Back in early March 1973, newly released American Graffiti and The Sting were raking in big bucks at the box office. Roberta Flack's Killing Me Softly With His Song was sitting atop the pop charts. And a nurse named Louise Belich was busy learning the ropes of her new job at All Children's Hospital.
All would share something in common. Like the movies and the song that accompanied her All Children's debut, Louise would become an enduring classic - a No. 1 hit in the hearts the nurses and doctors she worked with, and the young cardiovascular patients she helped and cared for so passionately.
Forty years to the date of her first day of work - March 12, 1973 - she officially spent her final few hours on the job amid a surprise celebration reflecting the love and admiration so many people feel for her.
There were glowing tributes from coworkers, words of praise from ACH President Dr. Jonathan Ellen, potluck fare galore - and even a special appearance from Raymond, the big blue mascot of the Tampa Bay Rays team Louise and husband Jack avidly support as season-ticket holders.
Of course, if Louise could have had it her way, there would only have been a quiet farewell with absolutely no fanfare. She made Susan Collins, administrative director of the Heart Center, promise that there would be no party. But when Susan relayed that sentiment to her nursing staff, the response equated to a resounding "no way."
"I initially had rejected the idea of a party because Louise was so adamant about wanting to leave quietly," Susan said. "But I'm so glad the staff did this. It was my promise to Louise that there would be no party - it wasn't her coworkers' promise."
In fact, when Louise first entered the crowded conference room in the Heart Center, her first words following cheers and applause were initially of disbelief. "This wasn't supposed to happen," she said.
But in no time, the woman known to younger nurses as "Mama Louise" was smiling, sharing hugs and feeling humbled by the outpouring of emotion and sentiments. First came a reading of her Daisy Award nomination letter, singling her out for constantly advocating for nurses, interacting with and educating families, providing compassionate clinical care and always being guided by her love of children.
Chaplain David Pitt followed by announcing the arrival of a VIP. With that, Raymond burst into the room. With cheers and laughter erupting, the Rays' furry emissary embraced the stunned guest of honor and did a few silly dance moves to break the ice. She couldn't help but beam.
Then everyone's attention turned to a Power Point show that noted how there were only 63 beds (compared to 259 today), no ICUs and no pediatric subspecialists when Louise first started at All Children's.
The presentation revealed how Louise did double duty as weekend and night pharmacist at ACH in addition to performing her supervisory nursing duties; how she brought patients every Thursday to the loading dock for a weekly treat - McDonald's Day; and how she displayed a playful side by placing EKG leads on her shoes and tap-dance down the halls and racing on IV polls. And it expressed thanks from the staff for "all you have taught us through the years."
As the party unfolded, Louise sat down among long-time friends and co-workers, to share a final few hours of on-the-job conversation and company. And others talked about the lasting impact she has had.
"She really has mentored the entire staff to the ways of nursing," Susan said. "She's looked to as a resource. And she just is the epitome of nursing. You can see how much they love her."
Dr. Jeffrey Jacobs was one of several cardiovascular physicians attending the send-off. "One thing I know about Louise is whenever I came out of the operating room and she was the nurse taking care of my patient, I felt really happy," he said. "She's a wonderful nurse and it's been an honor to work with her for 15 years."
Dr. James Quintessenza echoed the sentiment: "Louise has been here longer than almost anybody. She's just a great person and a great nurse. She's been through all kinds of stuff but always has that 'We'll get it done' kind of attitude.' She's going to be missed terribly."
And what will Louise miss? "I think everything," she said. "Everything. The families, the children. I'll miss the camaraderie. I've known a lot of these nurses a long time - some since they got out of nursing school. They're like my kids."
Louise plans to stay active in retirement. She and husband Jack are highly in involved in their Clearwater church, Calvary Baptist, and they're taking a trip to the Holy Land this summer. And as Rays diehards, they'll be spending plenty of time soon at Tropicana Field.
Yet wherever Louse is, her heart will always be in All Children's.
"People say, 'How do you work at All Children's?' and I say, 'Ninety-nine percent of the time or maybe even more, it's not a sad place," she said. "You're there through the hardships of that family - the worst times in their lives. And if you can give just a little bit for that family, that means more to me than anything."