie says.