Linda Heidemann remembers the first time it happened.
As a nurse at Fremont Care Center, she went to check on a woman who was dying.
“You have to tell that lady behind you to go away,” the woman said.
Seeing no one, Heidemann asked, “What lady?”
“That lady in white,” the woman said. “You tell her to go away.”
Heidemann left the room.
“I went back to my desk — and the light came on,” she said, pointing to her head.
Heidemann returned to the patient, asking if the lady was still there. The woman said, yes.
“She wants you to go with her,” Heidemann told the woman, adding, “I knew the angel was there and within half an hour or 45 minutes, she (the patient) was gone.”
It would be one of many tender experiences for Heidemann, who’s spent 55 years as a caregiver — and 52 of those as a nurse.
At 74, Heidemann works three, 12-hour night shifts — and sometimes four — a week at Dunklau Gardens in Fremont.
“Some people say, ‘I have to go to work,’” Heidemann mused. “And I say, ‘I get to go to work.’”
Originally from Niobrara and a 1964 Pilger High School graduate, Heidemann recalls when she and her parents, Albert and Mavis, went to Bethphage Mission, a home for people who are mentally and physically challenged.
Heidemann was impressed by the facility and how residents — called guests — were treated.
After high school, she became a nurse’s aide/caregiver for guests she describes as loving and so thankful for their care.
She worked at Bethphage for about two years before going to the yearlong program at Kearney Vocational School of Practical Nursing and graduating in 1967.
Heidemann became a floor nurse at Mary Lanning Hospital in Hastings, caring for Dr. John “Jack” Yost’s orthopedic patients. People came from everywhere to have him perform their surgeries and as a new graduate Heidemann had a great experience.
“You learned all the different kinds of medications, treatments and dressings,” she said.
In 1969, Heidemann came to Fremont, working at what was called the annex (now Dunklau Gardens) until 1973.
She then went to Fremont Care Center (now Nye Pointe) and worked there for 26 ½ years.
In the meantime, she went back to school and became a registered nurse in 1989.
Heidemann, who was director of nursing, said she loved her job at Fremont Care Center. She enjoyed residents, families and staff.
In September 1999, she began working as a floor nurse at A.J. Merrick Manor (Dunklau Gardens).
Heidemann said she learns from her patients — how they handled living through the Great Depression. She appreciates their marvel over modern technology. One 90-year-old resident remains amazed that she can pick up a phone and talk to her son.
The same woman was astounded when Heidemann told her about Skype, which lets people see each other while talking.
“I still like a letter,” she said.
It’s hard for Heidemann to see residents whose families don’t visit them.
She knows some people don’t know how to talk to their elderly relatives, so she encourages families to bring memory-sparking scrapbooks, photo albums and even recipes.
“Some of these old ladies just love going over recipes,” she said.
Heidemann enjoys bringing her grandsons, Kendall, 11, and Parker, 9, to Dunklau Gardens. Last week, she took her grandsons and zucchini bread to the residents, who remembered her grandchildren from the last time they visited.
She likes doing special things for residents and said her staff will do anything for them.
“I have great staff,” she said. “They all are awesome. I can’t praise them enough for their kindness.”
Families have expressed appreciation throughout the years.
The daughter of one resident even gave Heidemann a lighted glass angel figurine.
“I have been given lots of angels throughout my nursing years from families, friends and my co-workers,” she said.
“Because I count on them,” she said. “Not only do I believe in them, but I count on them to make the residents’ crossing over easier.”
Heidemann recalls that first encounter with the woman who wanted her to make the lady in white go away.
She recalls being with other residents in similar situations.
“When they do pass away, I always tell them it’s OK, when the light is there to go with the angels,” she said. “I believe to this day the angels come.”
She notes something else.
“Families want to stick around and be there, just hovering, but the resident can hear what they’re saying and they want to be a part of it, but they cannot relax,” she said. “Sometimes, they need to let their loved one go and tell their loved one, ‘It’s OK. We’ll be fine.’
“Sometimes, our families need permission to leave them to go to heaven.”
Heidemann knows families may want to be there and that’s OK, too.
“But you have to listen and look for the signs of what the resident needs,” she said.
As she talks about angels, Heidemann displays a very special figurine.
This angel features the photograph of her late son, Karl Heidemann, who died five years ago.
He would have turned 48 in November.
Heidemann traces her son’s death to a confrontation with a suspect, who had drugs. The incident led to a shoulder injury, which required surgery seven years later.
The procedure went well, but two days later her son died.
Heidemann said she and the doctors attribute her son’s death to a post-surgery blood clot.
She lives by something her son taught her.
“I’m not out to make a lot of money,” he told her. “I want to make a difference.”
And he did.
“He saved his best friend from drowning when they were in scouting and I had many mothers come to me at the funeral who told me if it wasn’t for my son, their son would be dead or on drugs,” she said.
Heidemann said her son left her with two wonderful grandchildren and is close to her daughter-in-law, Sheri, has remarried to a wonderful man.
It was her daughter-in-law who gave Heidemann the angel figurine with the photo of her son.
As she reflects on her career, Heidemann appreciates the gratitude families have for those who care for their loved ones. She enjoys meeting residents and learning about their lives.
“To me, my nursing is a gift from God,” Heidemann said. “I’ve listened to him and he has led me all these times.”
She said God has taught her patience and to stay calm.
And although she could retire, Heidemann plans to continue working.
“I could retire and clean a cupboard — forget it,” she said.
She thinks Dunklau — where she’s been for the last 20 years — is a good place to work.
She’s already traveled to Paris, Australia and Myrtle Beach. She’s been to Alaska twice and as an Elvis fan has visited Graceland.
Her future plans include more travel, playing with her grandchildren—and maybe cleaning a cupboard.
Is Heidemann an angel?
“I hope so,” she said.