Retired nurse celebrates dual milestones: nursing and 90th birthday

May 07, 2021
Hazel Alston Nursing Staff 1970s
Retired LPN nurse Hazel Alston's staff photo in the mid-1970s.

Charleston resident Hazel Alston is the epitome of nursing at its core.

The spry 90-year-old spent 35 years caring for Charleston area patients at MUSC, beginning in 1955. Mrs. Alston has the distinction of being among the first African American licensed practical nurses (LPNs) hired to work and help to open the Medical College Hospital.

Fast forward 34 years, which was also 14 months into the COVID-19 pandemic, and Mrs. Alston found herself on a surprise Zoom call on April 27 while several dozen family members, including grandchildren, great-grandchildren and great-great-grandchildren, friends and a surprise guest greeted her and shared virtual birthday wishes. Throughout the day, she was showered with cards, flowers and a colorful birthday yard greeting to honor the nonagenarian. The event was arranged by daughter Carmen Alston Alexander and sisters, Thelma Alston and Rosa Alston Hutchinson, and other family members.

Patti Hart, DNP, R.N. MUSC Health chief nursing officer, was an invited guest and praised the retired nurse for her dedication, compassion and commitment to MUSC and to nursing – regarded, she said, as among the most trusted professions. Hart read aloud from a special MUSC Health “Certificate of Appreciation” that she presented to Mrs. Alston virtually.

“On your 90th birthday, we are honored to be a part of celebrating you. This enduring memento of our gratitude and appreciation is for your 35 years of service and dedication to MUSC. As one of the nurses who contributed to the preparations for admitting our very first patient, we could not have opened our doors in 1955 without you. We are sincerely grateful for your many extraordinary contributions to the organization and commitment to the nursing profession. Over 90 years, you have touched many lives with your compassionate care and have achieved many accomplishments. You are a true inspiration for all. Thank you for making a difference.”

The certificate was signed by Hart and David Zaas, M.D., MUSC Health Charleston chief executive officer.

“I did not know my family had done this,” said Mrs. Alston, tearing up on the Zoom birthday call. “I told them we wouldn’t celebrate my birthday now but at a later time because of the virus. What they did for me was very, very nice – I was excited.”

Hazel Alston began her career at MUSC in 1955 following the completion of Roper Hospital’s Practical Nurses Training program. She worked at Roper and also Methodist Hospital-Jefferson University Hospitals in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, before getting engaged and relocating back to the Holy City.

“At that time, MUSC’s hospital was so much smaller,” she said, unlike the sprawling modern campus that it is today. Mrs. Alston was part of the hospital staff that helped to set up the hospital’s wards – stocking supplies, arranging bedpans and other equipment needed to support patients. “Our team was ready for that first patient,” she continued.

Hazel Alston began her career caring for patients on the cancer, kidney transplant and heart floors. She recalls people being admitted to the new facility were very sick patients, and the staff’s focus was primarily patient care and administering medications per medical orders.

She remembers a good collegial work relationship between physicians, nurses, LPNs, support staff and medical students.

Looking back at some of her proudest moments as a nurse, Mrs. Alston said providing excellent patient care was her, and everyone’s, priority. Patients loved her bedside manner and caring attitude. “I’ve strived to treat patients as I would treat members of my family. I’d tell myself, ‘This patient could be my brother, my sister, my mother.’ I’ve always treated people with the respect and compassion that they deserve.”

Because she is a religious woman, staff would often ask Alston to recommend a chaplain or local pastor to provide spiritual support for a patient or family members. She’d always recommend her friend AME church Bishop Z.L. Grady to help out. At that time, Pastor Grady, who is now deceased, was the former pastor of Morris Brown AME Church – located just five blocks away from the hospital. “I’d call Rev. Grady, and he’d come over to sit with or pray with the patients and their families,”  she said.

A working wife and mother, Alston was the first nurse and health care worker in her family. Over the years, she managed to find a work-life balance that worked for her family.

“Everyone has their ups and downs in life. For me, I had to struggle to care for my husband who was sick and almost had to quit my job. But my MUSC family took care of me. And when he died in 1981, they were very patient with me – kind, supportive and flexible. That’s why I’ve always regarded MUSC as my second home – a place where everyone knows and cares about people. I’ve never forgotten that.”

Alston doesn’t remember what drew her to nursing as a career – although she said she’s been caring for people all her life. For anyone interested in a career in nursing, she shares some sage advice: “It’s important that you love people – unconditionally. One can’t go into a room and treat them any old way – you must treat them like humans,” she said.

In 2011, Mrs. Alston participated in an interview for the Waring Historical Library’s oral history program, in which she shared her story and chronicled her 35-year career with MUSC. From caring for the first patient admitted to MUSC to the segregation and integration of the hospital and the 1969 hospital workers strike, she shared the highs and lows of her time during MUSC’s history.

Brooke Fox, university archivist with the Waring Historical Library, interviewed Mrs. Alston at the retired nurse’s home about a decade ago for the library’s historical program. Fox also attended her virtual birthday surprise party last month. “Mrs. Alston's willingness to share her memories demonstrates yet again her importance to her community and to the history of MUSC. 

“It was an honor to be included in Mrs. Alston's surprise Zoom birthday party and to witness her receiving a Certificate of Appreciation from MUSC for her many years of service as well as hear her family and friends talk about her impact on their lives. Their tributes brought tears not only to Mrs. Alston's eyes but mine as well. She is a gracious human being and truly one of the most generous and caring individuals I've ever had the pleasure of knowing. It is a privilege to know her and to have had to opportunity to preserve her legacy,” Fox said.