At 82, a nurse called Mercy sees no need to retire

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Growing up in the Philippines, Mercedes “Mercy” Kallal dreamed of doing missionary work as a nun.

But her father wanted her to go into medicine.

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So after graduating from nursing school in Manila, she emigrated to Philadelphia for an entry-level job, still hoping to fulfill her childhood dream — until she met and married a man from Ohio.

Kallal went on to have a 50-year career as a registered nurse and intends to continue working at Jefferson Washington Township Hospital after she turns 83 in January.

“As long as I am mentally and physically able,” she said, “I would love to dedicate my remaining life to take care of patients... and to help people.”

A devout Catholic who loves gardening, casino gaming, horse racing, and travel, Kallal is employed full-time in the Post-Anesthesia Care Unit at Jefferson’s campus in Washington Township, Gloucester County. Supervisors and colleagues describe her as an invaluable team member.

“Mercy is a nurse’s nurse. She is always positive, always smiling, always busy in a good way,” said hospital vice president of operations Autum Shingler-Nace. “For a lot of nurses, this is a calling. As a nurse myself, she inspires me.”

Said Irene M. Houck, RN, the hospital’s director of surgical services: “Mercy is willing to switch shifts. She’ll pick up a holiday shift. And she takes call on nights and weekends — meaning, she is available to come in for an urgent or emergency surgery, the same as full-time staff half her age.

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“She’s always willing to come in to cover something extra, and help her younger co-workers balance life and work.”

Kallal was witty, down-to-earth, and candid during a mid-November interview in the hospital’s gleaming new Silvestri Tower.

She said her late husband, a speed-reading teacher and thoroughbred racing enthusiast named Arthur Kallal, had been a patient of hers in Philadelphia.

“He started calling me and saying he missed me and I thought, ‘What the heck is this? I’m supposed to become a nun.’ But we started dating.”

Because “no one believes” she’s five feet tall, “I tell them I’m four-feet, 12 inches,” she said.

And when asked about her seemingly boundless energy, she offered an anecdote about her paternal grandmother.

“We called her Lola, and when I said, ‘Lola, you need to use your cane,’ she said, ‘Canes are for old people.’ And she was 103!″

Kallal emigrated to the United States in 1969 under the Exchange Visitor Program. It was established in 1948 with the cooperation of the American Nurses Association and nursing schools in the Philippines, Europe, and elsewhere, to recruit recent graduates for jobs in American hospitals.

“I came with five of my co-graduates. We all went to Einstein Medical Center in South Philadelphia, where they put me in charge of 32 patients, and when I asked why, they said it was because I had a big mouth,” she said.

“I didn’t know the idiomatic expression, so I took it literally,” said Kallal, who’s fluent in English and Spanish and also can speak five Filipino dialects.

“After six months they put me in the ICU, and when I said I hadn’t worked in an ICU they told me, ‘You can learn.’ From there I went to St. Michael’s Hospital in Newark for a year.”

Returning to Philadelphia, she went to work as a nurse at the Veterans Administration hospital — in part, because her father always said he was grateful to the service of “GI Joes” in the Philippines during World War II.

Kallal became a U.S. citizen in the early 1970s and after six years left the VA for a job at the Sacred Heart nursing home in Germantown. It was operated by the Little Sisters of the Poor, and it gave her a chance to help an order of nuns whose work she admired. She even took and passed a state test so she could become certified as the administrator of the facility.

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Kallal went on to take a nursing job at Temple University Hospital, where she worked in the heart transplant unit and retired after 25 years.

But her lady-of-leisure experiment didn’t last long.

“I had 11 months and all I did was travel. I realized I better go back to work before I became a pauper,” Kallal said. “Besides, I live by myself now. How much can you clean?”

In 2012, she started working at what is now Jefferson Washington Township Hospital. It’s a five-minute commute from her home.

“At first, she was part-time,” said Michael Gault, RN, a PACU nurse since 2010. “We keep thinking she’ll slow down a bit, but she keeps picking up more shifts.

“Mercy never sits. She’s always wiping something down or helping somebody. She’s a pleasure to work with,” Gault said.

“I enjoy taking care of patients and talking to patients,” said Kallal, who said she learned to have a positive attitude from her mother, who was a teacher.

“Taking care of patients, you learn that human beings are so different from each other. Some are nice and some are bad and some are pleasant.”

Despite her sunny persona, Kallal — whose professional service has been recognized as extraordinary by the DAISY Foundation, which celebrates excellence in nursing care — can be strict with her PACU patients.

“If patients don’t follow the rules, they will not recover properly,” she told a Jefferson publication. “When the younger nurses have a rambunctious patient, they say ‘Give him to Mercy!’”

And then there are the patients who want to argue with nurses about why they are required to wear masks — or are being urged to get vaccinated — in the midst of a deadly pandemic.

“I tried to explain getting vaccinated to one patient and she just looked at me like I had two heads. But at least I did my job as a nurse,” said Kallal.

After being on the job for 50 years, she has seen “tremendous changes in technology” and has learned what it’s like to work in “modern medicine, with modern doctors.”

But in other ways Kallal’s perspective sounds thoroughly old-school.

“You get your satisfaction in life,” she said, “when you don’t waste your time and energy doing nothing.”

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