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Phyllis Norman Knobel cures with kindness

September 17, 2008
By YVONA FAST, Special to the Enterprise

If you've been to the emergency room in years past, you may have met Phyllis Norman Knobel. A dedicated nurse, she elicits trust in her patients and those she worked with.

Phyllis was born on a blustery winter night in 1923 at her parent's Bloomingdale farm. A true farmer, her father raised everything he could himself. Phyllis helped her father with haying and worked with her mother to prepare food for the family's five farmhands.

When she finished high school, Phyllis went to Simmons College in Boston - a school of her mother's choosing, not her own. She loved to read, so her mother wanted her to become a librarian. However, when they met with the dean at the end of her second year, Phyllis said she wanted to be a nurse. The dean told her mother, "This girl doesn't want to be a librarian. Don't force her!" So Phyllis went back home.

Article Photos

Phyllis Norman Knobel
(Photo — Yvona Fast)

During her stay at Simmons College, Phyllis was often sick. The dean encouraged her mother to take her to a doctor, and later, Phyllis had her appendix removed. While taking her stitches out after the surgery, Dr. Warner Woodruff asked Phyllis if she wanted to go back to Simmons. She answered with an emphatic "No! I want to go forward, not back! I want to be a nurse!"

Dr. Woodruff informed her mom, "She wants to be a nurse; why don't you want her to?"

Since most nurses in this area worked at tuberculosis sanatoriums, her mother feared Phyllis would contract the disease.

Phyllis told them, "All my life I've worked hard. I've delivered vegetables from our family farm to Trudeau Sanatorium. I want to be a nurse."

Dr. Woodruff promised to help her get into the next class at the University of Rochester, and Phyllis began nursing studies there that February.

During her senior year, Phyllis met Ray, a handsome man who had just gotten out of the army medical corps.

"I brought this nice soldier home to meet my folks," Phyllis said. "They didn't want me to marry him, but I said sorry, we're already engaged."

Her parents again pressured her to go to a different library school, but Phyllis stuck firm to her desire to be a nurse.

Just a few weeks after graduation, she had married Ray on June 28, 1947 at the Trudeau chapel and begun work at the Ray Brook sanatorium under Dr. Gordon.

In just 15 short months, 15 out of the 20-some patients on her floor when she started had died of TB, including one baby.

"It was very depressing," Phyllis said. "I loved that baby. I cared for him. I stayed there because of him." When that little baby died, it tore Phyllis apart. She went to the chief of medical staff, and said that she still wanted to be a nurse, but couldn't continue working there.

The head nurse was against letting her go, but Dr. Gordon said, "This girl wants to raise a family."

Phyllis went straight from his office to the general hospital. They were desperate to find someone to work in the maternity ward and hired her right away.

Phyllis had worked in obstetrics for many years when she approached the director of nurses and said, "Julia, I can't work here. I'm alone all night in a nursery full of babies and mothers in labor."

Many times, she delivered the baby before the doctor arrived. Soon after, Phyllis transferred to the surgical division, where she worked nights so she could take care of her kids.

She wanted to be home with her four boys: Robert, Ricky, Rusty and Randy. Her husband, who had respiratory problems due to years of heavy smoking, was already on full-time oxygen and had suffered many falls and broken bones. Phyllis had also smoked; she recalls how she quit: "Mr. Murphy, the administrator at the hospital, didn't allow us to smoke at the nursing stations. One day, I set down my cigarettes and said, 'They won't own me.'" She had strong will and determination, and never went back to smoking.

She was also very involved in the community, both as a Girl Scout troop leader and at the Bloomingdale Methodist Church, where she played piano and sang in the choir. And she went to every basketball, football and hockey game her boys were in.

One day Julia said, "I've got just the place for you. I'm desperately in need of an emergency room nurse."

Phyllis replied, "Oh Julia, I can't do that!" She was afraid that, once more, she would be watching people die, but Julia said "No! You'll be bringing them back to life. We need your skills."

Phyllis came to love the emergency room and its staff, and worked there until retirement. On her first day, Dr. Carl Merkel said, "What do you have to do around here to get a nurse?"

Phyllis replied, "Holler at her!" They became friends for life.

One of her first patients had caught his hand in his boat motor. The doctor wanted to amputate; instead they worked to save it. She remembers holding and splinting his hand while the doctors set the fractures and sewed it up.

In her retirement, Phyllis was involved in the community through the Retired Senior Volunteer Program, and could often be found at blood drives or vaccination clinics at Saranac Lake's Adult Center.

A lifelong member of the Women's Civic Chamber, she and Ray drove halfway to Plattsburgh delivering Meals on Wheels.

Phyllis sums up, "I was meant to be a nurse. Even my mother had to admit it."

Phyllis had a purpose, loved the work and was good at what she did. She wishes she hadn't retired as early as she did.



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