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Medicine runs in the family for Bay Care St. Anthony's nurse

Alice Kreider, right, passed on her nursing cap to daughter Tracey Hempel.
Alice Kreider, right, passed on her nursing cap to daughter Tracey Hempel.
Published May 10, 2017

ST. PETERSBURG — A neatly starched and folded nurse's cap usually sits on a shelf in Tracey Hempel's house, watching as she gets ready for work every day.

But last week, as BayCare celebrated Nurse's Week, the cap given to her mother during a nursing school ceremony in 1958 sat atop her head as she made her rounds through the renal unit of BayCare's St. Anthony's Hospital. The same hospital where she entered the world — in Room 326 — and the same hospital where her mother and father worked and met.

The sixth of seven children born to Alice and Everette Kreider, Hempel didn't always see herself going into medicine. That was unlike her mother, who opted for nursing school at Temple University instead of getting married after finishing high school, going against her parents' wishes.

"I always wanted to be a nurse," Alice Kreider said. "Since grade school."

She worked in the operating room and with heart surgeons at Temple University before moving to St. Petersburg to help take care of her grandparents. She joined St. Anthony's as a nurse in 1966, where she met her husband, Everette, an anesthesiologist. Kreider left her job in 1969, and the two were married in 1970.

Though she left the hospital, she never left nursing.

"When you're a nurse, you never stop being a nurse," Hempel said. "Medicine is a very jealous mistress."

Growing up, Hempel said, medical jargon was commonplace at home. She called heart attacks ''coronaries," and by the age of 8 had learned from her mom how to set up a sterile field using the stovetop. Her husband was once sutured on their kitchen table.

Though her bachelor's degree was in English, and she started her own business as an education consultant, many of her friends assumed she was a nurse. She'd usually brush it off, telling them she just came from a medical family.

"In a way, I kind of ran away from it," Hempel said. "I wondered (if I'd go into) it because it's all I know or because I chose to do it."

But nine years ago, she changed her mind.

Hempel had a brain aneurysm that almost killed her. Four months later, she and her husband were in a serious car accident in which he was almost killed. That summer, her 4-year-old son was sick. She thought he had appendicitis.

"I knew my son, and I knew what it was," she said. "The ER doctor said it wasn't and he bet me $20 that it wasn't and I said 'I will be back here the next morning and it will be.' Sure enough it was."

As she waited with her son in the pre-op room of All Children's, she said two nurses yelled at her.

"'Why the hell aren't you a nurse?" she remembers one asking her. "This is what you do."

As her son went into recovery after surgery, she remembered going down to the cafeteria to eat.

"I looked up at my husband and said, 'Obviously, God is trying to tell me something,' " she said.

Six weeks later, she enrolled for the prerequisites for nursing school.

Hempel has worked at St. Anthony's for six years. Sometimes, she said, she calls her parents, asking for advice on symptoms she sees in patients.

"It's amazing to be able to have that kind of support and love," she said.

Dorothy Bruce, assistant nurse manager at St. Anthony's, said sometimes knowledge can be a double-edged sword, because nurses sometimes can only advise doctors, but Hempel has navigated that well.

Alice Kreider said she was thrilled when her daughter went into nursing.

"You develop a sixth sense," she said. "Tracey was always a caregiver."

But the field has changed since the days she was required to starch and fold her cap daily, a tradition that has long since lapsed.

Though government standards may be stricter and technology may have advanced, much of being a nurse hasn't changed, Bruce said.

"Technology is good, but it can't replace nursing as far as the compassion that nursing gives," she said. "Technology can't hold a patient's hand. That's how some people bounce back, through compassion."

Hempel said she's proud to wear her mother's cap.

"It represents the continuity and the love of medicine," she said. "Through the grace of God, I can carry on such a beautiful, proud tradition that my mother started and worked so hard for, and continually worked hard for. And that I can continue that at the same hospital. I'm very proud to do that."

Contact Divya Kumar at dkumar@tampabay.com. Follow @divyadivyadivya.