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It was not until she was 37 that Jeri Eichberg finally got around to the career of her dreams, nursing. Perhaps it’s because she came so late to the party that even after 44 years on the job, Eichberg is still at it, working full time—at age 82.
How old is 82? Well, in 1924, the year Eichberg was born, America was in the midst of the Jazz Age. Women bobbed their hair and raised hemlines; men sported screen idol Rudolph Valentino’s slick hairdo. It was the year two privileged university students, Leopold and Loeb, murdered a 14-year-old boy in Chicago. The year Lenin died and Stalin took over. The year that George Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue, IBM and Walt Disney’s first cartoon all debuted.
Seven years later, FDR was on the stump, and Eichberg shook his hand in her rural West Virginia hometown. That same year, Eichberg had an epiphany. The sight of two women in starched nurses’ uniforms strolling down the street transfixed her. “In that instant,” she recalls, “I knew I wanted to be a nurse.”
But it was not until she was 34 and a mother of four that she entered a nursing program for what we today call "nontraditional" students. Her fifth child was born during her first year; her husband died two years later.
Eichberg’s first job was as a private-duty nurse at Hopkins Hospital.
Some of her patients were illustrious, among them Hopkins greats like Alfred Blalock and Helen Taussig and Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall. His first nurse was too intimidated to put drops in his eyes, but Eichberg got right down to business. “Good thing you got here,” Marshall griped. “I was about to write a dissenting opinion.”
In 1977, Eichberg moved on to Wilmer’s emergency room, where she’s worked ever since, triaging patients and assisting with minor eye surgeries. “Jeri is an active contributor to our unit,” says Vicky Navarro, Wilmer’s director of nursing. “She never makes excuses because of her age.”
Eichberg has worked alongside more than 200 residents and fellows and doesn’t hesitate to advise them. “Everyone listens to Jeri,” proclaims neuro-ophthalmologist Neil Miller, who has known Eichberg since he was a medical student 36 years ago. “She always has the patient’s best interests at heart.”
She’s a three-time winner of the Wilmer Ophthalmic Society’s award for contributing the most to resident education. This year, she received the Doctor’s Advocate Award, which had never before been given to a nurse. An emergency examination room on Wilmer 3 is named in her honor.
Eichberg’s children badger her often to retire, but she’s just not ready. “Emotionally, I can’t stop working,” she says. “I think I’ll know when it’s time.”