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The First Nurse

The First Nurse

By Jeff Csatari
Photographs by Theo Anderson

“Guder Mariye.”

“Wie bischt du heit?”

The elderly man in Room 6 at St. Joseph Hospital in Reading, Pennsylvania, was overcome with fear. You could see it in his eyes and the way his hands shook as he held a glass of water to his lips. He must have been frightened by the unfamiliar clinical surroundings, his pain, and the doctors who poked and prodded him while speaking a language he couldn’t understand.

The man was Jewish; he spoke only Yiddish.

Then a young nurse named Helen, a recent graduate of the Reading Hospital School of Nursing, entered his room. Helen recognized the fear in the old man’s eyes and was filled with compassion and, well, . . . chutzpah.

“Guder Mariye” (“Good morning”), she said in Pennsylvania Dutch. She had learned a few words and phrases of the variation of German from the Amish and Mennonite families she knew growing up in Kutztown in Berks County. It’s similar to Yiddish, the German/Hebrew dialect.

“Allrecht” (“all right”), she said. “Wie bischt du heit?” (“How are you today?”)

The man’s eyes sparkled, and he smiled for the first time since being admitted to the hospital.

This story and many like it wouldn’t surprise anyone who knew Helen S. Breidegam, the nurse, wife, mother, grandmother, and friend. “My mother did not have time for people who are mean to other folks,” says Dan Breidegam, her son. “She cared about her fellow human beings in ways all of us can only envy and celebrate,” says Bryon L. Grigsby ’90, P’22, president of Moravian University.

The First Nurse

The Helen S. Breidegam School of Nursing and Public Health at the Sally Breidegam Miksiewicz Center for Health Sciences graduates more than 100 nurses each year.

Helen Sabilla Breidegam P’84, GP’14, GP’16, GP’18, in honor of whom Moravian’s Helen S. Breidegam School of Nursing and Public Health is named, passed away on June 23, 2021, at age 94. She was a lifelong nurse—and, along with her husband, the late DeLight E. Breidegam Jr., an enduring benefactor of Moravian College. DeLight Jr. cofounded the battery maker East Penn Manufacturing Company in Berks County with his father, DeLight Sr., in 1946. DeLight Jr. died in 2015 at age 88.

At the time Helen cared for the elderly man at St. Joseph’s, she was Helen Merkel, a cadet nurse in the newly formed United States Cadet Nurse Corps, which was authorized by Congress in 1943 to meet the demand for nurses after America entered World War II.

Helen and DeLight attended Kutztown Area High School together. DeLight was enamored with the pretty girl on the other side of class, negotiating a switch of seats with a friend so he could be closer to Helen. “He kept staring at me,” Helen once told her grandchildren.

DeLight was a shy lad, but he found the courage to send her a Christmas card. Two months later, Helen surprised him with a Valentine’s Day card. “It was not an acceptance but an invitation,” says son Dan. The high school sweethearts married on February 28, 1948, the year DeLight Jr. began working full-time with his father at their fledgling battery company. Helen had just graduated from nursing school. Her deep desire to care for people would become a recurrent theme in the couple’s charitable giving.

Growing up during the Great Depression left an indelible mark on her character, says Dan: “She was tough and independent and cared very deeply about helping people.” Helen became East Penn Manufacturing’s first company nurse, serving for many years and then supporting the company nurses who came after her.

The First Nurse

Helen Breidegam is recognized for her generosity and awarded the Presidential Medal at the dedication of the Sally Breidegam Miksiewicz Center for Health Sciences.

The First Nurse

Helen Breidegam (center) with grandchildren (left to right) Tim Miksiewicz, Dan Miksiewicz ’14, Katelyn Miksiewicz ’16, and Matt Miksiewicz ’18

“I will never forget the image of my mom in her all-white nurse’s uniform and cap,” says Dan. “It was the mid-1970s, and I was working at the company. A truck driver, Duckie Spohn, pulled into the loading dock and dropped over. Heart attack. My mother rushed out in those white stockings and cap and gave him CPR along with our foreman, Joe Santangelo. They kept him alive until the ambulance came. She knew what to do, and she did it.”

Friends and family say Helen always put others’ needs before her own and wanted to make an impact on people’s lives. Her caring took a natural turn toward philanthropy in the community and especially at Moravian College, where for decades she and her husband provided scholarships and infrastructure that transformed the face of the campus. Their giving culminated with the construction of the 55,000-square-foot building that houses the nursing school, the Sally Breidegam Miksiewicz Center for Health Sciences, named for their daughter Sally (Moravian Class of ’84).

“Helen was one of the most gracious individuals I had ever met,” says Grigsby. “When you would talk funding opportunities with her and DeLight, he would start by saying, ‘Gee, I don’t know...’ then Helen would put her hand on his knee and say, ‘DeLight, I think we can do that.’”

Their daughter, Sally Sabilla Breidegam Miksiewicz, was CEO of East Penn Manufacturing and served on the Moravian College Board of Trustees. In 2014, she was struck and killed by a car when she was out running. Her brother Timothy had died in a kayaking accident during an Outward Bound adventure while he was a student at Moravian in 1978. The university’s track and field house were built and named in his honor.

“Tim and my mother loved Moravian,” says Sally’s daughter Katelyn Miksiewicz ’16. “My grandparents saw how important the college was to their children, so they gave. Grandy never sought the limelight. She was a simple woman who just wanted to improve others’ lives. She was so proud to see her daughter’s name on the nursing building.”

The First Nurse

A student expresses her gratitude to Helen Breidegam for making possible the center for health sciences and supporting the school of nursing.

The Helen S. Breidegam School of Nursing and Public Health at the Sally Breidegam Miksiewicz Center for Health Sciences graduates more than 100 nurses each year. “Helen’s impact is far-reaching,” says Paulette Dorney, director of the Accelerated BSN Program. “The school’s state-of-the-art simulation center provides students the ability to engage in real-life scenarios, from childbirth to acute care emergencies like heart attacks, in a safe learning environment. This is the ultimate gift, preparing the next generation of nurses.”

One of those young nurses is 26-year-old Duyen Nguyen ’16, a master’s student who will graduate from the three-year nurse practitioner program in May. The first-generation college student credits the simulation lab with preparing her for her current work in an open-heart intensive care unit at Lehigh Valley Hospital, “because it made my training as real as possible.” Nguyen says, “As a nurse herself, Mrs. Breidegam understood the needs of students and how important high technology would be for a seamless transition to the professional world.”

Says granddaughter Katelyn: “She would be so proud of Duyen and cheering on every nurse going through the program. She had so much faith in others, and she wanted to see everyone succeed.”

Jeff Csatari is executive editor of Galvanized Brands (the media company founded by David Zinczenko ’91) and an adjunct professor of journalism at Moravian.