Franco-American heroine and nursing colleague – Muriel Poulin

SPRINGVALE, Me– A terrific friend to all, and an expert nurse, Dr. Muriel Poulin was a great lady who proudly represented her family’s Franco-American heritage. She died on September 6, 2019, at 94 years old.  Her obituary describes a wonderful nursing leadership career.

As a nurse, she was a giant in the profession. Thankfully, with my nursing friend Susan Henderson, we experienced the wonderful opportunity to record Poulin’s oral history. She is among the heroines and heroes we wrote about in Maine Nursing: Interviews and History on Caring and Competence. “The patient has to be the focus of our attention. I know there is a money problem, but I am sorry, find the money from someplace else. We have to take care of that patient!,” she said during the interview.

I first met Muriel because she followed my Franco-American writings. My family lived in Sanford at the time. We met shortly after she retired from Boston University and returned to live in her hometown of Springvale.

A double bond developed in our friendship, because I am a nurse.

She gave me the best advice about how to bake a tourtiere.  “You can’t bake a good tourtiere without using fat….”. Her recipe was among the best. Guests attending many of her annual Christmas parties enjoyed Muriel’s tourtiere. In 2017, Muriel and I were inducted into the Franco-American Hall of Fame.

Franco-American Hall of Fame March 2017

Franco-American Hall of Fame inductees in 2017, Juliana L’Heureux with Muriel Poulin at the Maine State House in Augusta.

She allowed me to publish her recipe for Rutabaga and Apple Casserole, because we discussed the origin of French words and the translation for “rutabaga” as having French-Canadian origins. Translated, “novet” the word means “turnip”, but a rutabaga is much more regal than an ordinary “turnip”, because (as every Franco-American knows) it mixes well with other ingredients. Also, novet is excellent when diced and sautéed with vegetable soup ingredients.

Novet et Pomme recette est ici.

Here is Muriel Poulin’s oral history, as it was published in Maine’s nursing history. By the way, her unedited interview is also recorded.

Muriel Poulin, Juliana L'Heureux and Donna DeBlois in Springvale Maine

Muriel Poulin always welcomed nurses into her Springvale home. We enjoyed this nursing “selfie” with Donna DeBlois, a nurse colleague, after we shared lunch at her home.

The following oral history interview was conducted during a lunch meeting, in Biddeford, Maine, with Susan Henderson:

Muriel Poulin graduated in 1946 from Massachusetts General Hospital School of Nursing and was coordinator for staff development there early in her career. She was an internationally known administrator and educator whose early work in developing guidelines for the establishment of Magnet designation for hospitals was inspirational to Maine nurses as well as other professional nurses nationally and internationally. She was a Fullbright Scholar and a member of the American Academy of Nursing, In addition to her many roles, after retiring from Boston University, she served on the Board of Directors of the Southern Maine Visiting Nurse Association from 1989 to 1999, was a member of an early study group for the Hospice of Southern Maine and has been a long term supporter of the ANA, in Maine (American Nurses Association).

Nursing has really been the prime focus of my life. I left home to go to nursing
school, and I worked all my life both as a staff nurse right up through when I got to be a supervisor at what was really then a city hospital which was in Washington, DC. While I was there, I went back to school and got my BS degree and got to be a head nurse and then got to be clinical director. I started out as head nurse on an orthopedic and medical-surgical floor and then, when I was promoted to supervisor, today it would be a director position, I had all of the medical-surgical unit, the emergency room and what we used to call the central supply, so I had a lot of experience.

From there I went to Damascus, Syria, which I shouldn’t have done. But nobody else had a bachelor of science degree, and they were looking for someone with a BS degree. In 1953, 1954, those weren’t common. I had gone to Catholic University to get my degree, and I was offered this job. When I was first asked, my reaction was, “Damascus, where is that?” But three months later, I landed in Damascus, Syria. I spent one year there.

I was Director of Nursing and charged with setting up the hospital, Damascus General Hospital, which had been built for several years, and they had just never
opened it. We had a team that went over to help them open that hospital, but because of the political situation, we came home at the end of the year.

