Kathy Gray is the glue that holds her community together. She first became a nurse at Munson Medical Center over 50 years ago and has been providing care at home and abroad ever since. She recently received the Alumni Service Award from Michigan State University, one of the school’s highest honors, for her lifetime of service.
During the ceremony, Gray thanked all the people who have supported her over the last 50 years. “I got on stage at Michigan State and said ‘Listen, it is not just me,’” she recounted. “It takes a village; nothing happens in a vacuum.”
Chris Lane, the pastor of Central United Methodist Church, referred to Gray as the “matriarch” of the community.
She knew she wanted to be a nurse from a young age. “I wasn’t somebody who played with dolls, except my sister’s dolls, and I would line them up in the hallway in our house in California and I would play hospital ship.”
When Gray started working as a registered nurse at Munson in 1977, the pay was just $12.34 an hour. She started in the coronary care department but eventually moved up to the ICU and emergency department, but the facility wasn’t exactly equipped for urgent care.
“Back in those days, if we had anyone who was in a terrible accident or who had a gunshot wound, they had to be taken by ambulance — since there was no helicopter service — down to Grand Rapids,” Gray said. “So, we started campaigning for a trauma center.”
She said the hospital didn’t have 24-hour anesthesia onsite, which made it nearly impossible to treat trauma victims. This marked the beginning of Gray’s career as an advocate for her community.
“I always, always, always wanted to do mission work,” she said. “I wanted to go somewhere else and take care of people that couldn’t take care of themselves.”
After transforming Munson, she traveled to Zambia as a nurse practitioner where she helped screen 800 children for AIDS and HIV.
“That was heartbreaking,” she said. “Because you go and you spend the time and the money to go to these places that desperately need help, and then we left, with no follow-up.”
But the trip didn’t have the lasting effect she hoped it would. She remembers getting back home and crying because she hadn’t done more to help the children she met.
“I just sobbed, what had I done,” she said. “So, I was determined that any kind of mission trip I went on again would have lasting effects.”
Three years later, she got another chance to provide care abroad when she was selected to serve as an NP on the mercy ship, MV Anastasis where she spent her time treating the child soldiers of the Liberian Civil War and women who had been victims of genital cutting.
“I’ve been a big supporter of mercy ships, because I know how important it is the work that they do there.”
She has also worked with the Central United Methodist Church to organize mission trips in Haiti. The work resulted in the opening of the Women’s Health and Birth Center in the country several years later. Gray collected over $130,000 for the project from various donors in the U.S.
“Everybody had lost a wife, a mother, a sister, a child, a neighbor who had died during childbirth,” Gray said of the work she did in Haiti. “So that was the beginning for the push to build a women’s clinic and a midwifery center there.”
“Kathy is this interesting mix of maternal energy, approachability by people who do not speak her language, and this medical expertise that she’s comfortable to engage in,” Lane said. “She’s a renaissance woman.”
Gray said she has no plans to retire from volunteering and looks forward to helping more people in the future.
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