Family affair: Fourth-generation nurse embarks on career as her mother readies for retirement

March 2024
A plaque given to Patti Lonsway Bihn by her husband features the family's four generations of nurses, the year of their graduation from nursing school and their nursing pins.


As Patti Lonsway Bihn prepares to retire after 41 years in nursing at Catholic hospitals, her daughter is stepping onto her own path in Catholic health care. They are the third and fourth generations in their family who have made it their lives' work to care for others.

Jess Bihn, an oncology nurse at Trinity Health Ann Arbor Hospital in Michigan, followed her mother, Patti Lonsway Bihn, into nursing. Patti Bihn plans to retire this summer from Trinity Health's Chelsea Hospital in Michigan.

"I always knew that I wanted to be a nurse and follow in the footsteps of my mother and grandmother," Bihn said. "I feel like what we do makes a big difference in people's lives. It's what has kept me going for 40-plus years, and I am sure it will keep my daughter going as well."

Bihn, 60, graduated from Mercy School of Nursing (now Mercy College of Ohio and affiliated with Bon Secours Mercy Health) in Toledo in 1983. She has worked in numerous roles, from critical care to community health, with Catholic hospitals in Ohio and Michigan. She plans to retire in July from Trinity Health's Chelsea Hospital in Michigan.

Both her late mother, Sue Ann Huss Lonsway, and her late grandmother, Lucille Klein Lonsway, graduated from Mercy School of Nursing and went on to nursing careers. Her daughter, Jess Bihn, who received her bachelor's degree in nursing from Mercy College of Ohio in 2018, is the fourth generation of Mercy nurses.

All four women chose different tracks in the field, and that illustrates one of the biggest advantages of the profession, Patti Bihn said.

"My grandmother did private duty and she worked for a doctor," she said. "My mom worked in psych at (Mercy Health's) St. Charles Hospital in Oregon, Ohio, for 14 years. I remember her getting ready in the morning with the white uniform and the white hose and I remember she made lifelong friends in the profession. And in every role that I've been in, I've had the wonderful support of co-workers and the belief that what I'm doing is making a difference."

Like mother, like daughter
In turn, Patti Bihn's work in the field inspired daughter Jess Bihn, who inherited the same sense of care and compassion that led her family members into the profession.

"I remember being with my mom when she was working at blood drives," said Jess Bihn, 28, who works as an oncology nurse at Trinity Health Ann Arbor Hospital. "I was always her little shadow, pretending to take blood pressure. I just kind of used her medical supplies as toys. There are even nurses working at bedside here (at Ann Arbor) today who remember my mom, and me following her around. I was born at the hospital where I work — it's full circle."

Experts say the demand for nurses is continuing to rise, as baby boomers age and the need for health care grows. But according to the American Association of Colleges of Nursing, the United States is projected to experience a shortage of registered nurses, with factors such as stress and insufficient staffing — especially in the wake of the pandemic — driving some to leave the profession.

For Patti and Jess Bihn, the flexibility — not to mention the satisfaction — that the nursing profession provides outweighs the challenges.

"There's just not another occupation that has the flexibility that nursing does," Patti Bihn said. "You can work in a nursing home, you can work in home care. You can work full time, part time, weekends, days, evenings, nights. There are so many different ways to be a nurse. There's something for everyone."

Jess Bihn agreed. "I don't see myself working at the bedside for 41 years but I think I could have a long career spreading my wings and having new learning opportunities. There's always another job where you can learn more."

In her role at Trinity Health Ann Arbor, Jess Bihn often meets visiting nursing students. "Something they ask is, how do you keep going?" she said. She knew that sticking to the profession would be challenging but worthwhile.

"Unfortunately, (in oncology) we always have patients on end-of-life care, but it's an honor to help make them comfortable in their last days. And it's also fun when we have success stories, when after weeks of inpatient care, we get to help them celebrate as they get wheeled out of the hospital."

A new beginning
For Patti Bihn, retiring from a profession she has loved is bittersweet, but it brings her comfort to know her daughter is carrying on the family tradition. "I am extremely proud of Jess and her caring and compassionate ways," she said. "I should be really excited about retiring, but I get teary just thinking about it. It's a family to me — that's one of the things I love."

But Patti Bihn's hands will not be idle. She plans to volunteer through her parish to develop health and senior ministries to provide fellowship and practical help to community members, especially seniors suffering from social isolation and related health problems.

"I think I've always been a helper," she said. "I will be retiring, but I will continue to use my nursing skills."


Copyright © 2024 by the Catholic Health Association of the United States

For reprint permission, contact Betty Crosby or call (314) 253-3490.