DENVER OR BUSTED
part 1 of 2
The red light on her answering machine was blinking frantically when Georgia Caven walked into the living room of her Lakewood home. She pressed the button.
"Georgia, this is Adam. I need to speak to you. Call me when you get in." It was the voice of her boss and friend, Dr. Adam Myers, director of Denver General Hospital's cancer clinic and founder of DGH's HIV clinic. The next two messages were also from the doctor.
Myers knew that she had been on vacation, visiting her family in South Dakota, taking a much deserved break from her work as a nurse caring for cancer and AIDS patients. But it wasn't unusual for him to check in after she'd been away. After all, they had been together since the HIV clinic opened in 1989 and he had been unable to find anyone else to take the job. Back then, AIDS was still pretty much of a mystery, its cause and transmission a source of fear among doctors and nurses.
Together they had learned a lot over the years. They weren't going to get the virus so long as they were careful about such things as needle pricks and contact with blood. But as the level of fear dropped, the stress of getting to know, and often love, people who were quite simply going to die increased. She and Myers had held a lot of the same hands and cried over the same partings. They counted on each other to go on.
Still, three messages. The only thing she could figure was that someone they were close to must have died. It would be like Adam to try to prepare her before she arrived at the clinic. She wanted to call him back, but it was late and she decided the news could wait.
In the morning Myers tried paging her, but by the time she returned the call, he was already off and running on his many rounds. They played beeper cat and mouse for the next few hours before she finally caught him in his office. "I need to see you right away," was all Myers said--but suddenly she was afraid.
The doctor looked up when Georgia walked in. He was always amazed that such a lovely woman, with such a wonderful smile, could be so modest. A lot of her beauty came from within. She took her role as a nurse far beyond the call of duty, visiting home- and hospice-bound patients in her off-hours to deliver medicine, check on their status and, more important, let them know that someone cared. Whatever time she had left over was usually devoted to helping homeless men, women and children at the shelters.
He had never met a nurse more loved by colleagues and patients, some of whom called her "saint" and "angel"--and many of whom counted more on her than they did on him. Now he had to tell her that someone had turned her in to Denver's Career Services Authority for "flaunting" a rule that requires city employees to live within the confines of the city and county of Denver. "Georgia, we have a problem," he said, his heart aching as he watched that wonderful smile fade. "You might have to leave Denver General."
Georgia Caven arrived in Denver in 1975, 23 years old and about as naive as a girl from a small South Dakota farming community can be.
Ever since she was a small child, she had been convinced that God sent her to earth because she was needed. In grade school she began writing stories about Nurse Nancy, a character she created who took care of four children who bore a remarkable resemblance to the Caven clan. When a priest at the Catholic school she attended told her about the hospital ship HOPE that traveled to all sorts of foreign places to bring medicine and peace, she daydreamed of walking down the ship's gangplank to waiting arms.
When she enrolled at Northern State College in Aberdeen in 1970, though, it was as a music major, mostly to please her father. She loved music, too; there was something about singing that made her feel closer to God. But after the first year of college, she was having second, third and fourth thoughts about music as a career. For one thing, she got sick to her stomach every time she was expected to give a solo recital.
But more than that, she felt another calling. "I want to help people," she told her parents after sitting them down in the room where the family had gathered on so many Sundays to sing. "I want to be a nurse." Her parents told her to follow her heart.
Three years later her heart led her to accept a job at St. Anthony's Hospital in Lakewood. She began work as an orthopedic neurosurgery nurse but soon transferred to the emergency room. She wanted excitement and experience; she got plenty of both.
She had been working in St. Anthony's emergency room for four years when she met Dr. Peter Rosen, then the head of the emergency room at Denver General. Impressed with her skill and effervescent personality, Rosen told her that she should be working at DGH. "You're ready to move on," he said.
Georgia thanked him for the attention and compliments but declined the invitation. She liked living in Golden, where she had recently purchased a small home. She knew many of the local police officers and firefighters from her night work in the emergency room and felt safe there--like they were watching over her.
