GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — It doesn’t take decades of experience to know how rewarding a career in nursing can be or to win the Bill Barkeley Pinnacle of Achievement Award. But, in Rita Garvelink’s case, it helped.

The University of Michigan Health-West honored her with that award in April at the health system foundation’s VITALITY Gala. It’s the highest level of accomplishment at UMH-West, recognizing individuals who do extraordinary work.

During Nurse Appreciation Week, Garvelink, a registered nurse with a BSN, shared what has made the profession so rewarding over the last 52 years.

Garvelink started as an LPN in 1971, making $2.76 per hour, but quickly became an RN at a time when they still used crank beds, glass IV bottles and paper charting.

“Many of the physicians and nurses, I could be their mother,” she said of how things have changed.

This profession was in Garvelink’s blood. Her mother and sister were both nurses, and she said, “I thought I’d want to be like my mom, you know? And I hope I am able to fulfill that role… I hope I make them proud.”

Much has changed since Garvelink started in nursing, including the reason for a hospital stay. She said it wasn’t unusual in the 1970s and 80s for patients who had simpler surgeries, like cataract surgery, to stay in the hospital for three days.

“Now, everything is pretty much outpatient, most of our surgeries, so the patients we do see in the hospital are sicker, on average,” Garvelink explained. “I still don’t feel there’s a more rewarding type of profession than nursing.”

Despite the many changes in the healthcare field over the last 50 years, what Garvelink says hasn’t changed and never should is the importance of showing true compassion and kindness.

“When a patient says to you, ‘thank you for holding my hand, I couldn’t have done this without you,’ those are comments that warm your heart, but also are things that can’t be put into a paycheck,” she said.