WORTHINGTON — Nurses have long been heroes, it’s just that COVID-19 has made it increasingly apparent just how important these front line workers are in caring for the sick.

For Pat Van Waus, a registered nurse at Sanford Worthington Medical Center, the term “hero” is a bit humbling — particularly for a woman who shies away from the limelight. Yet when one of her own grandchildren made the connection between her role and treating patients with the novel coronavirus, he realized his grandma was a hero in every sense of the word.

Van Waus worked her last overnight shift at Sanford Worthington Monday night, and with safety precautions in play due to the highly contagious virus, there was to be no retirement party or celebration. Her daughter, Molly Schultz, said it was just like her mom to choose this time to retire.

All kidding aside, Van Waus said she felt it was just time to retire. At the top of her retirement agenda is sleep — a normal sleep routine, anyway. For the past 30 years, she’s worked the night shift at the Worthington hospital.

“I did it because of my kids,” she said of the night shift work. “I wanted to go to their activities.

“I went without sleep because that’s what retirement is for,” she added. “I’ve always liked nights, and it worked well for my family. My husband (Wally) was very supportive, and I never had to get a babysitter.”

The couple has four grown daughters and 13 grandchildren, and she’s planning to spend more family time together — taking the grandkids to the movies and watching their sporting events once those events open up again — without the demands of nursing work. In addition to the night shift work, she also was scheduled every third weekend and rotating holidays each year.

Van Waus said she also plans to join her husband on the golf course, and hopes to visit with both her mom and mother-in-law more frequently. The women reside in and near Victor, Iowa, the hometown for both Van Waus and her husband, who graduated a year ahead of her in school.

“I had no clue what I wanted to do when I graduated high school, and a girlfriend said, ‘Why don’t you come to nursing school with me?"' Van Waus said of the decision that led to her lengthy career in scrubs. “It was one of the best moves I made — it was a good choice for me.”

She was among three classmates from Victor to attend nursing school at Broadlawns Hospital in Des Moines, Iowa, where they were the program’s last class to graduate. After that, hospital nursing programs were dissolved and new students were directed to programs at community or state colleges.

Upon graduation in 1974, Van Waus began her nursing career with the University of Iowa Pediatrics Hospital. By the time she and Wally married, she was in a community hospital setting in Davenport, and with her husband’s career with Salkin & Linoff, the parent company of Bostwicks, she would work at community hospitals in Owatonna, Redwood Falls and Willmar before they moved to Worthington in 1988.

When Bostwicks closed in Worthington, the couple decided that since some of their children were already in school and she had a good job at the hospital, they would stay here.

Over the years, Van Waus worked in pediatrics, obstetrics, med-surgery, the emergency room and intensive care unit.

“My last several years I’ve been in ICU when we have ICU patients,” she said.

Relationships with patients and with co-workers are what Van Waus will miss in retirement. She’s appreciative for the friendships forged, and the learning and laughing that she experienced with patients.

“I do truly believe in a full moon,” she said, reflecting on her career. “When I go to work and there’s a full moon, it always makes me very nervous.

“Sometimes people make silly mistakes and have to come to the (emergency department),” she explained. “It’s just strange the things that happen — unusual things happen (during a full moon). I just know it to be true.”

Coupling a full moon with Friday the 13th, and Van Waus said she’d have just rather called in sick.

“My second daughter was born on a Friday the 13th, so I just shouldn’t really complain about it too much,” she added with a laugh.

Van Waus, who was honored as Sanford Worthington Medical Center’s employee of the year in May 2019, said she’s often reflected on her career and the happenstance way in which she set out to become a nurse.

“I often wondered why God brought me to this position,” she said. It became apparent when her granddaughter, Maisy Schultz, was born in 2009 with a heart defect, Tetralogy of Fallot with Pulmonary Atresia. As a nurse, Van Waus was able to provide respite care to Maisy while her daughter returned to work part-time.

“Maisy and I are still very close,” Van Waus said. “I appreciate God putting me in that position.”

With her work as a nurse in the ICU, Van Waus hasn’t been able to hold or hug Maisy since the COVID-19 pandemic hit.

“I do not want to expose her,” Van Waus said. Having cared for patients with the novel coronavirus, she fears her granddaughter’s already compromised health would make it difficult for her to overcome if she were to contract the virus.