Juneau woman, 81, loves art of caring

JUNEAU — At 81-years-old, Edna Leamer has been a caregiver since the age of 14, when her mother died. As the oldest of five children, born in Billings Mont., she naturally took on the maternal role.


She began working as a nursing aide at age 16 and moved to Spokane, Wash. at 17, where she continued working in nursing despite getting married and beginning her role as a mother herself. She is still acting as a nurse at the Pioneer Home today and finds that her age can be a real advantage when it comes to relating to the residents and gaining their trust.

When Leamer began her tenure at the Pioneer Home in 1988, the year it opened, many residents joined them in their late 60s and early 70s. These days, Leamer says, many residents are in their 90’s when they start at the Pioneer Home. Though she moved to Juneau in 1986 to start working at St. Ann’s Hospital, where she was director of nursing, the Pioneer Home was a much better fit.

“I always had an affinity for older people,” she recalled, continuing with a laugh, “now I am one.”

Due to her mother’s death, she didn’t finish high school, instead, at a later date, she earned her GED before enrolling in a certified nursing program at the insistence of a friend.

“You are a nurse,” insisted the friend, “You need to be a nurse, you are a nurse.”

Though Leamer suggested she might have studied something else, perhaps English, if things had been different, nursing seemed to be the path she was meant for.

At 4 years old, Leamer’s grandfather died from tuberculosis, the same disease that later claimed her mother’s life. She recalls being at the hospital where her grandfather was in the care of Catholic nuns and declaring that she wanted to be a nurse when she grew up, just like the sisters.

She was certified as a nursing assistant in 1947 after completing the training program at the Deaconess Hospital in Spokane. She expressed surprise at the lack of training and certification in Alaska when she first arrived, nearly 20 years after her own certification. During her brief tenure at St. Ann’s Hospital, she helped to organize a training program for nursing aides. Several agencies have stepped up to handle training and certification since; the University of Alaska Southeast currently offers CNA training in partnership with Wildflower Court and the Pioneer Home.

Early in her career, her choice of nursing as a path was tested. She recalls the more primitive methods in surgery and care. Specifically, she recalled helping a woman from her bed very shortly after surgery, surprisingly shortly after surgery, and having the woman collapse and die in her arms from a pulmonary embolism. Many would have been horrified and through with nursing, said Leamer, but she felt it was a privilege to provide care and help people in their last stages of life.

Leamer worked for 18 years as a Certified Nurse Aide (CNA), but was later sponsored to attend a nursing program through the University of Washington to become a Licensed Practical Nurse with a focus on geriatric care. With all her experience as a caregiver, it came naturally to her.

She also completed a bachelor’s degree through Gonzaga University in Spokane, graduating in 1993. One of the perks of her visits to the university was its proximity to her family still living in the area. She would visit once each term and stay longer to spend time with them.

In 1999, she retired after 10 years serving as the director of assisted living. During her retirement, which lasted only three years, she was still playing the role of caregiver, helping a family member through illness. The draw to help people must have been too great, because after her hiatus from the Pioneer Home, she began employment with the home again on an on-call basis. Five years ago, she resumed a regular schedule at the home, where she continues to work as a nurse, but in a lesser role than before her retirement.

Leamer thinks very highly of the Pioneer Home and its staff, from the women who were there from the start, including Mary Stroeing, who works at Harborview Hospital in Seattle, and Margaret Coltice, who was the director of nursing at the start, to the nurse practicioner, nurses and CNAs who tend to residents now. Leamer admits that she isn’t very good with computers, so the younger nurses and CNAs “fill in for (her) weaknesses” while she continues to focus on what she feels she does best, caring for the residents. She speaks highly of the quality of care for residents and the support to family.

Many may be surprised that Leamer has been working so hard for so long, and might be further surprised to know that she is nearly deaf, with only 8% word recognition in her good ear. She hopes to be a candidate for a cochlear implant, which she should discover later this year. Leamer also plans to retire soon, after so many years of service. She’d like to have the opportunity to spend more time with her family. Leamer, together with her husband, Patrick, have 12 children — six each from previous marriages — more than 20 grandchildren, and a dozen great grandchildren. Leamer’s siblings are also still living. She hopes to travel and spend time with them, showering them with the care and attention so many others have been fortunate to receive over the years.

Leamer seems to have inspired some other caregivers in her family; she is very proud of her daughter who dedicated her life to teaching and a granddaughter, Jessica Schmitz, who works with her at the Pioneer Home.

“I really hope I’m still around to see her complete nursing school,” said Leamer of her granddaughter, “I’m sure I will be.”