NEWBURYPORT, Mass. – Eileen Stepanian is a whiz at teaching online nursing classes for St. Joseph’s College in Maine, and has spent countless hours working toward her doctorate degree.
Of course, she has to fit those in around her job as public health nurse for the town of Merrimac. And, in between, her volunteering as parish nurse for Pilgrim Congregational Church.
Some might scratch their heads and wonder how Stepanian even had time to slow down and celebrate her 80th birthday last week. Luckily, the nurse did — and she did it in the biggest way possible.
Stepanian traveled to San Francisco, where she was honored as the recipient of the prestigious Lillian Wald Service Award from the public health nursing section of the American Public Health Association on Oct. 30, one day after her milestone birthday. The distinction, granted to a nurse for exemplary public health nursing practices, was one of three national awards given at the annual meeting, where Stepanian was joined by several of her children.
Stepanian, a Merrimac native, knew colleagues had nominated her last winter, but she was completely astounded to find out earlier this summer that she had won — when she eventually heard the news, that is.
“I have three email addresses,” she said, and the news of her award was sent to an address that she hadn’t yet checked upon arriving to work one day. Instead, she opened her second account, where her inbox was flooded with messages of congratulations.
“It was sort of a roundabout way of finding out,” she said.
For those who know Stepanian, the news of her honor was hardly a surprise; but, they agree, it couldn’t have been awarded to a more deserving recipient.
“She’s incredible, she really is,” said Laura Dillingham-Mailman, executive director of the Merrimac Council on Aging. A friend of Stepanian’s for 20 years, Dillingham-Mailman says the woman has taught her colleagues “so much.”
Initially hired as the town nurse in 1971 — a part-time job that she would work on her days off from Lawrence General Hospital — Stepanian’s main responsibility was to check in on patients who had recently returned home from hospital stays.
For Stepanian, who first attended nursing school because her family didn’t have the money to send her to college, it was the start of a “side job” that developed into a passionate joint career. As the world changed, so did the public health field.
Today, the role of a public health nurse is multi-faceted. She covers a wide range of responsibilities, from running flu clinics to following up on reported communicable diseases. She is also responsible for holding blood pressure clinics, health teaching and education, running community wellness and public health prevention initiatives, and public health emergency preparedness support.
Throughout the years, as Stepanian worked at Lawrence General and, later, Amesbury Hospital, she raised four boys and three girls, while never slowing down. In 1998, she joined other public health nurses in forming a statewide organization, the Mass. Association of Public Health Nurses.
She earned her degree in health care administration and then completed her master’s degree in nursing at the age of 70. She was 64 years old when she received her bachelor’s. In 2005, she was hired by St. Joseph’s College to teach an online class in public health. It sparked her interest to begin pursuing her doctorate.
“I feel like a living history book of nursing,” she said.
After Stepanian returned home from the West Coast, the festivities didn’t stop. The town held a luncheon celebrating Stepanian’s award earlier this month, where she was given a certificate by the Board of Selectmen proclaiming Nov. 7 “Charlotte Eileen Stepanian Day” in Merrimac.
“There’s just not enough words, she’s remarkable,” Dillingham-Mailman said. “We just love her to pieces. She’s one of those people, you just shake your head. Her mind never stops. One of her sons just retired, and she’s still working.”
Eileen Hurley, the chairman of the Board of Health, called Stepanian “a joy to work with.”
“She goes above and beyond,” Hurley said. She’s always willing to comply with anything that anyone asks. She’s a marvel.”
Over the years, Stepanian has added programs — such as the monthly column she writes for the Senior Center newsletter — and continues to take part in symposiums and conferences around the state, Hurley said.
Constance Hoyt, the receptionist at the Senior Center, first met Stepanian when she was her Sunday School teacher. The two women, both nurses, worked together at various hospitals over the years, Hoyt said.
“She was 14 and I was 8 when she was my teacher,” Hoyt said last week. “When I rejoined the church, I sat beside her, and she asked me if I remembered her.
“She’s a workhorse; she doesn’t slow down a bit,” Hoyt said.