The year was 1950. The voices of Nat King Cole and Patti Page floated from speakers when people clicked on their radios. Kids rode their bikes to the drugstore for a 12-cent pack of gum. Harry S. Truman was president and James Dean got his first acting break in a Pepsi commercial. It’s also the year that Tara Wiggins’ family nursing legacy began, igniting a powerful spark of compassion and care that motivates her today.

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Wiggins is a registered nurse and the manager of oncology and chemo infusion at Novant Health New Hanover Regional Medical Center’s Zimmer Cancer Institute. In her office, a 1950 black-and-white framed photo of her grandmother’s graduating nursing class sits on the sunny windowsill. Her grandmother, Barbara Anne Hall Marksamer, poses and smiles at the camera with 17 other women in their starched white uniforms. Each woman wears a flower corsage pinned to her chest to celebrate completing her nursing diploma program. Little did Marksamer know, she was about to begin a nursing journey that would last for a full 64 years, and that her granddaughter, Wiggins, would follow in her footsteps.

Today, Wiggins’ eyes fill with tears when she talks about her grandmother. But not with sadness from losing her in 2014. Rather, with overwhelming pride and gratitude.

“Without her, I wouldn't be who I am,” Wiggins said.

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Lighting the spark

Growing up in Greensboro, North Carolina, Wiggins and her sister, Tricia, would fly to Long Island, New York, each year to spend the summer with their grandmother. Marksamer, whom Wiggins calls Nanny, was the director of nursing at Woodbury Center for Healthcare, an assisted living home. While many other 10 to 15-year-olds spent their summer vacations at amusement parks and pools, Wiggins and her sister volunteered at these ages in the activities department at Woodbury, accompanying Nanny to work.

“We painted people’s nails for them, we’d play games with them,” Wiggins said. “My sister was the actor, and she would sing and dance.”

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Tara Wiggins' grandmother, Barbara Marksamer

As a young child, Wiggins aspired to be a doctor. But as she spent more time at Woodbury, she began to see the impact that her Nanny and the other nurses had on the residents.

“I watched my Nanny and how wonderful she was with her residents and just what a good leader she was to the other nurses and her staff. I was like, ‘That's something I could do,’” Wiggins said.

The thing Wiggins remembers most about this time with Nanny was discovering what a close relationship she had with her patients – one that was not just based on their medical conditions. Nanny knew about each resident’s interests, family members and personal history. Wiggins was fascinated to learn that even patients who had dementia or Alzheimer’s disease, conditions that affect the memory, could share details of their personal tales of love, war and more.

“It was so important for those residents to have somebody to talk to. They didn't always have family and they loved telling their stories,” she said.

Drawing inspiration

Wiggins was inspired as she witnessed Nanny’s ability to build a relationship with each resident of the assisted living home, and learned to do the same, creating bonds that she said felt like “having 1,500 grandparents.” She learned to love caring for people and appreciate the preciousness of each person’s life. From age 10, Wiggins knew the field of nursing was where she wanted to be.

“That's what brings me joy,” she said. “That's why I follow Nanny in her career path. Work brings me so much joy that sometimes I have to tell myself to go home.”

Nurse Tara Wiggins and nurse Clint Hobbs sit and talk while dressed in scrubs.
Tara Wiggins talks with Clint Hobbs, an outpatient oncology nurse, in the infusion room at the Zimmer Cancer Institute

Wiggins strives to demonstrate Nanny’s level of care and attention for each of her patients. She encourages the nurses in the infusion room at the Zimmer Cancer Institute to get to know each chemo recipient there on a personal level, going deeper than just their cancer diagnosis. Her goal is to create a supportive relationship with every person who enters the infusion room.

“It's important,” Wiggins said. “I know we're all super busy. Take five minutes. Five minutes to show that person you really care about them. I'm not just here to hang up your chemo and get you in and out. I'm here because I care about you.”

When the physically and mentally demanding job of nursing hasn’t come easy for Wiggins, she’s relied on her strong work ethic, something she also says she learned from Nanny, to get her through. From the beginning of Wiggins’ journey in nursing, as a student at the University of Michigan, Nanny provided advice. With a husband in the Coast Guard and a daughter, Addison, who was just 1 year old when Wiggins began nursing school in 2002, she relied on her phone calls to Nanny to bolster and guide her.

“Nursing school isn't easy,” Wiggins said. “It’s one the toughest things I've ever had to do. I put myself through nursing school. … She was a big supporter and helped me get through those tough times.”

When Wiggins had to deliver a graduation speech as the president of her chapter of the Student Nurses’ Association, Nanny helped her write the script, drawing from Dr. Seuss’ “Oh, the Places You’ll Go!” as inspiration. Nanny encouraged Wiggins to never stop learning and emphasized the importance of this within the nursing field. Nanny continued her nursing education for decades, obtaining her Bachelor of Science in nursing, then her master’s degree, and even attending continuing education courses in her 70s.

“She said, ‘When you think you know everything in this job, it's time for you to leave,’” Wiggins said. “She meant that you will never know everything there is to know about nursing. The medical field is forever changing.”

Honoring a legacy

Wiggins is the only member of her family to enter the nursing field, following in Nanny’s footsteps. But she believes that every person, in every job, can apply Nanny’s example to their life and relationships with others.

“No matter what field we're in, or where we go in life, it's important to know people’s story,” Wiggins said. “You never know what someone’s going through.”

During her career as a nurse, a lot has changed for Wiggins. She has worked in several different roles and many different states, from California to Texas to South Carolina, even working as a travel nurse and driving an RV across the country for a few years. But within her nursing career, Nanny’s inspiration has always been constant.

“I attribute a lot to her,” Wiggins said. “I think she's always sitting right here, too, making sure I'm doing all right. I strive to be the best nurse because of her. She's probably the smartest one I've ever come across.”

From the archives of Novant Health Forsyth Medical Center shortly after its opening in 1964.

The history of women in nursing

In 1950, Barbara Marksamer's first year as a nurse, the profession was made up of 98% women, the National Library of Medicine reports. Today, nursing is still dominated by women – they make up nearly 90% of nurses in the United States. So why are so many nurses women?

It’s commonly believed that Florence Nightingale, the founder of modern nursing, opposed men in nursing, but the Nightingale Society clarifies this is a myth. When nursing first began as a profession in the U.S. during the 1700s, most nurses were male, and called stewards at the time. When the Civil War began in 1861, men took up arms while women volunteered to help with nursing, and thus began the transition to a female-dominated field.

While women have long comprised most of the nursing profession, nurses are underrepresented in healthcare leadership roles. Nearly 70% of the global health workforce is women, but they fill only 25% of health care senior executive roles.

Novant Health’s total workforce is made up of 82% women, and we are committed to providing avenues for personal and professional growth and advancement for women in the profession of nursing.

Photo: Nurses work at Novant Health Forsyth Medical Center in Winston-Salem shortly after the hospital's opening in 1964.