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Nurse Creates Museum To Her Profession

Daily Astorian

CANNON BEACH — Take one look at Melodie Chenevert’s home-turned-museum, and it’s not difficult to determine what profession she followed throughout her life.

Historical posters of nurses; dolls and stuffed animals – including Miss Piggy – in nurses’ uniforms; nurses’ capes, pins, advertising displays, books about nurses – everything that has anything to do with nursing is there.

From the floor to the ceiling of her living room, through the hall to her dining room and in cubbyholes elsewhere in the house, Chenevert displays her enthusiasm for nursing.

It has taken her years to collect the multitude of items she has discovered in antique stores, flea markets and garage sales. Relatives and friends also have created original paintings and dioramas that decorate her home.

Her initial goal was to find mementoes that encouraged pride and productivity in nursing. Then she became interested in items that depicted nurses.

“Tell me what all these nurses have in common,” Chenevert said, glancing at the posters on the walls surrounding her dining room. “They have compassionate eyes and an outstretched hand.”

Before she moved to Cannon Beach from Maryland, Chenevert visited other nursing exhibits elsewhere, including the Florence Nightingale Museum in London, and her friends would tell her, “Melodie, you’ve got better stuff in your office.”

“That emboldened me,” she said. “I thought, ‘Maybe I do have a museum.’”

Chenevert’s passion for nursing started when she graduated from high school in the late 1950s.

“There were only two things a smart, young woman could do in those days: teaching and nursing. I could dissect things without throwing up, and I was good at math.”

As a young girl, she helped extricate her neighbor’s hand from a mixer, and she treated her family’s wounds.

“It seemed like I was a natural to be a nurse,” Chenevert said. “But I really wanted to be a writer.”

Writing, however, didn’t seem practical in those days, and nursing school was cheap. For three years of education and apprenticeship at Methodist-Kahler School of Nursing in Rochester, Minn., the tuition was $400.

Chenevert graduated in 1963 – her graduation pin is on a display case in the museum. She moved to Seattle, and on her instructors’ advice, attended the University of Washington, where she received her bachelor’s and master’s degrees in nursing.

It was during those years that Chenevert visited Cannon Beach for the first time.

“The first place I ever saw the ocean was in Cannon Beach,” she said. “I was absolutely smitten.”

But she moved with her husband, a physicist, to Kentucky and later to Wisconsin, where she received a second master’s degree, this time in journalism. During those early years, Chenevert worked as a nurse in several capacities. In 1982, she established a school of nursing in Astoria with Clatsop Community College. A scholarship in her name is available to full-time students at the college.

While nursing was her first profession, writing and public speaking are probably what she’s best known for. Chenevert finally fulfilled her wish to become a writer in 1982 when she wrote her first book, “Special Techniques in Assertiveness Training.” The book was aimed at those facing challenges in the medical profession. It was in publication for 30 years.

Her other books include, “The Pro-Nurse Handbook,” “Mosby’s Tour Guide to Nursing School: A Student’s Road Survival Kit” and “What Next Nurse: A Career Planner for Panic-Stricken Nurses.”

A coloring book, called “What Do Nurses Do?” published with a page printed in both Spanish and French, shows youngsters the variety of opportunities available for nurses.

As her books gained popularity in the profession, Chenevert was invited to speak to groups.

“I found myself going all over the country and beyond,” she said. “In some years I would do 100 workshops a year. I’ve been to all of the states but Hawaii, and I’ve traveled to Japan, England, Australia and Canada.”

That’s when she began to invent characters to go along with her presentations. The first time she spoke about her book on assertiveness training, she dressed as an eagle. It was meant to reflect the parable she writes about an eagle that was raised to think he was a chicken.

It was a hit. She has been dressing up ever since.

Depending on her speech topic, Chenevert appears as “Super Nurse,” “Historic Nurse,” or, clad as a bee, “Be-All-You-Can-Bee” nurse.

As “Fairy Godnurse,” she carries a wand and says she comes in response to all the whining some nurses might do. She clicks her heels to make their problems go away.

As “Walk-on-Water Woman,” she dresses in a robe, with curlers in her hair, carrying a cup of coffee and a newspaper. She talks about how nurses think they need to fulfill others’ expectations as spouses and parents as well as employees. Those expectations, she said, lead to burnout.

“It’s ridiculous to expect these things of yourself,” said Chenevert, who, in the speech, urges nurses to take care of themselves.

When she was given an award for creativity from the Sigma Theta Tau International Honor Society of Nursing, Chenevert dressed in an outfit she had created that consisted of a man’s Mardi Gras costume she had bought for $20 in New Orleans sewn together with a Victoria’s Secret Christmas robe she purchased at a flea market. She called herself the “Queen of Nursing,” and for a crown, she wore an upturned tea cozy.

During her one-minute acceptance speech, she declared, “It is time for us to create a health care kingdom in which nurses rule.”

As she decided to reduce her writing and speaking engagements, Chenevert recalled her earlier desire to move to Cannon Beach. She and her husband, Gary, bought a house in Tolovana Park that, at one time, had contained a gift shop. She received a conditional-use permit from the city that allowed a museum on the property.

Then, the Cheneverts carefully wrapped the dozens of framed posters and boxed up the other memorabilia and drove the cargo from Maryland to Cannon Beach.

Their house is now the “Art of Nursing Museum,” and, Chenevert said, her displays of historical posters and paintings that show compassionate nurses in white caps and uniforms with red crosses tending to children, the elderly or soldiers, are meant to celebrate the “lost art of nursing.”

Today, the profession is changing.

“Nursing used to be a combination of art and science. But it got hard over to science, and later hard over to business. Somewhere that personal touch – that art – got short-shrift,” she said.

“The focus today is so much on technology and tests and building better hospitals.”

But the art of nursing remains in a poem Chenevert wrote 20 years ago. Called “Being a Nurse Means …” the poem has been republished numerous times and distributed to countless nurses, students and others throughout the world.

Chenevert describes nursing as a profession of opposites. Nurses are never bored but always frustrated, she says in the poem. They carry immense responsibility, but little authority.

“You will step into people’s lives

and you will make a difference.

Some will bless you.

Some will curse you.”

Nurses will see people at their worst and also become amazed at people’s “capacity for love, courage and endurance,” she writes.

They experience triumphs and failures, they cry and they laugh.

But, she adds, “You will know what it is to be human … and to be humane.”

This story originally appeared in Daily Astorian.