By allowing ads to appear on this site, you support the local businesses who, in turn, support great journalism.
Central Kansas Medical Center Candy Stripers: The way we were
Bob Evans and Gary Gilkeson

The call came as I was walking out the front door of our house. “Are you finished with that hospital column?” It was my sister Kate, calling from Wichita. She had just reviewed my draft column. “Yeah, pretty much,” I told her. “You can’t run it yet. You need to make some changes. We weren’t Candy Strippers. That’s how it reads. We were Candy Stripers.” 

I paused and contemplated the enormity of my miscue. One letter difference and I was turning devoted, conscientious, committed volunteers at a Dominican-run charity hospital into, well, you know.  The notion that readers of my column would, rather than contemplating mental images of teens picking up the lap tray, would be entertaining thoughts of, well, you know that, too.   

And so I quickly made the edits. But even with the correct spelling, by today’s conventions, the notion of young teens placed in positions of responsibility at an institution that today is the epicenter of fine print dictating rules, regulations, disclaimers, warnings, provisos, ‘do this,’ ‘don’t do that’ – seems hard to fathom. 

The name derives from the red and white jumpers the volunteers wore that resembled candy canes. A couple years, ago Hollywood made a movie about them, “Candy Stripers,” and the R rating tells you the plot had zero relationship with Great Bend. One review said it featured bad acting, cheap gore and some skin. I’m sure my kids have seen it.

Still, the idea intrigued me. My column reminiscing on the closing of CKMC that ran last month invited stories from former Candy Stripers; many former volunteers responded. In every case, I heard that the experience was overwhelmingly positive, and helped shape young lives long before anyone was at the crossroads of making career choices.

But yes, health care was different in the early 70s. For instance, CKMC had a cigarette machine for patients, doctors, and staff. “Yes Mary, you are dilated to a 7 – so the baby is coming out. Oops!  Did I flick ashes on your ankles? Sorry.”

Back then everyone smoked. GBHS even had a smoking area, both for students and teachers. I remember various teachers rolling out of the teachers’ lounge with a trail of smoke following them.

There were other things about that era. Gibson’s Discount was doing a brisk business and most days one Larry Keenan was roaming around the Sporting Good’s department looking for a bargain on a Browning shotgun. 

Yes, at times it seems like a different universe altogether. Consider that in 1972 the best-selling book was about a seagull – a bird with three names – Jonathan Livingston Seagull.  And you thought your dog only deserved one name? Rover? Really?  Poor thing. Too bad he isn’t a bird. 

Think about it. A seagull book sold over a million copies. One of the top movies in that year starred Burt Reynolds and taught us that if you hear banjos playing a duet in the wilderness, it’s probably not a good place to go camping. At the Great Bend Drive-In Theater – Texas Chainsaw Massacre, whose plot involves – well, spoiler alert – well there was no plot, just scantily clad teens finding new ways to act out stupidity on the big screen.

But one thing that hasn’t changed over the years: the mission of the Dominicans—social justice for the greater good. You know – save the world, heal the sick, teach the uneducated and change the world one person at a time. If that sounds familiar, like something the Pope was telling us, well perhaps the Dominicans were doing it before it became cool. 

In other words, while you and I unintentionally tried to destroy the world, they were repairing it.

So back to the Candy Stripers.  The program ran in the 60’s and mid 70’s and was a national program. It offered an opportunity to assist in the hospital with tasks that were below a formal nurse but above housekeeping or maid work.

But what exactly did Candy Stripers do? One former Striper, Jacquie Disque, shared this with me: “If I remember right, my hours were from 4-7 for the most part. Sometimes we got there a little early. We had to wear white pants and had a red and white striped vest type thing (it tied on both sides). My first job when I got there was to pass ice water to all of the patients. I remember reading to the patients, especially cards and letters from people. I got to deliver flowers sometimes. I answered the call lights when they went off. I would find out what they wanted and go tell the nurse.”

Sometimes CKMC was the venue where things happened having nothing to do with patient care. “I remember that it was the summer of 1977 because I remember being there, at the hospital,” remembers Linda Marks. “When I saw a notice scrolling along the bottom of a patient’s T.V. screen announcing the death of Elvis Presley.  I was so distraught, I asked if I could go home early,” she told me. 

All of this led to careers in the medical fields. Becky (Hertel) Maresch’s experience, introduced her to a career as an EMT professional for over 25 years. Nancy Steadman Watkins, a 76 GBHS grad, told me she spent hours looking at the babies through the glass window and dreamed of what it would be like taking care of them. Well that dream came true and she’s been an OB nurse for 36 years.  And my sister Kate, the one who adeptly noted my typo with Striper – got her nursing degree and worked as a nurse as well.

Assisting with food service was part of the job.  “The kitchen would deliver the meal cart and we would pass out the trays to each patient,” Joyce VanKamp told me.  But there were more serious tasks.

“One other duty we did that was ‘important’ was to close the doors on all the rooms when someone passed.  When the funeral home came to remove the body - we had to go around and close all the doors to the patient rooms and then when the body was removed, we could go around and open up the doors.  Several times the patients would want to know why we were shutting their door. We just made up a story of why we were closing them.”

Every single person who responded to my overture expressed gratitude for the opportunity to work with leaders in the health care field who helped make the hospital such an iconic presence in the community.  It taught the value of volunteering, the inevitability of death, the importance of providing comfort and companionship to those in need, and the giving of themselves for a greater good.  And while the three wings of the hospital are gone, the young impressionable teenagers who wore those red and white uniforms carry on today the lessons they were taught so many years ago.

To reach matt: