September 01, 1997 12:00 PM

AS AN E.R. NURSE AT METHODIST Hospital South in Memphis, Beverly Pressgrove had been trained to respond to almost any crisis. But the events of Aug. 10 were just about the strangest she had ever encountered. “I go out [to the lobby] and see a chimpanzee with a Pampers diaper on,” she recalls. “A lady was giving it mouth-to-mouth [resuscitation] and chest percussion. She’s shaking, she’s hysterical, and she says, ‘Please help my baby! I found him in his crib, and he’s not breathing.’ I just couldn’t see myself turning away.”

With the help of a temporary nurse, Pressgrove, 34, attempted to revive the animal by blowing air into its mouth through a drinking straw. But their efforts were too late: the chimp had died. “[The chimp’s owner] was crying and hugged the monkey’s neck,” says Pressgrove, who adds that the woman, whose identity is still unknown, had told her that she had raised the 2-month-old ape since birth. “Then she thanked me for trying and took the monkey and left.”

While others at the hospital cheered Pressgrove on (“Everybody was asking, ‘Is the monkey okay?’ “she says), her superiors fired her two days later, citing concern over hygiene and lack of attention to other patients. “We’re a hospital for adult humans, not a veterinary hospital,” said Methodist South administrator Cecilia Wilson-Sawyer. “Any reasonable person would have used a little better judgment.”

Pressgrove says her dismissal is nothing more than monkey business. “I didn’t feel that anybody was in danger by what we did.” At home in Hickory Hill, near Memphis, with her husband, Victor, 43, a lineman for Memphis Light, Gas and Water Division, and their three young children, two dogs and six cats, she has had calls and letters of support from across the nation and plans to fight for reinstatement. “I may not be a nurse again,” she says defiantly, “but I bet I could get a job at the Memphis Zoo.”

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