Lives To Remember

Doris Rogers | 1940-2008

Doris Rodgers, left, was devoted to her work as a high school health room technician.
Doris Rodgers, left, was devoted to her work as a high school health room technician. (Courtesy Family)
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By Phuong Ly
Wednesday, December 31, 2008; 3:29 PM

The call was about a simple nosebleed, but Doris Rogers ran anyway. Down a long hallway at Montgomery Blair High School in Silver Spring, Phillip Gainous sat in his office with his head tilted back, blotting the blood.

When Rogers arrived, she checked the principal and spotted some blood in his throat. She called an ambulance. Gainous pitched a fit. He didn't need to go to the hospital, he remembers telling her on that afternoon about 10 years ago. But Rogers, the school's health room technician, held firm.

Even as the paramedics loaded him into the ambulance, Gainous was still fussing. Why was Rogers treating him like a student? That was one of the last things he remembers. He passed out and woke up in a hospital intensive care unit. A blood vessel had ruptured in his nasal cavity, and he could have bled to death. Rogers had saved his life.

When Gainous came back to school, he thanked Rogers profusely. "She said nothing. She gave a little smile and went her way," says Gainous, now an administrator in the school system's central office. "She just thought she was doing her job."

In her 20 years working for the county health department, most of it at Montgomery Blair, Rogers said little but did a lot. Every morning, she arrived at the school at least half an hour before the rest of the staff. Students with long commutes to the magnet school sometimes got there early, and Rogers wanted to make sure the health room was open so they could lie down if they needed a little extra sleep. Some kids who didn't have a stable home situation needed a place to wash up. Rogers provided them with little tubes of toothpaste and sample-sized deodorants that she had gotten a company to donate.

Many students, though, thought of her as a "meanie," according to Mazine Lofton, a nurse who supervised Montgomery Blair and two other schools. As soon as a student walked into the health room, Rogers demanded to see a hall pass. Often, students would try to fake illness to get out of class. Rogers checked their temperature and blood pressure and sent them right back out.

Once, Lofton recalls, a student couldn't understand why she wouldn't send him home. He towered over 5-foot-2 Rogers and belted out a string of curse words. Her response: "I love you, too." Back to class he went.

Rogers didn't consider her domain as simply the health room. On her desk, a walkie-talkie crackled softly. She had requested one so she could listen to the chatter of the security guards and administrators across the sprawling, 3,000-student campus. If she heard that someone was hurt, she took off running. Most of the time, she would beat Gainous and the assistant principals to the scene.

She noticed the less obvious things sooner than others did, too. When Gainous took one student aside for a talk because he suspected she was pregnant, the girl told him that she was already getting help from Rogers.

"I trusted her judgment without fail," Gainous said. "She took care of those kids like they were her family."

In many ways, Rogers's career at Montgomery Blair was an extension of her previous one, as a no-nonsense mother raising two sons and two daughters. She didn't start the health room job until 1987, after her last three children were in high school. The hours meant she could still see her kids when they came home from school.

Before then, she had worked a series of part-time jobs, including stuffing envelopes and delivering the Yellow Pages, to supplement her family's income. At one point, she had a business mowing 20 lawns.

"She was a hustler; she knew we needed the dollars," says her husband, Joe, 71. "She wasn't interested in the philosophical of life."

Doris had worked since she was a sophomore in high school, washing dishes in a hospital cafeteria in Mankato, Minn., the suburb of St. Paul where she grew up. She met Joe when they were students at Minnesota State University, Mankato. After they married in 1961, Doris quit school to follow Joe to Kansas City, where he had gotten a job with the Internal Revenue Service. They moved to Silver Spring in 1969 so that Joe could continue his career with the federal government.

All the money Doris earned from her odd jobs helped pay for their four children to go to college: Michael, who now works in information technology, to the University of Maryland; Scott, who owns a general contracting business, to James Madison; and twins Jennifer Greiner and Joanna Duerden, both nurses, to Villanova and James Madison.

Joanna says it was her mom who talked her into taking a job as a Montgomery County school nurse in 2007. Joanna has two young children, and Doris, practical as always, pointed out that the school hours were perfect for a mother.

Even though Doris didn't say so, Joe and the kids knew that she loved working at Montgomery Blair. Doris disliked having her photo taken and refused to put on any airs about her looks or clothes. She dressed her slim, yoga-honed frame in modest sweaters and slacks. Her white lab coat, though, was treated with care. She didn't put it on until she got to school, for fear it would get wrinkled in the car.

Doris didn't want to move to a smaller, less hectic elementary school, though Joe suggested it several times. She liked the pace at Montgomery Blair. She also refused to retire. Joe had retired from the National Park Service in 1997, content with his government pension. Doris would ask him, "What do you do with yourself all day?"

But when it came to talking about what she did, Doris was sketchy about the details. One day, Joe figured out that Doris had an unusual day at work. She came home with her clothes reeking of alcohol.

On that day several years ago, a student who was upset with her boyfriend decided to get as drunk as she could. She drank until she passed out in a bathroom, with her blood alcohol level at .156, nearly twice the legal limit, according to a news item in the Montgomery Gazette. Doris performed CPR and helped saved the girl's life. Afterward, the school system honored Doris with the Above and Beyond the Call of Duty Award. Her family didn't attend the award presentation at Montgomery Blair. She didn't tell them about it. Joe came across the certificate a year or so later, face down, in the garage.

As she grew older, Rogers's strong body began to fail her. She suffered from migraine headaches, which began to get worse. Then came problems with her stomach and colon. In November 2007, she had to ask for a medical leave. She eventually realized that she wouldn't be healthy enough to return to Montgomery Blair.

In early August, Joe accompanied Doris to the county human resources office in Rockville so she could officially retire. Someone went over the paperwork for her 401(k) and other benefits, but Rogers didn't pay attention. She said she just wanted to sign her name and leave. She wept the entire time, her husband says.

She died in early September of pneumonia and a collapsed lung, two weeks after the school year had started at Montgomery Blair without her. Joe suspects the real cause of death was heartbreak. She just couldn't bear to be retired.

Phuong Ly is a former Post staff writer and frequent contributor to the Magazine.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company