What goes ’round comes ’round|Help was there for Sister Robyn, who had helped many

Published 12:00 am Sunday, October 18, 2009

What does a retired nun do?

“I mostly walk the dog,” Sister Robyn said.

But don’t be fooled by her seemingly leisurely lifestyle and the pastoral setting in which she lives off Fisher’s Ferry Road, for her 50 years in the Religious Order of the Sisters of Mercy have been filled with hard work and good deeds. Her story is proof of the adage to “cast your bread upon the waters” as well as the selfless devotion of a friend, Sister Patricia.

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Gordon Cotton is an author and historian who lives in Vicksburg.

By man’s standards, Sister Robyn shouldn’t be alive, but God must have had other plans. Few would have thought, several years ago, that she would be around to celebrate her Golden Jubilee and renew her vows — both of which will take place this morning at the 11 o’clock Mass at St. Michael. A reception will follow in the parish hall.

Sitting at the breakfast nook in her home last week, she laughed and said to “make the questions simple.”

She grew up in West Texas, born in Lubbock and raised in Slaton. She was Gail Marie Huser, of Czech heritage. There weren’t many people in Slaton, she said, but there were lots of “chickens, chickens and more chickens,” for her father not only raised them, but he also had three feed stores.

She went to the local Catholic school, operated by the Sisters of Mercy, and the resident priest, Father O’Brien, usually asked the children what they wanted to be when they grew up whenever he visited the school.

“I would say I want to be a nurse, like my Aunt Ellen,” little Gail Marie said. “That’s what I’m going to do.”

When she was a senior in high school and Queen of the May festivities, she took the crown and placed it on the head of a statue of the Blessed Mother, “and it just struck me that day” that she would enter the convent. That was in 1959. She took training in St. Louis, then went to Mercy College in Detroit where she received her BSN. Later, she earned her master’s degree in nursing administration at the University of Southern Mississippi.

What brought her to Vicksburg?

“Well, that was an easy decision. You had no choice. We were told where to go,” she said. “But it was a good choice.”

Sister Robyn began as head nurse in OB-GYN in 1966, but in 1967 went back to her hometown for two years while her father, Robert, was ill. She had chosen the name in honor of him when she took her vows, so her time at home was very special.

In 1970, she came back to Vicksburg and held different positions in the nursing profession with the Sisters of Mercy, and from 1975 to 1982 she was director of nursing, then vice president of nursing services. It was during those years that she began the volunteer program of the Candy Stripers at the hospital.

Sister Robyn was working in Jackson in 1988 with the homeless and chronically mentally ill, when she suffered Sudden Arrhythmia Death Syndrome with full-blown cardiac arrest. It was over an hour before she got to a hospital, and a week later she suffered another massive heart attack while in ICU. For three months, she was in a coma, then in the hospital for seven months, followed by about two years in rehab, some of the time in New Orleans, some at Methodist Hospital in Jackson.

Few patients recover from such an ordeal. Part of her brain was destroyed, and plans were to put her in a nursing home.

That’s when Sister Patricia stepped in.

“No way,” she said. She would take care of her. Sister Patricia, from Biloxi, had been director of nursing at Mercy Hospital, and the two Sisters had become good friends. Sister Robyn credits Sister Patricia’s tenacity with her amazing recovery.

She used to play the piano, organ and accordion, but that knowledge and talent has been wiped out and can’t be relearned because that part of the brain was destroyed. She can’t do numbers at all, “but I can usually find the last line of a hymn in the book.” She says she’s more outspoken than she used to be, “and people say they like me better now.” In looking at some old photographs taken of her when she was in school, she said she didn’t like them, “but they speak the truth.”

Was she a good patient? She doesn’t remember, for she was unconscious much of the time, but she does recall that she was not very happy with some of her sitters in New Orleans. However, things got better when she found that friends had brought her some money, “and I had the best time in the gift shop. I loved to get snacks.”

Two therapists told Sister Robyn she had to stay in therapy longer, and she “cried and cried and cried. They thought I was dumb, but I really wasn’t that dumb.” A speech therapist assured her that she could go home, so after much commotion she left New Orleans. She was so excited that in a little while she asked Sister Patricia, “Are we home yet? We were only in Metarie!”

Before long they were home, and Sister Robyn’s condition improved to the point that she was soon back at work in a wheelchair as a volunteer in Vicksburg and downtown Jackson.

What goes ’round had come ’round, for those she once taught and nursed took care of her, wheeling her to wherever she needed to go.

One of her projects, before her illness, was starting a medical clinic associated with the Stewpot in Jackson, persuading doctors and nurses to volunteer their services. She also helped establish group homes in three cities and providing dental and health care free for the mentally ill. Another project was securing a $307,000 van, outfitted with medical facilities, to go into the Delta to care for children. It is operated in collaboration with the University Medical Center School of Nursing and staffed with volunteers.

One of those volunteers is Sister Robyn, back in her chosen profession, in her role in life, helping others.

One of the delights of her life is her dog, Crickett Marie, a large animal that looks like a mix of boxer and Great Dane. She and Sister Patricia found it about three years ago around Thanksgiving, emaciated, frightened and cowering in the weeds, looking at first like a deer. They could never find an owner, and Dr. James Valentine kindly provided it with medical care. They named it Crickett, and Sister Robyn added Marie to give it a religious standing.

This past July 4, Sister Robyn was walking Crickett Marie when a large rattlesnake bit the dog twice. A call to Dr. Dale Cordes saved the dog’s life.

Of course, the dog is a special pet who adores the two ladies. She has a ferocious bark — and possibly a bite, too. They may have spoiled her a bit, but Sister Robyn said they have their rules and priorities.

“We have our coffee first,” she said, “then Crickett and I go walking.”