At a computer in the back of the D.C. neighborhood health clinic, Clydia Lavenia McAbee — “Miss McAbee” to most — adjusted her black-rimmed Ray-Ban reading glasses to review the day’s list of patients, almost all of whom she knew well:
Harlem, the 1-week-old whose mother Miss McAbee had cradled 25 years ago. Dyllan, 5, one of seven siblings she’d weighed, vaccinated, soothed and scolded since 1999. Me’Ryah, who in 20 years of care had grown taller than her longtime nurse.
“They are my children. My grandchildren,” she said. “Not no nieces and nephews. They are closer than that.”
And to each of them, she was about to say goodbye.
On Friday, Miss McAbee will retire after 50 years with the Children’s National Health System, leaving behind a career that has made her an anchor for generations of Washington families and a tenure that is exceptionally rare among the 6,300 employees at Children’s.
To Miss McAbee’s colleagues in one of the country’s most renowned pediatric health-care systems, she is many things: a living time capsule, an institution within an institution, a matriarch whose extended family members number in the thousands.
“She is special,” said Rosella Castro, who oversaw Children’s medical outposts for 17 years before moving into a part-time role. “Her home is the clinic. . . . She really wants to be a mother to these kids.”
Over a career spanning a half-century and more than 180,000 doctor appointments, her profession and city have endured relentless change. She no longer wears a white dress and nurse’s cap to work or takes children’s temperatures with a mercury-filled glass rod. It’s been years since she could bring a neglected child into her own house for a home-cooked meal and a warm bed. A child’s insurance, Miss McAbee said, matters far more than it used to. And the number of licensed practical nurses like her, who have less training and make less money than registered nurses, has dwindled as many hospitals phase them out.
So, too, has she witnessed the District’s convulsions over the decades: the 1968 riots, a crack epidemic, an AIDS outbreak and a wave of gentrification by affluent newcomers.
But Miss McAbee, whose Baptist church and tidy haircut have remained the same since the ’50s, doesn’t care much for change.