Eunice Rish Medhurst passed away in her sleep at 103 last week, but her legacy as a trailblazing nurse and administrator lives on in the patients she cared for and the nursing careers she nurtured over decades.
Medhurst believed in giving back to her community – even in retirement she contributed several thousand volunteer hours to Lexington Medical Center, the hospital she helped nurture from its inception.
She and her late husband Merle Medhurst, a retired USC business professor, also traveled extensively and raised funds for a chapel at the Presbyterian Community in Lexington, where the couple resided after retirement. She died at the Presbyterian Community Dec. 31.
“She was a gracious, wonderful woman who I never heard say a bad thing about anybody or anything,” said the Rev. Fran Bragan, the Presbyterian Community’s chaplain. “She was very cherished.”
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The Medhursts had no children but several generations of nieces and nephews treasured her presence in their lives, Bragan said. At a memorial service at the Presbyterian Community, “they talked about how generous she was, not just with stuff, but with herself.”
Medhurst was the first director of patient care at Lexington Medical Center, hired in 1969 from the old Columbia Hospital, where she had spent more than 35 years. She had risen there from a general duty nurse to that hospital’s director of nursing and supervised the hospital’s nursing school, which closed in the mid-1960s.
Her approach was no-nonsense – nurses wore caps and starched white uniforms and rose when physicians entered the hospital room – but the care of her staff was legendary. She encouraged young nurses to take on challenges they secretly did not think they could tackle and made time for them to broaden their education and earn advanced degrees.
She was recruited to come to the hospital by Lexington’s first president, George Rentz, who always said it was one of his best decisions.
Once word got out that she would become director of patient care at the fledgling Lexington hospital, which opened in 1971, applications for nursing positions flooded in because so many wanted to work under Medhurst, said Dr. William Dunovant.
“Her reputation just attracted the finest nurses the Lord ever made to Lexington hospital,” Dunovant said. “She had presence. What she said you took seriously but she did it in a way that she didn’t offend anybody.” She rose to become a senior vice president there.
Gwen Drakeford trained under Medhurst at the Columbia Hospital’s school of nursing and was supervised by her there and at Lexington Medical Center.
“She was very honest and very fair,” said Drakeford, who went on to become director of the Lexington hospital’s maternal and child division under Medhurst. “Sometimes young people have jokes about faculty members – never did that happen with Miss Eunice.”
“She was just the ultimate professional lady,” she said. “She was always very prim, I guess would be the word, and proper. I never saw her exhibit anger... she was always in control.”
Medhurst encouraged Drakeford to return to school for her bachelor’s degree in nursing and sent her to Wake Forest’s Bowman Gray School of Medicine to learn advanced techniques.
Eunice Rish Medhurst was born Oct. 5, 1911, in Pelion, to the late Willie Harriet Wannamaker Rish and David Rish into a family that grew to 10 children.
William Howard Taft was president and that same year, Orville Wright remained in the air for nine minutes and 45 seconds in a glider at Kill Devil Hills, N.C., setting a record that stood for 10 years.
The young Eunice Rish attended grade school in Pelion and matriculated at Swansea High School, so it was like coming home when she crossed the Congaree River to join Lexington Medical staff.
“Working in Lexington County was one way to pay the citizens for the money they had invested in my education,” she said in a video made to celebrate the hospital’s 40th anniversary.
She graduated from the Columbia Hospital School of Nursing in 1935, then earned a bachelor’s in nursing from the University of South Carolina in 1952, where she was Phi Beta Kappa. She maintained a keen interest in and influence over USC’s College of Nursing; she and her husband established a scholarship there for nursing students. The Lexington Medical Center Auxiliary also established a scholarship in her name.
Medhurst went on to earn a master’s degree from Indiana University in 1955 and studied at Johns Hopkins University hospital in Baltimore.
In retirement, the Medhursts traveled, availing themselves of Elderhostel programs in Europe and other places.
“Both of them were real humble,” Bragan, the chaplain, said. “With all of the accolades that Eunice was able to garner all through her life, she was not at all boastful about them. There was a gracious humility about both of them.”
Dunovant, the physician, attended Medhurst’s funeral last week at Congaree Presbyterian Church, where a great-nephew remembered his aunt as someone who “ran a tight ship.”
That resonated with him and others in attendance.
“I turned and about six or seven nurses were in the row behind me and they were all smiling,” he said.