I think some elements of nursing is still very with us. The basic element of caring for people and trying to keep them as whole, I think, is still there. The human element is still there. In terms of knowledge, the nurse today has to know so much because there is so much new material: new drugs, new treatments. I can remember the first heart valve patient I took care of. You stood by the bed and could hear the clicking of the metal ball. That’s not known today; people wouldn’t know what you are talking about. But I can remember standing near a patient who had a valve replacement, and it was metal. And the ball clicked every time there was a pulse; you heard the ball click. If it bothered you a bit as a nurse, you had to get used to it. But just imagine what it felt like for the patient.

When I came back from Syria, I came back to Mass General to be in charge of the education department, and almost right away, it seems, we had this polio epidemic. It was the last big polio epidemic of the world, and patients just came in. Most of them were in iron lungs. We had to recruit, and I think we had to recruit medical students in force. I remember taking a whole class of medical students and teaching them how to run an iron lung. It was something, because those things were big, no doubt about it. The goal was, if the power went off, we had enough people to handle the iron lungs by hand. It was definitely a pressure thing, and you had to push the bellows at the end of the iron lungs in and out. That was what would keep the patient going. The iron lung would help the patient survive, and it would relax the patient’s body enough that eventually the lungs would start improving a little bit. A lot of the patients were not in the iron lungs; that’s where the Kenny packs were used. You would use it every few hours.

I don’t remember that we did get sick from patients. I mean if the staff did, it was probably while they were dealing with the public. But I don’t remember one case of someone getting it working on that unit. I think people were very frightened, but they were very careful, too. You went around with masks on and used precaution measures. I don’t think people understood what caused polio and how it was transmitted. We all used the whole bit: gowns and gloves and masks.

I was teaching. I was in charge of the program in nursing administration, first at the master’s level and then, the last year, we had started a doctorate in nursing science with a major in administration. I think that the administrator has to be knowledgeable, and you don’t get by by the seat of your pants. You’re dealing with top-notch people when you’re at that level. And today, you’re a Vice President for Nursing, and it means that you’re dealing with administrators, physicians, and assistants that are well educated and advanced, and you have to have a very knowledgeable director. They’re no longer directors of nursing, but are VPs for Nursing and VPs for Patient Care, and I am all for that. You have to be very knowledgeable to get along with people at this level, because you’re no longer a peon or somebody on the lower level. You’re on the top of the ladder, and you have to function that way.

I am a strong believer in Bachelor of Science education. Now I don’t want to demean or lower the importance of the two year programs, but it has to be baccalaureate education. Two year education to me is not professional nursing. It’s technical nursing. My adviser on my doctorate was Mildred Montag, who started the two year program, and Mildred never meant it to be a general degree. She meant it to be a technical degree. And it was taken on by people who did not know her, and it was turned into an RN program with the same education, the same credentialing. That’s unfortunate. If you want to function on the level of other professionals, you have to have a professional degree, and the two year degree doesn’t do it. That’s the first thing I’d say if you’re interested in nursing. I know why they go to the two year schools, to give them a reputation, to give them a job. But I’m sorry; it’s worth looking at the four year program. There is help with scholarships to help people in the four year programs. I don’t want to demean the two year program. But if at all possible, a young man or woman should go through the four year program.

I do think the emphasis on developing nursing education has slowed down because of what is going on with healthcare, what is going on with hospitals, how they are restructuring, and how they are merging. We are going to end up with big conglomerates, big corporations. I am afraid that nurses are going to have to fight to keep that patient in focus because, right now, the focus is on money. I don’t care what anybody says, these mergers going on around us are not for the welfare of the patient. They tell me it’s for the welfare of the patient. Show me. The patient has to be the focus of our attention. I know there is a money problem, but I am sorry, find the money from someplace else. We have to take care of that patient!

Muriel Poulin (1925-2019). Her obituary is published at this site. She lived a long and remarkably accomplished life.

With my husband Richard, we extend our sincere condolences to Muriel’s family.

Juliana L'Heureux

About Juliana L'Heureux

Juliana L’Heureux is a free lance writer who publishes news, blogs and articles about Franco-Americans and the French culture. She has written about the culture in weekly and bi-weekly articles, for the past 27 years.