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Human Interest

Oldest Working Nurse In America Keeps Hectic Schedule in Hospital Operating Room at 91

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She knew she was getting up in years. So nurse Florence Rigney approached her supervisor and asked if she would still be able to work.

“I said, ‘Why wouldn’t you?’ “ recalls Paula Swanson, director of surgical services at Tacoma General Hospital in Washington.

That was six years ago. Rigney, called by all who know her as SeeSee, is now 91 and the oldest working nurse in America.

Two days a week, Rigney drives from her Tacoma home to the hospital for her 8-hour shift as an operating room surgical nurse.

Much of that time, she’s on her feet setting up equipment, readying operating rooms for a dozen surgeries in a day and helping patients onto the surgical table. The Fitbit Rigney wears on her uniform shows she usually wracks up two or three miles worth of steps each shift.

Florence Rigney

“I kid and say it’s my Polish heritage,” Rigney tells PEOPLE. “I like to keep busy, I am a hard worker, I don’t like to sit and do nothing.”

She once tried, when she retired at 65. That lasted six months.

“I had these thoughts I would go back to work a day or two to get extra pocket money,” she says, “and here it is 25 years later.”

Courtesy Florence Rigney
Courtesy Florence Rigney

Rigney remembers always wanting to be a nurse. Her father tried to dissuade her.

“He thought I should become a secretary because they made more money,” she says.

August marked 70 years that she’s been in nursing. “I love what I do, I love nursing, I just wish I could do more,” she says.

Courtesy Florence Rigney
Courtesy Florence Rigney

Rigney had to give up golfing and cross-country skiing a few years ago. She’s outlived two husbands and one of her two children, an adopted son who died a decade ago in his 40s.

“I eat healthy, I never smoked,” Rigney says. “I have a glass of wine occasionally.”

What age does she feel inside? “Some days I feel 60 years old,” Rigney says, “and other days I feel like I’m probably 191.”

Swanson, 64, admires Rigney’s indomitable spirit.

“She is a go-getter, she is always busy, she can’t stand down time,” Swanson says. “She is as sharp as a tack and keeps up with people who are one quarter of her age, she truly is one of a kind in the nursing world.”

After Rigney turned 91 on May 8, a nurse from Muncie, Indiana, called her at work to share the news that she was 90. “She said, ‘We are the two oldest working nurses in the country’ and I said, ‘I have a year up on you,’ ” says Rigney, laughing.

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Upon turning 90, the hospital threw Rigney a big surprise party. A co-worker filmed the celebration and put it on Facebook.

“I don’t do Facebook and one of my granddaughters said, ‘Grandma, it’s gone viral,’ ” says Rigney. “I’ve heard from people all over the world. They congratulate me and admire the fact that I still work.”

It’s also admirable Tacoma General fully supports Rigney’s ongoing employment, which includes meeting nursing license requirements and taking computer classes to keep up with changing technology.

“When you take a person like SeeSee, with all her experience, we wouldn’t dream of turning away a skilled, perioperative nurse,” Swanson says, “especially when they have the competency to perform.”

But Rigney does see an end to her nursing days. She plans on working until her next birthday. When she turns 92.

However, Rigney doesn’t expect to slow down. “I’ll have to volunteer or do something,” she says. “I can’t do nothing.”