Former Public Health Nurse and Supervisor of the Suffolk County Department of Health
Bertha Loretta Gumper vomLehn graduated from Kings County Nursing School in 1939. She then moved to Costa Rica to work as a nurse; quite an adventure for a woman raised and educated in Brooklyn, New York.
While employed by the United Fruit Company in Costa Rica, she met a naval ensign, Herbert Gumper, and they were married in 1941. While her husband was frequently called away on duty, she remained living and working in Costa Rica as a nurse. “In 1942, pregnant with me, her first child, she was shipped home,” says her son Frank Gumper. “In those days you could not work when you were pregnant.” She went on to have two more children.
The family traveled extensively and relocated often throughout the United States and Asia. Whenever the navy re-stationed her husband, it was up to Mrs. vomLehn to bring the family, with three young kids, to the next port. Frank remembers one particular incident that is telling of his mother’s selfless nature. “While traveling through the Rocky Mountains to get to California, we came across a hitchhiker who explained that he had been picked up, robbed, and stranded in the Rockies,” says Frank. “Mother asked where he was headed, and when he told her California, she told him to hop in; she drove a stranger 1,500 miles.”
Over the years, Mrs. vomLehn and her family lived near several naval ports. “While our family was living in the Philippine Islands, she worked at the American Association of the Philippines, trying to reunite families of American military members with their Philippine born children,” says her daughter, Elizabeth Hug.
“Nursing is a highly transferrable skill,” says Frank. “Mother could find work everywhere, whether we were living in the Philippine Islands or Costa Rica, New York or California”
In the early 1950s, Mrs. vomLehn worked at a children’s hospital in New Jersey, caring for children and adolescents with polio. “She was overjoyed when the first polio vaccines were developed,” recalls Elizabeth. In 1957, she was working at Suffolk County Hospital, and after summering in Mattituck, Long Island for several years with their relatives, the family moved there permanently in 1958.
In order to be promoted from a public health nurse to a supervisor, Mrs. vomLehn was encouraged to pursue her bachelor’s degree, so she enrolled in Adelphi’s Suffolk County extension campus in the 1960s. The program allowed its students to obtain credits for life experience, and she had several credits transfer over from Kings County and her work experience. In order to complete her degree, it was required that she earn a certain number of credits at Adelphi’s Garden City campus. “After working all day, mother would commute almost two hours for her classes,” recalls Frank.
After graduating from Adelphi in 1967, she continued to work as public health nurse. “At the time, the public health nurse was the school nurse for six smaller schools,” explains Elizabeth. “In addition to visiting her own case load, mother would stop in and see elderly patients before and after her official working hours. She would often visit every day, even if it was for just a few minutes, to make sure they were okay. She always felt people were more important than punch cards and time studies.”
Recognizing that the migrant worker population in Eastern Suffolk County needed medical care, Mrs. vomLehn developed a new healthcare program for them. She would bring card tables, clean sheets, and set up a “clinic” at the labor camps. “Mother would put a white uniform on me,” Elizabeth remembers. “I would register people, babysit the children, and clean up the supplies.” Mrs. vomLehn convinced nurses, doctors, and interns to volunteer their time, providing migrant workers and their families with vaccinations, tuberculosis screenings, and physicals.
After her second marriage to Harvey vomLehn, she relocated from Mattituck to Huntington. She fulfilled her professional goal when she became a supervisor for the Suffolk County Department of Health. “What mother loved most about public health was helping children, young people, and the needy.those who couldn’t afford or know to seek preventive care,” says Frank. “She was always giving, always helping out wherever she could.”
Although she passed away in 2002, her achievements and memory live on through The B. Loretta Gumper vomLehn Memorial Scholarship, which her children established to benefit nursing students at Adelphi. Besides Frank and Elizabeth, she also has another child, Victor, four grandchildren, and three great-grandchildren.
When and why did your mother first want to become a nurse?
Frank Gumper: In the late 1930s, women were either going to become nurses, teachers, or secretaries. My mother always wanted to be a nurse. She graduated from high school early, and went right into Kings County Hospital School.
Do you have favorite memories of your mother’s time at Adelphi?
Frank Gumper: My mother loved coffee. During the break in her first class at Adelphi, she went in search of a cup. She found that the coffee from the machine tasted horrible; it would not do! The next class she brought in her 50 cup coffee urn, but that wasn’t good enough. She loved to bake, so she would bring cookies or cakes to each class for her classmates to enjoy with their coffee during the break in class. She had teachers encouraging her to take their course the next semester! We like to say that my mother baked her way through Adelphi.
I remember that my mother signed up for an art course. One project required her to submit her own original work of art. She didn’t know what to do, but ended up deciding to do a collage. I remember cutting a piece of wood for her; she tied in her nursing background, putting tongue depressors and other medical supplies on it. After that, we spray painted the whole thing. When she brought it into class, her teacher thought it was wonderful.
What are some changes your mother saw throughout her years in nursing?
Frank Gumper: While today you would normally go to a doctor to get your shots, I remember that when my mother worked as a public health nurse, she would go out and deliver shots.
Elizabeth Hug: When mother graduated from Kings County in 1939, nurses did not take blood pressures, doctors did. When a doctor came on the floor, all the nurses stopped what they were doing and stood still.
There was sulfa powder for wounds. You had to crush, warm, and mix morphine tablets to medicate patients. Nothing was disposable, syringes were glass, and needles had to be de-burred regularly. World War II and ensuing medical advances have led to dramatic changes in nursing practice.
What advice do you think your mother would give to today’s nursing students?
Frank Gumper: My mother was always a firm believer in education. Growing up, she always took us places – to the zoo, to museums – she tried to expose us to a lot of different things. Looking at our family tree, I was the first to get my degree, and she was the second.
Elizabeth Hug: Love what you do! Remember that the patient always comes first. The day-to-day decisions we make can change a life forever. Embrace nursing with a passion, and remember that a nurse can use his/her knowledge to open the doors to advanced practice, research, teaching, legal issues, legislation, and any profession. You are following in the footsteps of those who have made nursing into an honored profession, never forgetting those we care for.