For a Seabrook Beach woman, success isn’t determined by a fancy job title or the amount of money in your bank account.
“How you measure success is how your kids describe you when they talk to a friend,” Lucy Mistrella Milton said.
In that case, Milton’s about as wealthy as a person can be. This spring, her three adult children nominated her for Northern Essex Community College’s 50th anniversary “Make a Difference” award.
Impressed with what they read, the college’s selection committee chose Milton among hundreds of nominees from throughout the Merrimack Valley to be one of the 50 award recipients. Milton was in rarefied company when she received her award on April 30 alongside entrepreneurs, philanthropists and even a best-selling author.
“In addition to being a mentor and leader at the hospitals where she works,” wrote her oldest daughter Katharine, “our mom also uses her nursing degree to serve the global community. Each year she travels with a group of volunteer medical staff to a developing country to be a part of a team that performs plastic surgery on children with cleft lips and palates and burns. (She) uses her vacation time to work harder than she ever works.”
The work is exhausting, Milton said, it’s heartbreaking and taxing financially, physically and emotionally. But it’s clear she won’t be giving up those missions any time soon.
“I was so upset that I couldn’t go in April because I was sick,” Milton said. “But the Medical Mission Group will have another trip this fall and I’ll be going.”
Milton’s determination is an example of how she’s lived her life since she entered the nursing program at Northern Essex in Haverhill after getting her diploma in 1970 from St. Mary’s High School in Lawrence. Graduating two years later with an associate degree, the Lawrence native passed the state nursing board exam, became a registered nurse and spent the majority of her career at Holy Family Hospital in Methuen.
She spent most of her 33 years at Holy Family as a recovery room nurse, known now as the post-anesthesia care unit.
“I grew up there,” said Milton, 59. “My soul is at that PACU.”
While working full time, she kept busy with the rest of her life. She married, raised her children in Methuen and went on to complete her bachelor’s degree in nursing from the University of New Hampshire in 1995.
Milton earned a master’s at the Boston campus of the University of Massachusetts in 1998. Moving year-round to Seabrook in 2004, she’s a clinical nurse specialist today at Massachusetts General Hospital, spending her days in a leadership role at its PACU working with patients and nurses. And she loves it.
Nursing was her life’s goal, Milton said.
“I always wanted to be a nurse,” she said. “Always. Always.”
According to her children, their mother’s compassion for others and willingness to step in when needed is something they’ve witnessed all their lives, not from her words, but through her actions.
“She’s a nurse, so she’s very giving,” said Milton’s 32-year-old son Michael, a high school teacher in Burlington. “But I remember she was always active in our community. She stepped up and took control of a skating club when no one else would. She never got paid, but she just jumped in and worked very hard for years to make sure Methuen had its skating club.”
Milton encouraged her children to give of themselves, he said. Both he and Katharine spent time volunteering with AmeriCorps programs. And he and his sisters work in professions that benefit others. Thirty-four year-old Katharine is an attorney with a nonprofit legal agency, and 28-year-old Erin is a physical therapist.
“When I was younger, I always went with my mother on ‘Take Your Daughter to Work Day,’” Erin said. “She definitely is someone who inspired my life a lot. We love her so much.”
She motivated her daughters to such a degree that two years ago, both went with her on a medical mission to Ecuador. Although they were only supposed to work for one day as Spanish/English interpreters, Milton said, when the group found no one else to help bridge the language gap, both stayed all week.
“They worked their tails off,” Milton said.
But her girls said the experience of working side-by-side with Mom was priceless.
“For me, it was an opportunity to see her shine,” Erin said. “To see how good she is at what she does.”
“It was a privilege to see her in her element,” Katharine said. “We saw how the doctors, the nurses and the patients looked at her when she spoke and how they trust her.”
But it’s the interaction with the patients on these missions that keeps Milton returning, no matter how much it costs her, how exhausting the 10-day trips are or how uncomfortable the accommodations in underdeveloped countries like Romania, Columbia, Venezuela, El Salvador and Ecuador where she and others visit.
“These people come to us and they have nothing,” Milton said. “Some families walk for miles, spend all their money on a train ride to get to us.”
Today, in the United States, children born with cleft lips have corrective surgery at seven weeks old, she said, and cleft palates are repaired at seven months old. Most children here are no longer ostracized by the birth defects, but in Third World nations, children are shunned, hidden away, unless medical missionaries enter the picture.
“By 4 and 5 years old, these kids have teeth growing through their lips,” Milton said. “And it’s the 15-year-olds who break my heart.”
Memories of a teenage boy on her first trip to Romania will never leave her, she said.
“He’d been in hiding his whole life,” she said. “When he came out of the anesthetic, he grabbed my arm and in his broken English said, ‘I want to thank you from the bottom of my heart.’ I had to walk out of the room because I started to cry. Now I carry a small mirror in my pocket so I can pull it out and show the children what they look like after the surgeries.
“Yes, the conditions we live under while on the mission are less than desirable, and, yes, I’m exhausted at the end, after 12-hour days,” she added. “But, how can I not go back? How? It’s impossible not to go back.”
Known for her little sayings, Milton shared another: “It doesn’t matter what kind of car I drive or clothes I wear, as long as I made a difference in the life of a child.”
For more information on the Medical Mission Group or to donate, visit: www.medicalmissiongroup.org. To contact Milton, write her at firstname.lastname@example.org.