Meet the Nation’s Oldest Working Nurse

Featured Article, Hometown Heroes, Odd Jobs, People
on January 23, 2013
Ronald C. Modra At 87, Helen Deneka may be the nation’s oldest working nurse.

Each workday, Helen Deneka, 87, does what she’s been doing since she was a teenager—caring for sick, injured and ailing people.

“The patients start coming at 6 a.m.,” says Deneka, bundling surgery consent forms into a stack at Baptist Memorial Hospital-Tipton’s ambulatory care unit in Covington, Tenn. “We have to get the charts ready and make sure the rooms are set up.”

Believed to be the oldest working nurse in the United States, Deneka has readied rooms, administered medicine and tended to tens of thousands of patients since graduating from nurse training in 1946.

“I do the paperwork, then start the patients’ IVs,” says Deneka, describing her daily routine at the outpatient surgical center. “Fortunately, I get them on the first stick 99 percent of the time.”

“She never sits,” says fellow nurse Margaret Green, 66. “She’s going all the time.”

Born the day after Christmas in 1925, Deneka grew up in Munford, Tenn., with three brothers and two sisters, who turned to her when they were sick. “I’d take care of them to help my mother,” she recalls.

Deneka’s mother, Rose, encouraged her to become a nurse. “I think she saw it in me,” she says.

In 1943, Deneka enrolled in the nurse training program at Baptist Memorial Hospital in Memphis, Tenn., graduating three years later. After earning a certificate in anesthesia, she worked at the hospital as a nurse anesthetist.

“Back then, we did everything by hand,” Deneka says. “Checking the pulse, taking blood pressure. Now, you just look up at the monitors.”

Deneka has seen other changes during her seven-decades-long nursing career. “We used to wash all the syringes and needles between patients and sharpen our needles with a whetstone,” she says. “Now they throw everything away.”

Deneka witnessed the introduction of penicillin in the 1940s, the installation of air-conditioning at the hospital in the early 1950s, and the addition of bathrooms and telephones in individual patients’ rooms in the late 1950s.

She’s also experienced major changes in nurses’ uniforms, from striped dresses with starched and pressed white aprons when she was a nursing student to today’s casual and colorful scrubs.

“Student nurses wore dresses and caps,” she recalls. “We’d be inspected every morning. If your uniform wasn’t perfect, you were sent back to your room to change.”

Working in Memphis provided claims to fame as well. Deneka was on duty at Baptist Memorial the day Elvis and Priscilla Presley’s daughter, Lisa-Marie, was born in 1968, as well as the day Elvis died in 1977.

“Both those days were bad,” she recalls. “So much commotion. People were everywhere.”

Though she loves nursing, Deneka took a five-year hiatus from the hospital in 1981 to help her husband, Harry, 90, a 20-year military veteran turned retailer, operate Fred’s Discount Store near their home in Millington, Tenn. (pop. 10,176). Eventually, her oldest son Michael, 58, now an attorney in Roanoke, Va., took over as store manager.

Deneka’s sons Ray, 48, a Tipton County paramedic, and David, 47, a Memphis-based orthopedic surgeon, both followed their mother into the medical field. She returned to the profession in 1986 when joining the nursing staff at Baptist Memorial Hospital-Tipton, where she works at least 40 hours each week.

“She’s such a caring and conscientious person,” says co-worker Margaret Green. “I can’t imagine her retiring.”

“I’m thinking about it,” Deneka says, returning to her charts. “But not today. We have a lot of patients coming in.”