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Belleville News-Democrat, Derik Holtmann, Associated Press
In this photo taken Feb. 10, 2012, recovery room nurse Jan Stewart smiles during a coffee break at Anderson Hospital in Maryville, Ill. Stewart, 70, of Hamel, Ill., was recently honored for 50 years in nursing.

BELLEVILLE, Ill. — Jan Stewart wore a white dress, white hat, white shoes and white stockings when she went to work as a nurse in 1962.

Barnes Hospital in St. Louis prohibited jewelry other than wedding rings and makeup other than lipstick. Nurses had to keep their hair pinned up or cut short.

"Everything was reusable," said Jan, 70, of Hamel, a mother of three and grandmother of seven. "IV tubes, needles, syringes, catheters. Nothing was disposable, except dressings."

It would be decades before doctors practiced laser surgery or laproscopy. Most operations required hospital stays.

People who underwent cataract removal had to lie still for seven days with sandbags around their heads.

"There was no CPR," Jan said. "Every floor of the hospital had a chest tray (with a knife and chest spreader to get through the ribs). You just cut open the chest and did an internal cardiac massage."

Today, Jan is a nurse in the recovery room at Anderson Hospital in Maryville. She recently was honored for 50 years in nursing.

Her career has taken her to hospitals and doctor's offices in St. Louis, Cape Girardeau, Mo., and Macomb.

"I've been everywhere but obstetrics. I don't know nothin' 'bout birthin' babies," she said, borrowing a line from "Gone with the Wind." ''Unless you have a C-section. Then I can help you."

Jan joined the Anderson staff in 2003. She switched to part time in recent years, working one to three 10-hour shifts a week.

Co-workers describe her as a calm and caring nurse with a wealth of knowledge and experience.

"(Jan) mentors other staff members," said nurse Barb Jackson, 60, of Roxana. "She pats their hands and passes out chocolate. Whenever our younger nurses are having a bad day, she's just there to reassure them and tell them everything's going to be OK."

Jan keeps a stash of dark chocolate at the nurses station at all times. She's also coffeemaker-in-chief.

Katie Ward began working with Jan on the night shift when Katie was only 25. She learned about more than nursing.

"(Jan) taught me about life," said Katie, 33, of Staunton, who now serves as the recovery room's nurse manager.

"She was widowed in her 40s. She taught me a lot about finances and being financially prepared. When I lost my dad, she taught me about loss and how to pick myself up and keep going."

Jan keeps her hair short but takes advantage of today's relaxed dress codes by wearing blue pants, patterned smocks and tennis shoes.

She recently cared for Alice Reno-Howard, 73, of Brighton, who underwent surgery for carpal tunnel syndrome.

"(Jan) was just so upbeat and cheerful," Alice said. "I asked her, 'Don't you want to retire?' And she said, 'Oh no, I love my job.'"

Jan Largent grew up in Southeast Missouri and attended Sikeston High School, where she was recruited for Barnes Hospital School of Nursing in the late '50s.

Students attended classes year-round for three years. Total cost for tuition, books, room, food and uniforms was $400.

"There was a trade-off," Jan said. "We were on staff at the hospital. We were getting on-the-job training."

Her first employment outside Barnes was at Malcolm Bliss Psychopathologic Institute in St. Louis. She studied the effect of drugs on mental illness for Washington University.

Jan met and married Wendell Stewart, despite his being a resident in psychiatry and neurology.

"I didn't date medical students or residents because I didn't want to marry a doctor," she said. "Their life was not their own."

The couple later moved to Cape Girardeau, where Wendell entered private practice. The U.S. Navy drafted him and sent him to Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, in the late '60s.

He opted to take his family and serve two years in Cuba instead of going solo and spending his second year in Vietnam.

"I was seven months pregnant with two preschoolers when we went down there," Jan said.

The Stewarts returned to Cape Girardeau after Wendell's discharge and stayed until 1978, when he was tapped to direct two mental-health clinics in Macomb. He died in 1984 from complications of radiation for colon cancer.

Jan's experience in a Macomb hospital recovery room helped her get the Anderson job in 2003.

"I love this hospital," she said. "It's the best place I've ever worked. There are so many practicing, churchgoing Christians, and I think that makes a difference."

Jan and her co-workers have taken vacations to Italy, Switzerland, Germany, Austria, Greece and Turkey together.

Back at the hospital, the nurses most appreciate her sense of humor. It helps them function in a demanding, sometimes stressful environment.

"When you work with the public, you have to maintain that sense of humor so you can be kind and compassionate with patients," Jackson said. "That's what makes Jan so much fun to work with. She's a pistol."

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Jan has three sons: Kirwin Stewart, a minister in Nebraska; Mike Stewart, an Alton attorney who lives in Edwardsville; and David Stewart, of Fairmont City, who works in food management.

Over the past 50 years, Jan believes one of the most important changes in medicine has been increased communication between nurses and patients.

"You couldn't tell patients anything (in the early days)," she said. "Their blood pressure, their temperature, what medication you were giving them. Everything had to come from their doctors.

"Today, patients are much more involved in their own care, and they should be. They know when there's something wrong with their bodies."

Information from: Belleville News-Democrat, http://www.bnd.com