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Cal Ripkin is through, but nurse keeps on

By John Geluardi Daily Planet staff
Saturday June 23, 2001

When baseball-great Cal “Iron Man” Ripken, who holds the professional baseball record for playing the most consecutive games, announced he was calling it quits last week it caused more than a few of Elena Griffing co-workers at Alta Bates Hospital to snicker. 

Mrs. Griffing, 75, has not taken a sick day since 1952. In her 55-year career as an office manager and laboratory assistant, she has missed a total of three work days.  

Mrs. Griffing credits her stamina and energy to her “good Sicilian genes” and her attitude toward work.  

“I love my job. I love people and I love the patients.” Mrs. Griffing says between answering phones and scheduling appointments for burn specialist Dr. Jerold Kaplan in the Alta Bates, DeNicolai Burn Center.  

Loving your job is one thing but achieving the level of dedication Mrs. Griffing has shown for her responsibilities is another. In 1986 she underwent an appendectomy at Alta Bates. That evening, after most hospital employees had gone home, she donned a bathrobe and made her way to the other side of the hospital to get some work done in her office. “Ya know, you can get four or five hours of good work in after 5 p.m.,” she says. 

“She runs around here like that all the time” 

Mrs. Griffing appears to have more energy then most people half her age. There is constant activity in the her small fifth-floor office. When the phone isn’t ringing, Dr. Kaplan, who Mrs. Griffing describes as one of the busiest doctors in the hospital, stops in to exchange information with her or a patient pops in to schedule an appointment or just to exchange a few words. 

Mrs. Griffing is an attractive woman who has always been a snappy dresser. She is also known to round out her stylish outfits with high-heeled shoes. When she first began working at the hospital, her taste in footwear caused some friction with Alta Alice Miner Bates, the nurse who founded the hospital in 1905.  

“I was always flipping around here pretty fast back then and Miss Bates was afraid I’d fall and break my leg,” Mrs. Griffing says.  

Miss Bates’ reason for concern suddenly becomes evident when Mrs. Griffing sees a co-worker down the hall whom she has to speak with. She bounds from her chair and trots down the hall balancing on a pair of high-heeled Salvatore Ferragamo spectator pumps. 

Another co-worker with a disbelieving look on her face watches as Mrs. Griffing rounds the corner at the end of the hall. “She runs around here like that all the time,” she says. 

Berkeley origins 

In 1926, Mrs. Griffing was born on Roble Road in Berkeley, the ninth and last child to her Sicilian immigrant parents, Giorgio and Maria Selestre. The Selestres lived on a one-acre piece of land where they had a barn and several cows.  

“We only had one cow after I was born. Her name was Baby, but before that we had as many as five and we supplied everyone who lived on Roble and Tunnel Road with milk,” she says. 

Mrs. Griffing attended John Muir Elementary, Willard Middle School and Berkeley High School. After graduating high school she took a job in a bank where she worked until 1946 when she became suddenly and mysteriously ill. 

Old Blue Eyes 

“I had a blood disorder and the doctors said it was from a steady diet of fava beans, which was a traditional staple of my parents,” she says. “But if that was the problem, all of Sicily should have been sick.” 

She went to Alta Bates hospital where she spent a lot of time in the clinical laboratory for blood tests. For two months she was treated with blood transfusions. She received 13 units of blood and was still not showing any signs of improvement.  

Despite her illness, Mrs. Griffing, a life-long Frank Sinatra fan, attended a week’s worth of his performances at the Golden Gate Theater in March of 1946. “After the performances I was better,” she says. “The doctors suspected it might have something to do with my excitement level during the week.” 

Mrs. Griffing, who became a friend of Sinatra’s, keeps a picture of her standing next to him in her office. When she talks about him, her eyes and smile broaden as the timeless bobby socker swoons to life. “He was so accessible in the 40s,” she says. “He was all of 120 pounds and five of that was hair.” 

Reluctant frogs 

Mrs. Griffing began working in the Alta Bates clinical laboratory the following April. While she was ill, she would often answer phones and do minor secretarial work while she was between treatments. The doctor in charge of the laboratory, Dr. Singman, liked her work and offered a job when another lab assistant quit. 

“I didn’t want to go home at night,” she says. “This place was magic to me, there was so much to learn.” 

In those days pregnancy tests were carried out by injecting a urine sample from the inquiring patient into a male frog. After 24 hours, a urine sample was taken from the frog, who was sometimes reluctant to produce, and then it was tested for seaman, which would be present if the woman was pregnant. 

“I did a little bit of everything in those days and I was an especially good at catheterizing the frogs,” Mrs. Griffing says. “I would try talking to them and tickling them under the chin and if that didn’t work we had to do something.” 

Then versus now 

Mrs. Griffing, who doesn’t care for computers and still works on an electric IBM type writer, says there are things she misses about the hospital procedures of the past. “In those days it was ‘the patient comes first’” she says. “Today it’s a constant battle for patients’ rights,” 

She says there’s so much paperwork for every procedure, the patient often gets lost in the shuffle. 

“I’m very lucky to work for Dr. Kaplan,” she says. “He’s an old-style doctor who still puts the patient first.” 

Mrs. Griffing says he allows her to take time with the patients who need a little extra explaining about a procedure or can use some advice about dealing with insurance companies.  

Mrs. Griffing’s husband, Don, passed away eight and one-half years ago. They never had children – “too busy” – and she now spends much of her spare time raising Camellias and playing with her two dachshunds, Corky and Megan. 

Mrs. Griffing says she has no real plans for the future and has told Dr. Kaplan to let her know if she starts forgetting things or gets a little slow. Although one doesn’t have to be around her long to guess that won’t be happening anytime soon. 

“I can’t wait to get to work in the morning,” she says with her usual excitement. “How could you stay in one place for so long and not love it?”