Rosen, however, kept pressing. He wanted her at DGH and insisted on knowing what was stopping her. Georgia finally had to admit there were three reasons Denver didn't appeal to her.
"I'm afraid of getting mugged," she said.
"We'll get a security guard to see you to your car at night," Rosen countered.
Georgia hesitated before speaking again, but under Rosen's scrutiny she blurted out, "I've heard that some of the nurses turn into jerks because of the conditions, and I don't want to be like that."
"Well, I've been there a long time, and I haven't turned into a jerk," Rosen responded. "And I don't think you're the sort of person to turn into one either."
Her final reason made her blush with embarrassment. "I'm afraid I'd get lice," she said sheepishly. Some of Denver General's clientele had quite a reputation at other area hospitals.
But Rosen just laughed and said, "We have shampoo for that."
Georgia recognized that her arguments were silly. Finally, in 1982, she told Rosen she'd take the job in Denver.
It was like stepping into another world. St. Anthony's had been a well-run, efficient hospital with the best of everything and patients who could afford to pay for it. Half the time Denver General seemed held together by nothing more than the heroic efforts of its staff to help people who had nothing.
As the city hospital, DGH took patients who couldn't afford to go anywhere else. Some were the dregs of the city--drunks scraped up off the sidewalks; overdosed drug addicts dragged from under bridges; rapists, muggers and killers being held at the Denver jail. Some of them smelled so bad it was enough to gag the medical personnel trying to help them; particularly odiferous fellows were referred to as having "toxic sock syndrome."
Then there were patients who broke her heart: terrified children burned, battered or starved by their parents; women beaten and bloodied by their boyfriends and husbands; people who had waited so long to seek health care that their only option was to go to the emergency room or die.
Even so, Georgia loved her new job. There was more give-and-take with the physicians, many of whom--because it was a teaching hospital--were just starting their careers. But others were among the finest in their fields. There was something special about being with doctors and nurses and technicians who chose to work at such a place.
Georgia put in long hours. Still, it wasn't enough, and with members of her church, she began taking food to homeless people on the 16th Street Mall. They were the sort she saw far too often in the emergency room; if she couldn't save them all, at least she could try to feed them. To offset the stress, she sang with the Denver Symphony and a concert chorale that performed at various locales around the state.
Georgia's singing was often the one soothing sound amid the blood and confusion of the emergency room.
When Georgia started working at Denver General, she knew there was a rule that required Denver employees, including those at the hospital, to live within the boundaries of the city and county of Denver.
The rule had its genesis in the 1974 passage of the Poundstone Amendment, which prohibited Denver from annexing land beyond its borders. As a result, Denver--which, as the core city, was committed to providing services, including indigent health care, for much of the metro area--was prevented from expanding its tax base. In response, Denver voters approved a 1978 ballot measure that required city employees to live in Denver. Workers hired on before 1979 were grandfathered in as exceptions to the residency rule.
There were other, less official, exceptions to the rule. City workers with homes in other counties, including Georgia Caven, slipped around the requirement by listing the addresses of Denver-based friends or colleagues on their yearly performance evaluations.
Georgia hated giving a false address. It was a lot like lying, although everyone seemed to be doing it and she figured her work at Denver General was more important than where she spent what little free time she had. But it was her dedication that got her into trouble.
As a DGH nurse, she was often required to testify in court cases, particularly those involving child abuse or drunk driving. One night after a particularly busy shift, she went home and fell into a deep sleep. She woke to the sound of the telephone. A hospital administrator was calling; Georgia had missed a court appearance. The court clerk had called the hospital, and then the administrator had called her.
Georgia apologized for having overslept, but she was caught off guard by the administrator's next statement. "The number I called wasn't a Denver exchange," he said, adding that now that her violation of the residency rule had been brought to his attention, she needed to "take care" of it. Georgia could have quit Denver General and gone back to St. Anthony's, where she still worked part-time, or moved on to some other hospital where she would certainly find better hours and working conditions. But who, she wondered, would take care of her patients?
