Bancy Gatimu is celebrating a historic milestone this week at OHSU’s Doernbecher Children’s Hospital in Oregon. She is retiring after working at the same facility for 43 years, making her the hospital’s oldest and longest-tenured nurse. But her journey as a healthcare provider has been anything but ordinary.
Gatimu grew up in Kenya where she was treated in a hospital for malaria at the age of six. This marked the beginning of her 10,000-mile journey to Portland.
“Two nurses there were so kind to me,” said Gatimu, who turns 70 in a few weeks. “They did everything for me. I just loved them. Because of them I dreamed of being a nurse.”
She became a pediatric acute care registered nurse because she loved caring for children.
“When you love your job, it is not a job,” she said. “I take care of children whose parents I once took care of. They see me and call me grandma from the hospital.”
Gatimu went on to graduate from college and nursing school in Kenya. She then worked as a registered nurse at a hospital in Nairobi, a city of 4 million and Kenya’s capital. Because she was single, hospital officials ultimately decided to assign her to work far from the city in what Gatimu describes as “the bushes.”
“That’s where nurses were needed,” she explained. “They sent nurses there who had no family ties. I worked closely with a physician’s assistant.”
She eventually met one of the assistant’s friends, born and raised in Kenya, who was coming from Portland to take care of one of his parents, both of whom lived in the area where Gatimu lived and worked.
“I met this friend,” said Gatimu. “He was a teacher in Portland. When he returned to his home, we started a long-distance relationship. He later took a sabbatical. He came to me. We got to know each other. We married in Kenya, and we moved to Portland.”
His name was Simon. He and Gatimu arrived on the West Coast in 1978 in the middle of a terrible winter storm.
“I woke up one morning and saw white stuff on the ground,” she said. “I woke my husband up to ask him if that was what they call snow. I had never seen snow. I ran out to play like a kid. I took pictures and sent them to my family in Kenya.”
She soon found work at Doernbecher. At the time it was not a stand-alone building, but simply a dedicated floor in the main OHSU hospital.
“We had four patients to a room,” said Gatimu. “When parents came to be with their children, we had to give them a mattress to sleep on the floor. Now we have our own beautiful building.”
Over the course of her decades-long career, she has developed a strong connection to her patients, some of whom she has been treating since they were born. She recently caught up with a man in his 20s. “I have been caring for him since he was little,” she said. “Back then he would run up to me and call me ‘mom.’ He still calls me that when he sees me. Some parents of patients who hear that are puzzled because he is white, and I am Black.”
She has also ushered in a new generation of nurses.
Gatimu mentored Jessica Dizon-Rosales, 38, when she came to work as a registered nurse at Doernbecher 15 years ago.
“I love her,” said Dizon-Rosales. “She’s an amazing nurse and human who has touched the professional lives of a generation of nurses who have worked here.”
She says Gatimu worked “in the trenches” with the other nurses during COVID-19.
“We learn by listening to her and by asking questions,” said Dizon-Rosales. “She has been around the field and this hospital for so long that she is an institution.”
But Gatimu learned from the younger nurses as well.
“I work with some nurses who are younger than my youngest grandson,” said Gatimu. “They know so much about the computers. We all take classes on how to use them, but then something changes and I must do something new, and I forget how to do it. They teach me with such patience.”
Dizon-Rosales says everyone at the hospital, including the other nurses, doctors, and patients, will all miss Gatimu now that she has retired.
“She’s one of those people you remember in life,” said Dizon-Rosales. “When she walks into the room, she lights it up. Our floor is going to be a little bit dimmer.”
On her last day, another charge nurse took over Gatimu’s traditional role so she could enjoy a party held in her honor.
“I said goodbye to the nurses and doctors,” she said. “There are young doctors I worked with long ago when they were medical students and then residents.”
Gatimu said she became “very emotional” when she attempted to log onto the hospital’s internal newsletter and was notified that her account had been discontinued.
On Wednesday, she remembered the little girl she once was.
“I love what I did,” she said. “I loved it.”