Mary Whillock learned what might have been her most important lesson while in nursing school – as a patient.
In 1971, Whillock was in her fourth year of studies at the University of Florida when she contracted pneumonia. She returned to her home in Hillsborough County for treatment, which back then called for an uncomfortable injection of penicillin in the form of a thick paste.
An emergency room nurse helped her get through the painful ordeal.
"She talked me through it and she explained to me everything that was going to happen," Whillock said, "and she told me how it was going to hurt, but it was going to get better.
"Then she visited with me once I got upstairs. She used to come back to see how I was doing. So I thought, 'That's what I want to be. I want to be able to make people feel good about a bad situation.' "
Whillock followed up on that pledge during her 39-year career at Florida Hospital, during which she went from ER nurse to chief nurse to a brief stint as the hospital's chief executive officer.
Her last day on the job was March 30.
As Whillock recounted her time at the hospital in the facility's lush garden, passers-by stopped to talk, hugged her and offered kind words.
"The most wonderful person in the world," one woman said. "The most awesome person to work with."
She was hooked when she toured the Florida Hospital on Fletcher Avenue during an open house before its July 1968 opening.
"I saw the stainless steel in the operating room," the Temple Terrace native said. "All that stainless steel, I have to tell you, [gave me] goose bumps."
Five years later she was hired at that same hospital to work evening shifts as a medical-surgical nurse. She moved on to the ER, where she spent 22 years. Whillock later was promoted to assistant head nurse and then to an educator.
Less than two years later, Whillock was moved into an administrative role at the behest of her boss.
"It was the most incredible feeling to be a nurse," she said, her voice strained with emotion. "It wasn't a job. It was a pleasure."
She was on a team that orchestrated a $4 million redesign of the emergency room at Florida Hospital, and established the first chest pain ER in Tampa in 1986.
When she moved to Florida Hospital Carrollwood in 2005, the hospital added an innovative radiology wing. The hospital also used robotics to perform spine surgeries.
"The 6 1/2 years I've been here, it was the culmination of a career," Whillock said with a touch of humility. "I look at me and my career and think, 'People had faith in me.' And because people had faith in me, I've had that can do [attitude]."
She met her husband, Jimmy Whillock, while at work. In 1973 she was on a team treating Jimmy Whillock's father, who had cancer. When Jimmy Whillock's father died, she sent flowers to the family. Jimmy Whillock's request for an address to send a thank-you note culminated in the couple's marriage on July, 5, 1975.
With her work completed, Mary and Jimmy Whillock will focus on road work — sort of.
They plan to travel the country in their motor home, doing things they have longed to do for years.
"I'm going to take time to smell the roses," she said.
"Mary is the most giving person I have ever met in the world," Jimmy Whillock said. "I mean, she has time for everyone. She meets no strangers; she is a doer. She doesn't stand on the sidelines. If there's a problem going on, she's in the middle of it."
Just then a hospital employee came around a corner: "She's the most wonderful person in the 40 years I've ever worked with."
Mary Whillock offered the admirer a hug. Then, nostalgically wearing the same red blazer she wore years ago when she arrived at Florida Hospital Carrollwood, she walked down a pathway leading away from the garden.