BREAUX BRIDGE, La. (AP) " When Jessie Simmons started working at a Breaux Bridge hospital in high school, she thought it would be her first step toward that job at a "bigger fish" in Lafayette.
After 50 years at St. Martin Hospital, she realized that wasn't going to happen.
"It didn't work," she said with a laugh. "Well, it actually worked out for the best."
This year marks five decades for Simmons at a job she fell in love with in a place she calls home.
"Of course, 50 years later, I fell in love with everybody and the community. Big is good, but small is better. You know, you get to know your people," Simmons said.
Simmons has worked at St. Martin Hospital since before it opened on Oct. 12, 1969. She helped set up the surgery rooms and started working at what was known as Gary Memorial at the time.
At 17 years old, she unintentionally got the job one day while visiting her family doctor in Breaux Bridge. She was going to high school in Lafayette while studying to be a surgical technician at what use to be the Charity Hospital in Lady of Lourdes.
During her check-up, Dr. Ernest Yongue plainly told her he was hiring her as his only surgery tech for the new Gary Memorial Hospital. Years later, a supervisor asked for her original job application. Turns out, she never filled one out. She was simply hired on the spot without any paperwork.
"I didn't even apply for the job," she said.
Yongue also served as the first patient at the new hospital's emergency room. As he turned to cut the ribbon and officially open the doors, he went right through an impeccably clean new glass window.
"I think about him often because I've learned so much from him and so much growth has come from him and his thoughts," she said.
Simmons said she also helped to deliver hundreds of babies when the hospital first opened, saying she still runs into the now-grown children she'd helped to deliver. Her supervisor jokes that Simmons was most likely present when she was born.
"I wish I had kept a list because they'll say, 'My mama said you were back there when I was born,' and I'm like, 'Really? Oh my god,' and they're like 35 or 40," she said.
The road to where she is now wasn't always smooth. In the 1980s, when diagnostic-related grouping changes hit, times were bad. Some weeks the hospital didn't have enough to pay its employees for their week worth of work, said Karen Wyble, CEO of St. Martin Hospital.
"So you literally worked not even knowing if you got a paycheck," Wyble said. "And some left obviously and she stuck through it. So the level of commitment is really overwhelming."
"That was a close, almost-closing-the-doors call," Simmons said.
When St. Martin Hospital closed its surgery wing, Simmons was devastated. She was prepared to move back to Lafayette for work, but the hospital offered her an ER tech position, her current job .
The hospital, which became St. Martin Hospital in 2000 through an ownership change, is less of a workplace for Simmons and more of a home. She thinks of her coworkers as family, and calls them her work brothers and sisters.
"I love my people," she said. "The people that I work with make a big difference."
Simmons knows eventually she'll have to retire. Once in a while she tells her husband that she's going to start winding down with work, but then she comes home excited to tell him about her day.
Her goal is to stay for the 2021 opening of the hospital's expansion so she can say she has been through every transition St. Martin Hospital has had. She looks forward to the day she gets to visit the hospital and say, "I have been through all of this."
Simmons credits the hospital's survival to the administrators and CEOs who led it over the years. Each one has contributed something different and they did everything they needed to do to keep the hospital alive, she said.
When the hospitals in St. Martinville and Arnaudville closed, Breaux Bridge absorbed most of those patients. To this day, people are still driving from towns like Parks and Cecilia, or are even walking several miles to St. Martin Hospital, Simmons said, and the expansion is desperately needed.
Voters in the parish passed a tax to fund the expansion in March 2018. The $11.2 project will include an expansion of 30,000 square feet, a new nursing unit, a new MRI suite and a new surgical suite.
When issues come up, Simmons is the go-to for a solution. Co-workers will ask her how things were handled in the past like she's a walking St. Martin Hospital encyclopedia. New hires at St. Martin are introduced to her and told to ask how long she's been working there. She answers with a humble 50 years, adding that, "Once ya here, you ain't leaving, baby."
"She's on the sidelines doing whatever with a smile and proud to boast about her hospital," Wyble said. "And that's just what makes her really special."
Looking back on her 50 years, Simmons equated her job to marriage. It wasn't always easy or good, but she stuck it out because you can't just step away when things get difficult.
"I was very fortunate," she said. "Life always deals you those cards; sometimes you have to have be thankful for what it didn't give you."
Information from: The Advertiser, http://www.theadvertiser.com