I had planned to write about Dr. Lolita Garcia Rutland during National Nurses Week on May 6-12, so you might say this column is three weeks late.
But, like so many things in this amazing lady’s life, my timing is better late than never.
I’m glad I waited. Thursday morning, I witnessed something special when Lolita had the honor of meeting Dr. Ninfa Saunders for the first time.
Or maybe I should say Dr. Saunders had the honor of shaking Lolita’s hand for the first time.
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For an hour, they shared the common ground of their island halfway around the world. They swapped stories about families and native dialects. And they talked shop -- hospitals, health care and nursing.
History connected them across a generation, and so did the horror of war. Lolita’s mother died during World War II. Her younger brother was hunted down by Japanese soldiers and never seen again. Saunders’ father was a survivor of the Bataan Death March.
There was a reverence in the room. There was mutual respect when Saunders reached to place a parting gift in Lolita’s arthritic hands. It was a pewter cross with these words: “Faith is not believing that God can, it is knowing that God will.”
When she came to Macon in the late 1950s, Lolita applied for a nursing position at the old Macon Hospital, which is now part of The Medical Center of Central Georgia.
Although she had the experience of a dozen nurses, she was not hired. No reason was given. It was the segregated South. And she was a Filipino.
Saunders was born in the Philippines and received her nursing degree from Concordia College in Manila. She now presides over the hospital where Lolita once could not get a job. Saunders is the president and CEO of the Medical Center, the second-largest hospital in Georgia.
“I want to thank you for paving the way for me,” she told Lolita.
Beth Tripp is Lolita’s friend from Macon’s Mulberry Street United Methodist Church. She has been in nursing for 40 years and is an adjunct faculty member at Georgia Southwestern State School of Medicine in Americus.
Beth remembers Lolita’s excitement when Saunders took the helm at the Medical Center in October 2012.
“She asked me if I had read the story,” Beth said.
“She’s a woman. She’s a nurse. And she’s a Filipino,” said Lolita.
Beth has been determined to get them together ever since.
The past two months have been sad and difficult for Lolita, who will turn 94 in August. Carey Rutland, her husband of 61 years, died in late March. And she recently had to leave her longtime home in Macon’s Shurlington neighborhood and move to a retirement community.
“I miss my flowers,” she said.
So, Thursday’s meeting with Saunders was just what the nurse ordered.
Lolita’s accomplished medical career was the result of overcoming a lifetime of obstacles. In her own, quiet way, she blazed a trail.
Saunders called her service “legendary.”
“If she had stayed inside the box, she would have been a housewife in Macon, Georgia, and nothing else,” said her daughter, Maria Rutland, a Presbyterian minister in Middlebury, Indiana.
Lolita was a student nurse in Manila when the Japanese invaded the Philippines during World War II. They bombed the classrooms and dormitories, then took over the hospital. They held the doctors and nurses at gunpoint, forcing them to care for the wounded Japanese soldiers.
After the war, she was one of only 12 people (out of more than 4,000 applicants) to receive scholarships through the U.S. State Department. She attended the University of Colorado, Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C., and the University of Florida. She was a clinical instructor at Emory University and St. Joseph’s Infirmary in Atlanta.
She met Carey Rutland in a class at Georgia State. He was from Cassville and the first in his family to graduate from college. His younger brother, Archie, had been killed in Italy during World War II.
When they fell in love, some folks teased them about a “shy Georgia hillbilly marrying a Filipino.” Others weren’t so kind. The Rutlands endured ethnic slurs. Lolita was called “coffee” and Carey was known as “cream.”
When they moved to Macon in 1957, Carey went to work for the Social Security Administration. After her application was turned down for the nursing position at Macon Hospital, Lolita accepted a job at Central State Hospital in Milledgeville. She had to learn to drive a car and get her license. She made the 60-mile round trip in a green Plymouth Valiant every day for eight years.
She initiated programs at Central State that earned critical acclaim, focusing on rehabilitation rather than keeping the mental patients in a holding pattern. It was supposed to be a hospital, she told them, not a prison. Many of her ideas were considered “cutting edge.”
In 1970, she was named the first director of nursing at Macon Junior College (now Middle Georgia State) and developed the college’s Associate Degree Nursing program.
She worked as a consultant with V.A. hospitals in several states, caring for some of the same World War II servicemen who had fought in the Pacific Theater.
Her passion has been more than nursing. She and her husband were among those who helped organize the Macon Outreach food program at Mulberry. The Rutlands and their children -- David, Maria and Jon -- hosted foreign students and international newcomers in their home. They fed them and made them feel welcome. Among the regular guests was a Japanese exchange student studying art at Wesleyan College. She had been partially blinded in the nuclear blast at Hiroshima.
Maria called her mother an example of “stubborn perseverance.”
She said the meeting Saunders was a thrill near the end of a long journey.
“Dr. Saunders is the culmination of my mother’s work and sacrifices,” she said.
Contact Gris at 744-4275 or email@example.com.