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Baltimore Sun pays tribute to the late Sister Mary Thomas: Hospital president, compassionate nun, downtown leader...and oh yeah, nurse

July 26, 2003 -- Today the Baltimore Sun ran a lengthy appreciation by Jacques Kelly about Sister Mary Thomas Zinkand, a much-admired Baltimore nun who had modernized the city's Mercy Hospital and served as its president for 35 years and who, astute readers might discover, had also been for many years a pediatric nurse and director of nursing. The profile describes how Sister Mary Thomas, who recently died at age 88, had led the transformation of the hospital from the "antiquated" institution she found upon arriving in 1945 to the modern medical center it is today, serving as the hospital's president from 1953-59 and 1963-92. Sister Mary Thomas reportedly impressed Maryland's movers and shakers--such as Senator Barbara Mikulski and former Governor William Donald Schaefer, both of whom supplied glowing testimonials--with her relentless dedication to the hospital, the downtown community, and the poor.

What may have been lost on all but the most focused readers is that Sister Mary Thomas was a nurse. Not until the sixth paragraph does the piece note that she "studied nursing" at Mercy Hospital School of Nursing and Mount St. Agnes College. It is not clear if she received any nursing degree or certificate, though she evidently later earned a masters degree in hospital administration from St. Louis University. The next paragraph notes that she was "assigned to the pediatrics department" at Mercy. The article notes that she had said that "working with" infants and children was her "first love;" presumably "working with" means nursing. Sister Mary Thomas "soon rose to become director of nursing and assistant administrator," and in 1953 became the hospital's president. These passing references are the only ones to her status or work as a nurse in the 30-paragraph article.

While it appears that Sister Mary Thomas spent eight years of her Mercy career as a bedside nurse or nursing manager, it is telling that the article never refers to her as a "nurse," though it frequently indicates that she was a nun (directly or through use of her honorific). Perhaps it would be an insult to refer to a woman of her stature, who had spent decades doing things of real consequence, as a nurse. However, we cannot help but feel that had Sister Mary Thomas been a physician, there would have been numerous references to her status and work as a physician. Medicine and religious service are typically seen as a serious, life-defining professions, whereas nursing is merely a job one may "study" for and "work" in for a given time, then move on to better things. In fact, all the commendable work Sister Mary Thomas did as a health care leader is a logical outgrowth of her training and experience as a nurse, in view of the nursing profession's strong focus on patient advocacy, community health, and preventative care. There is no reason to believe that this health care leader ever stopped being, in a very real sense, a nurse. We regret that few of the Sun's readers are likely to identify her as one.

See the Baltimore Sun's article Sister Mary Thomas: 1914-2003. Nun revered for her wit, compassion, dedication. She led transformation of downtown hospital.

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