Clockwise from top: Shirley Hammond and her son, Joe, talk about the recent change their life path has taken after Joe’s heart problems began. (Staff photo by Ken Ritchie/
Clockwise from top: Shirley Hammond and her son, Joe, talk about the recent change their life path has taken after Joe’s heart problems began. (Staff photo by Ken Ritchie/
Ever since Shirley Hammond was 7 years old, she wanted to be a nurse.

She graduated from Bethesda School of Nursing in 1954. When she graduated, nurses still wore white uniforms.

"We wore caps back then too," she said.

With the exception of a few years while her children were still young, Shirley - a mother of three boys - worked as a nurse until 1995 when she retired from King's Daughters' Hospital.

She retired, but she didn't stop working.

"My husband had retired and I had worked for so many years, all those years, and I didn't know what to do," she said. "And, it wasn't a week before one of my friends, a church friend, called and said, 'So-and-so is sick and she wants her Aunt Shirley to come and take care of her.'"

Shirley said it just started to expand from there. She would take on more people that needed her help, and nurse them back to health for free.

"It's my love. It's just something I like to do," she said.

She retired again two years ago, after running out of patients.

"I just didn't pick up any more patients," she said.

She had to put on her nurse's cap once again when her 51-year-old son, Joe, experienced congenital heart failure.

After constant struggles with his heart, Joe went to the hospital to have some tests done.

On October 16, a Wednesday, Joe said he and his mother went to see the doctor. The next morning he was being prepped to have a heart catheter put in. Then, after he was admitted, the procedure changed from a heart catheter to a left ventricular assist device (VLAD) placement.

"Essentially what was happening was the left side of my heart was shutting down," Joe said.

A LVAD is a circulatory device used to replace part of a failing heart. The device pumps blood from the left ventricle to the aorta. It keeps Joe's blood moving through his body.

However, for the LVAD to work, Joe has to either wear a harness that carries two batteries to power the device, or plug into a special generator.

"I feel like a terrorist now when I walk into Walmart," he said after describing the chest harness.

Joe's condition requires daily care. When he's plugged into a generator, he needs assistance switching over to his harness. He also has to be within 20 minutes of his caretaker at all times, in case of a system failure.

The VLAD also has a power line that runs from the device connected to his heart, to the battery attached to his harness. The area where the line enters his body, around his abdomen, has to be cleaned and dressed daily.

"That's my life now," Joe said.

"And my life," Shirley said reassuringly.

After Joe's surgery, he spent 28 days in the hospital recovering, going through physical therapy and learning about the 15 pound LVAD that would be attached to him every day for the rest of his life.

Shirley learned all about the system too. Because she knew she was going to be her son's caretaker, doctors and nurses would come in and ask her random questions about the device that she was expected to know.

Certain alarms mean certain things have gone wrong, and Shirley had to know what those alarms mean and how to respond to them. She was told she'd have to take a test over the LVAD before the hospital would sign off on her being her son's caretaker. The hospital gave her a large manual, and she studied nightly.

Shirley, 80, was overwhelmed.

"Sometimes I'd just sit and cry because I didn't think I could do it, and I had a son that needed me."

"Every evening I'd go back to my room and try to absorb this book. I don't know how I did it but I did."

Shirley passed her test on the first try. Despite the fact that she says she's "not a technical person."

"I stepped into this with shaking shoes and a feeling of inadequacy, because I'm 80 years old," she said. "I really didn't think I could do it."

Joe and Shirley have been home for a week, and they're starting to find a routine. They're also finding new problems that they need to work around.

Joe plugs into a generator at night before bed, but the cord only extends 25 to 30 feet.

"That doesn't reach the bathroom," Joe said.

Joe would have to wake his mother up, and have her help put on his harness so he could use the bathroom. When he returned, he and his mother would have to go through the process again to take the harness off.

"By then, I was wide awake," he said.

On Saturday, Joe said he purchased some urinals to take care of the problem.

Once Joe and his equipment are a little more settled, Shirley said they are going to put baby monitors in their respective bedrooms and the living room to make things easier.

"A 51-year-old man doesn't need an 80-year-old woman hanging over him all the time," Shirley said.

Taking care of her son and making sure her home is set up for him hasn't fazed Shirley. She's had to take care of family members in the past, and a family member is just another patient, she said.

"I treat them all the same. I don't shake or nothing."

Shirley said in the early 1990s she was working at King's Daughters' Hospital when a 16-year-old patient of hers was about to die.

"I came home and bawled my eyes out," she said.

She prayed with her husband to find strength. When she went back to the hospital, she "felt my nurse's cap come back on my head. I was able to go in and help my patient."

That, Shirley said, was the patient that affected her the most. And, since then, she said she's able to help when needed.

"I just put on my nurse's cap again," she said.