Interview: Florence “SeeSee” Rigney

The Health Care Worker
Photo by Rachel Coward

Photo by Rachel Coward

Florence “SeeSee” Rigney is the oldest working nurse in the United States. Last May, a video of her 90th birthday celebration went viral. The recording captures her in blue scrubs and a bedazzled “happy birthday” tiara holding back tears among her cheering colleagues. For 70 years she’s worked on and off as an operating room nurse at Tacoma General Hospital. When she first started, she got paid $115 a month. These days, she gets a ton of attention for being a high-energy compassionate nurse who still moves down the halls of the surgical unit faster than women a third her age. In 2015, Rigney was on The Dr. Oz Show and nominated for a March of Dimes Nurse of the Year award. Her birthday video was shared by The Huffington Post, The Today Show and BuzzFeed. She admits she feels a bit like a local celebrity even though she’s bashful about all the publicity. “I feel very honored to think that all of this has happened to me just because I turned 90, and I’m still here!”

Q: When did you become a nurse? 
A: I went into nurses training in 1943.

Q: Here in Tacoma? 
A: Right here at Tacoma General. And then I graduated in August of 1946.

Q: What was your uniform like? Did you wear a skirt?
A: When I first started as a student nurse and worked in the operating room, we wore dresses. They were white scrub dresses. And then we had turbans that we wrapped around our heads.

Q: When could you wear pants to work? 
A: ’60s, maybe?

Q: What made you want to be a nurse? 
A: I really don’t know, but it was something that I always wanted to do. My father did not want me to be a nurse. In fact, he was very reluctant to even give me money to pay the tuition. He thought I should go to business school and be a secretary.

SeeSee-graduation-1943_extendQ: What was it about the operating room that you always enjoyed? 
A: I don’t know. It was kinda exciting … Now that I’m 90 years old I don’t stay in the room for the whole case. I’ll go and get patients; I do setup and help get the patients on the table. Go in as relief for coffee and for lunch breaks.

Q: What was one of scariest things you’ve seen in the operating room? 
A: You know what I didn’t like at all? Which is crazy. When we removed fingernails or toenails. I didn’t like that.

Q: Why did they have to remove toenails? 
A: Well, if they have fungus there, or maybe it was smashed and the nail was going to come off. You want to know the most exciting thing (from the operating room)? What I liked the best, this was way back, I used to scrub for chest cases. If they were removing a part of the lung or something, I really liked that.

Q: Really, why? 
A: I don’t know. Ha ha! There’s some things I didn’t like. Labor and delivering babies. That wasn’t one of my favorite things. I like doing Cesarean sections! Why did I like chest surgery? Hmm. It’s kinda exciting. It’s just hard to explain.

Q: How did you get the nickname SeeSee? 
A: I went to Clover Park High School in Lakewood, which was relatively small. I was a sophomore and I was talking to my P.E. teacher one day. I was telling her something, and I kept saying, “see, see.” And she said “OK, SeeSee.” And you know, from that day on she was calling me that. And I spell it SeeSee because of that. And that’s better than being called Flow or Flossy!

Q: I hear that you run circles around people here. 
A: Well, that’s what they say. I don’t like to sit and I do move quickly. But I’ve always done that. That’s my nature.

Q: So, there’s a video of you on your 90th birthday that went viral. 
A: My granddaughter said, “Grandma! It’s gone viral!” And I’m thinking of a virus. I don’t do Facebook.

Q: But you have seen the video? 
A: Oh heavens, yes. At first it was kinda of embarrassing. You can’t imagine the people I have heard from all over the United States. And the cards that I’ve received! I’ve heard from someone in London, England. I’ve heard from someone in India.

Q: Do you have any secrets to living a long life? 
A: I don’t know if it’s my Polish heritage? Could be. I just kept active all the time. And I feel very blessed that my health is good. I have aches and pains. But when you get to be 90 I guess you have a few.

Q: Any advice for younger nurses? 
A: Don’t ever think that you know it all. Because I kinda did that when I was in the operating room … you have to always be open. You never stop learning.

Read more interviews.

is the managing editor at South Sound magazine. Email her.
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