Instead, she sold her Golden home, losing more than $20,000 in the process, and rented a house in Denver. It was in a pretty, well-kept neighborhood, and even if some of the surrounding areas were a little on the rough side, she convinced herself that she would be all right.
After all, down at Denver General she'd had to shackle drunks to their beds to keep them from hurting themselves or leaving before they sobered up. She'd had patients urinate on her and criminals threaten to get even. Once a big, burly man who arrived at the emergency room as a drug overdose broke from the security guards and grabbed her in a half-nelson. After the guards subdued him, she kept on working. The man later sent her a letter, apologizing and thanking Georgia for her care.
But there were no security guards to help Georgia one night in 1984 when she woke up in her Denver bedroom. She was puzzled because the house was silent, and she always went to sleep with the television on--the noise was reassuring.
Then she felt more than saw the stranger who stood in the darkness next to her bed. She was terrified, helpless and couldn't even scream until long after he'd attacked her and fled into the night.
The police never caught the man who assaulted Georgia.
And she never got over how helpless the attack made her feel.
For a long time, Georgia stayed in her Denver home. She kept the blinds pulled down and the windows closed on even the hottest days. But even locked inside the house, she didn't feel safe. For months she slept upright in a chair because she couldn't stand the feeling of lying vulnerable on her bed. Even then, her sleep was fitful and haunted by strangers who stood in the dark.
Her terror intensified a few months later, when two men followed her as she left the hospital. They pulled alongside her car and screamed obscenities. She tried to shake them, but they pulled up at her house as she pushed the button to close her garage door.
She was dialing 911 when one of the men walked up to her front door and tested the knob. The dispatcher said it would take a little while for the officers to respond because it was the middle of a shift change.
"Look, I work in the emergency room at Denver General," Georgia whispered, "and I never tell your guys that I'm changing shifts when they need help." By the time the police arrived, the men were gone.
She considered leaving Denver, even the state, but she stayed for the people who needed her. Whenever she had the chance, she looked for a better place she could afford to live. But it wasn't like she had a lot of time to search. She and other members of her church had stepped up their efforts to help the homeless, stopping by shelters to comfort the men there, even if it was just with a song and a shaving kit or new socks.
Some recognized her as "that woman from Denver General" who'd helped secure them to beds to sleep off the booze. But she persisted and prevailed, not so much as a missionary but as a nurse who would listen to their litany of ailments and, when necessary, see that they got medical attention. For those who qualified, she got blue cards for treatment at Denver General. "It's like Visa," she joked. "Don't leave home without it."
Word spread on the streets of the Denver General nurse who sang beautiful songs and listened to their troubles. They began to trust her. One old man, whom she'd shackled more than once, took to calling her The Princess. Others simply called her angel.
Wyatt Britt didn't much care who Georgia Caven was the first time he saw her at the Blake Street shelter. A big, gruff man, he figured his best friend was a bottle, and the last thing he needed that night was sermonizing from a bunch of religious fanatics.
He had survived Vietnam, but not the wife who took their son and daughter as well as the money from their business and moved to Washington state. It had taken a few months of hard drinking to arrive at homelessness. Now, after a few years of it, he saw no reason to change. When Georgia tried to talk to him, he ignored her.
For months he studied her when she came to the shelter. She wasn't like most of the Christians he had met, who were all talk and no action. She lived her principles and seemed unafraid of what he knew to be some pretty rough characters. He knew, because he was one of them; most folks moved away from old Wyatt when he was drinking and started getting loud.
But not Georgia. She'd sit by him as though they were carrying on a polite conversation over tea while he ranted and told her to get out of his face. Eventually, she wore him down and got him to go to church. He didn't even argue when she said she had a job for him taking care of horses for some friends in Aurora. It was a long, slow process, with a slew of setbacks, but she got him off the bottle and gave him back his self-respect.
end of part 1
Get the ICYMI: Today's Top Stories Newsletter Our daily newsletter delivers quick clicks to keep you in the know
Catch up on the day's news and stay informed with our daily digest of the most popular news, music, food and arts stories in Denver, delivered to your inbox Monday through Friday.