Retiring nurse looks back at 25 years with Baker University
For the past quarter-century, Baker University’s Nurse Ruth has been much more than a health care provider. She’s been a motherly figure to homesick students, an advocate for community health, and quite possibly the university’s biggest sports fan.
Ruth Sarna, Baker’s director of student health services, plans to retire next month after 25 years at the Baldwin City university. She estimates that she’s seen 15,000 students and facilitated 65,000 patient visits during her time at Baker.
“I love the students. I always felt they energized me,” she said. “I cry at graduation because I get so attached to them. … I will miss the students terribly.”
During the Nurse Ruth era, the student health center has been housed in several different locations, the latest a converted nondescript, Ranch-style home featuring just the right amount of quaintness. Located next to the school’s counseling center, Sarna’s office has two treatment rooms and a scale that has been at the university longer than her.
“When students come in, it’s homey and it’s non-threatening and I think that’s one of the things they’re comfortable with,” Sarna said.
To be sure, they’re also comfortable with her. She’s been like a fill-in grandmother to the many Baker students who are living away from home for the first time.
“Some kids just come in for the hugs,” said Sherri Pahcoddy, coordinator of student health services at Baker. “She knows a lot of the students by name. She does a lot more than just get them well.”
Sarna tries to prepare them for the time in their lives when they’ll no longer be able to turn to her when they have a problem.
“I always joke with students: When they get to the real world … they won’t have Nurse Ruth to call,” she said. “They won’t be able to come and say, ‘Will you write me an excuse for class? I need to miss class.’”
Alumni keep in touch with her to this day, letting her know when, say, they get married or have kids.
“Sometimes students will introduce me to their parents and they’ll say, ‘This is the woman who saved my life,’” she said. “And I say, ‘You just had the stomach flu.’”
All joking aside, Sarna did actually help save some lives during her time at the school. Like the time she was talking to a student in the cafeteria suffering from strange symptoms; she sent in his lab work and discovered he had a pituitary tumor.
Steve Rottinghaus, director of public relations at the university, calls her “one of Baker’s biggest supporters” and notes that she is “very passionate about community health.” That is evidenced by her forming more than a decade ago of the Community Wellness Festival, which brings as many as 70 agencies and providers from throughout the county to Baldwin City, where about 300 people attend annually.
Sarna loves the intimate environment of the university, calling it a “marvelous school.”
“The ratio of professors to students is just excellent,” she said. “It’s a small enough campus for professors to know if you’re not there.” From time to time, they’ll call Sarna, asking if she’s seen the absent students.
“You know I can’t tell you that,” she responds.
Sarna, 71, has also been involved in professional organizations. At conferences, she would stand alongside health directors from Ivy League schools, never feeling that her job was any less important.
Sarna, a nurse by trade who previously worked for a health maintenance organization in Lawrence, said she’s stayed on the job so long because “God’s given me good health and I enjoy what I’m doing.” She has also grown increasingly attached to Baker, where she was one of its top boosters, attending numerous musical and theatrical performances, not to mention going to the university chapel every week.
‘Play your hearts for her’
Sarna can also be found at many Baker sporting events with her husband, Bob, a Baker grad and former Wildcats football player (the couple, who live in Lawrence, have six children, 14 grandkids and a great granddaughter). That’s where she earned the reputation of a no-nonsense cheerleader who’s not afraid to tell the players — and refs — what she thinks of their performances. She even got to lead the procession of graduating football players at the recent Senior Day.
After Mike Grossner came to Baker as the head football coach in 2004, Sarna told him: “Just get this old broad to the playoffs, please.” He said he would.
Four years later, he made good on his promise. Last year, he did the same. Same thing this year, when the team earned a spot in the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics playoffs for the third time in six seasons. Some of the credit could actually go to Sarna, who for years has been delivering pregame pep talks to Baker football players. At first, she winged it; now, she said, “I do my Vince Lombardi research before I go.”
Grossner said his players can’t help but be inspired by Sarna’s dedication. “When you see a gal who has so much passion for Baker football, you kind of start to look within yourself: Why aren’t I giving the greatest effort I can give there?” he said. “She could be doing a lot of other things. She has grandkids, family, but she’s there. You owe it to her to play your hearts for her.”
Before she even started at Baker, Gloria Atanmo was in contact with Sarna, who would email to remind her about turning in her vaccination records so she could play basketball. “She’s amazing,” Atanmo, a 23-year-old Arizona native, said of Sarna. “I would always catch the flu, like clockwork, every November. I would go to her and she’d stock me up with cough drops and lozenges. Being that far away from home .. there’s that void of motherly love.”
Added Atanmo: “It’ll be crazy without her. When you think of Baker, you think of Nurse Ruth.”