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Healthy Balance

65 Years a UVA Nurse: Betty Phillips’s Story

UVA RN Betty Phillips

At the end of every shift, Betty Phillips, RN, walks down the steps and says, "Goodbye, UVA." Arriving home, she opens her front door and announces, "Welcome home, Betty!" This has been her ritual every day since she began her career at UVA almost 65 years ago.

Back then, she cared for patients with tuberculosis (TB). Now, she deals with the COVID-19 pandemic. But no matter how busy her day is, being able to separate work and home keeps Betty grounded and gives her strength through the toughest times.

Betty is no stranger to hardship. Her parents divorced before she can remember. Soon after, her mother was diagnosed with cancer. She died when Betty was just three years old. Betty moved from Washington, D.C., to Charlottesville to live with her uncle and aunt.

Inspired by Tragedy

Betty found solace and purpose on her grandmother's farm in Greene County. Her grandmother had a special knack for making mustard plasters. To this day, many consider these a home remedy for coughs, congestion, aches, and pains.

"The local physician, Dr. Foster, would frequently come to my grandmother and say, 'Mrs. Dickerson, I have done everything I can for this patient. It's now in your hands and in God's,'" Betty remembers.

"What are you doing?" little Betty would ask as her grandmother prepared the mustard mixture. "I'm trying really hard to save people's lives and make them well," her grandmother would reply.

Betty paid close attention as her grandmother covered the mustard mixture with rags. She applied the same technique to the only doll she owned. During the wrapping and saving of her "baby" day in and day out, nurse Betty was born.

From Baby Dolls to "Big People"

From age 4, Betty told everyone she was going to be a nurse and "save big people" like her grandmother. She never wavered from her plan. Betty graduated with honors in 1956 from the School of Nursing at Blue Ridge Sanatorium (BRS). At the time, the sanatorium cared for patients with TB.

After years working between UVA and BRS, Betty continued her education at Piedmont Virginia Community College.

"Life bounces you back and forth and breaks you sometimes, but then it always opens a door."

UVA nurse Betty Phillips

By then, Betty had married Bill, her high school sweetheart and best friend. They have two sons and a daughter.

"I was lucky to have an excellent partner who knew how much I loved studying and being on top of things at work, so he supported me in going back to school," she says.

Every midterm, she asked Bill to take the kids for the weekend and slept at the sanatorium until she knew everything on the test. "I just wanted to be the best nurse I could possibly be," Betty explains.

She graduated cum laude in 1975 with an associate's degree in nursing. In 1986, she earned her bachelor of science in nursing (BSN) from UVA.

Nursing Through the Years

At the beginning of Betty's career, nursing looked very different. With fewer medications and less equipment, nurses took on a more hands-on role — rubbing backs, changing sheets, mixing medications. Patients stayed in the hospital far longer than they do now, so nurses got to know their patients well.

But one thing that hasn't changed: Betty's desire to help her colleagues succeed and advance. She makes sure patient care assistants get recognition. She worked nightshifts for fellow nurses. She grabbed lunch for her physician partner because "he looked hungry."

"If I see people struggling and I know I can help them, I do," Betty explains. "I believe we should help make other people's lives as good as we possibly can."

"A Shining Star"

Betty retired in 1996 but returned to UVA in 1998 after missing her patients, her colleagues, and, as she says, "using my brain." She has worked part-time in the Plastic Surgery Clinic ever since.

"Betty Phillips is one of those lucky people who found what they were put on earth to do — take care of people. It is clearly part of her soul and who she is," gushes pediatric plastic surgeon Jonathan Black, MD. "Her experience is second to none, as she often knows what the patients need surgically before I see them. Betty is a shining star that has burned brightly at UVA for almost 65 years."

Betty knows she may someday have to retire for good. In the meantime, she keeps herself active by working, exercising every morning, and walking in the evenings. Above all, she stays grateful — for the uncle and aunt who adopted her, for the 62 years she had with Bill before he died in 2019, for her two sons, one daughter, six grandchildren, and one great-granddaughter, and for a job she has loved for a lifetime.

"I am indeed grateful for all my years at UVA," Betty says. "They are everything I wished for when I was a little girl. That and the perfect guy made life wonderful for me."

Betty's tips for finding balance:

This story was originally published on Connect, our employee news website, and has been adapted for Healthy Balance.

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