Pam Godfrey (left) tells Velma Blackwell how much she will be missed as part of the Northside Hospital Cherokee nursing team. Blackwell recently retired after more than 40 years at the hospital. CONTRIBUTED BY DANA JOHNSON
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Life with Gracie: Cherokee’s first black nurse takes friend’s illness as cue to retire

The email said that Velma Blackwell had decided to retire and her colleagues were planning to throw a celebration in her honor at Northside Hospital Cherokee. It was hard to fathom.

When I met the 71-year-old nurse back in April, retirement didn’t quite figure into her future. She balked at even the suggestion because, well, the hospital was poised to move into a new building and Blackwell was determined to make the move with it.

“All the things I’ve gone through here, I deserve to go,” she said at the time.

Blackwell’s days at Northside Hospital date back to March 1, 1969, when African-Americans weren’t allowed to hold the title “nurse” or eat with their white colleagues in the hospital cafeteria. And even though there were black nurses to precede her, Blackwell was the first to hold the title.

White colleagues agreed to work with her, but they would not eat with her. Blacks rejected her because they believed she “was playing for the other team.”

“I didn’t have many friends, black or white,” Blackwell said, “but it wasn’t all doom and gloom.”

RELATED: At 71, Northside Cherokee’s first black nurse still endures

Howell Stewart offers his congratulations to Velma Blackwell, who recently retired from Northside Hospital Cherokee. Stewart and Blackwell have been friends since her first days as a nurse at the hospital. CONTRIBUTED BY DANA JOHNSON
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

She would spend the next 40 or so years working in labor and delivery, the intensive care unit, and orthopedics. The last 15 were in medical surgery.

When her longtime friend and colleague Barbara Anderson, the woman who’d talked Blackwell into staying to witness Northside Cherokee’s move to its new facility, fell ill again back in May, Blackwell knew it was time to make her exit. Without Anderson, Northside would never be the same again.

“We were a team,” she said through tears.

Besides having worked together, they’d been each other’s biggest supporters. When Blackwell’s sister was diagnosed with ovarian cancer, Anderson was there. When her brother-in-law became ill, she was there, too. And when her husband, Samuel, had bladder cancer, ditto.

But Blackwell had been there for her friend, too. For years, while Anderson battled breast cancer, Blackwell held her hand. And when it spread to her hip, Blackwell was at her side.

“She’d fight, fight, fight,” Blackwell remembered.

But this last time was different.

“This last time, this last time, she was losing weight,” Blackwell said, her lips trembling.

Anderson had some gastric bleeding. Her liver wasn’t working properly.

“You know I love you, don’t you?” Blackwell remembered telling her during a hospital visit.

They hugged and kissed and Blackwell closed the door behind her.

That was in May.

“I knew it would be the last time,” Blackwell said. “My heart was broken and I made my decision to leave right then and there.”

RELATED: 6 Things To Do 6 Years Before Retiring

Velma Blackwell (center) bids farewell to Northside Hospital Cherokee colleagues Renee Reece and Katie Silakowski at her retirement celebration on July 19. CONTRIBUTED BY DANA JOHNSON
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

On June 13, she gave her manager the customary two-week notice.

At exactly 3:15 a.m. July 7, Blackwell got the call she’d been dreading. Barbara Anderson was dead.

Pam Godfrey, manager of the hospital’s general medicine/oncology unit and Blackwell’s supervisor for the past six years, said her heart sank when she received the official notice.

“It was bittersweet,” Godfrey said. “Because of who she is, her love for the profession and co-workers, it changes the dynamic of the entire group.”

Her last day on the floor was June 30.

RELATED: Retired UGA doc finds love at mailbox

She returned last week to celebrate with family and friends, church members and colleagues, who took their turns taking photos, trading hugs and congratulations.

Each week, Gracie Bonds Staples will bring you a perspective on life in the Atlanta area. Life with Gracie runs online Tuesday, Thursday and alternating Fridays.
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Blackwell cried a lot, but they were happy tears.

“God put some great people in my path,” she said. “I miss them terribly.”

But she’s excited, too.

“I can go to bed when I get ready. I can get up when I get ready, and I can go fishing when I get ready. I don’t fish, but I got a lot of things on my plate that I want to do.”

Chief among those, she said, are plans to take a cross-country train ride with her husband, Samuel. It’ll be a 50th wedding anniversary gift she’s been saving for for a long time.

“We’re looking forward to it,” she said.

In other news:

School Nurse Saves Boy After Noticing Signs Of Deadly Leukemia

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