Even after decades had passed, Gertrude Drell’s patients remembered the nurse who cared for them in a way both tender and fierce.
“You saved my life,” her friend Mary Bellows said in a video compiled by Mrs. Drell’s family to honor her 90th birthday. “I was having a seizure after a stroke, and my kids called you on the phone and you came over. . . .you were there by 7 [a.m.], giving me artificial [respiration] to breathe.”
Steve Fiffer has called her his “favorite nurse” since 1967, when she reassured him he would recover from a grim back injury.
“I was flat on my back with my head shaved and tongs coming out of my head. I was 17 years old and had been going to New Trier and was completely paralyzed while wrestling,” he said in the video.
The physicians at Highland Park Hospital feared the worst, but Mrs. Drell was firm in her encouragement, he said Monday. “I think most of the doctors and nurses and staff at the hospital thought the prognosis was really very bleak, and she certainly never betrayed that to me, and for that, I’m very grateful.”
“Now,” he said in the video, “I’m up and around, walking and doing fine.”
Mrs. Drell worked for more than 65 years as a registered nurse.
When her husband, Oscar, died of a heart attack at age 50, their four daughters ranged in age from 10 to 18. Mrs. Drell worked double shifts to pay for college tuition, graduate school and law school. She raised a journalist, a lawyer, a nurse and a professor.
She operated a successful catering business on the side. Mrs. Drell could carve a whole bouquet out of turnips. Her appetizers, decorated with cream-cheese flowers piped out of pastry bags, were a thing of beauty. Her homemade English toffee, stirred for 20 minutes by hand until it turned just the right shade of caramel, was the equal of any confectionery.
Mrs. Drell’s skills landed her a demonstration on Chicago’s “Creative Cookery” TV show, featuring the famed Antoinette Pope cooking school.
She loved her dogs, her independence — she encouraged her daughters to earn their own living — and “An Affair to Remember,” a tear-jerker of a film featuring the mink-sleek Cary Grant, the luminous Deborah Kerr, and dialogue so romantic it inspired the 1993 film, “Sleepless in Seattle.” Even though she saw it hundreds of times, she still cried at the end.
Mrs. Drell died Sunday in her Highland Park home. She was 101.
Her father, Abraham Bleicher, a tailor, emigrated from Berlin to New York City. There he crafted costumes for the Ziegfeld Follies, a glittering riot of leggy showgirls and marabou boas, sequins, lace, feathers and beading.
Her mother, Bertha Seigelman, emigrated from what was known as Austria-Hungary. She worked as a cook for wealthy Jewish families. Her stuffed cabbage, challah and cherry strudel were so mouthwatering, she earned enough money for passage to America for her parents and four sisters.
Eventually, they opened a dry goods store on Irving Park Road.
The Bleichers lost three of their nine children to scarlet fever. A rabbi told Bertha to have another baby. When little Gertrude was born, they spoiled their little “Gittel,” the baby of the family.
A strong swimmer, she worked as a lifeguard at Independence Park near Irving and Pulaski. She attended Carl Schurz High School and the Belmont Hospital school of nursing.
“Nice Jewish girls didn’t do things like that,” said her daughter, Adrienne Drell, a former Chicago Sun-Times reporter. “You’d have to see people naked, deal with the human body. This was in 1933.”
On her second day of work, Mrs. Drell witnessed a Cesarean section. “Oh, my God, when they pulled that baby out, we just couldn’t believe it. We were like, hypnotized, when he lifted the baby up,” she said in her birthday video. “I loved it.”
After graduating, she and a friend worked for a few years in California, where her patients included entertainers William Powell, Martha Raye and Norma Shearer.
Returning home, she met Oscar Drell, a son of Russian Jewish immigrants. They wed in 1941 and raised their four girls in Chicago before moving to Glencoe.
She was devoted to her dogs. Her red hair was the same shade as Reilly and King, her Irish setters. Herbie, a mix of German shepherd and Labrador retriever, would frequently get loose. “My mother would run around the neighborhood in her housedress, shouting ‘Herbie, chopped liver, roast beef,’ ” to lure him, said another daughter, Pamela Drell.
“She was one feisty broad,” said her daughter, Jill Leslie Drell.
At 75, she sold her house and drove alone to Palm Springs, Calif., where her sister, Freida, lived. She worked there as a private duty nurse for 12 years.
Another time, she and a friend tangled with thieves when they traveled to Roosevelt Road to buy what used to be called “foundations.”
“Somebody mugged them and they [the robbers] had the underwear they just bought. She was bound and determined and she was running after them,” Pamela Drell said.
“She never played favorites,” said another daughter, Terri Schwartz. If she saw something nice, she bought one for each of her daughters. She presented all four with a Cuisinart when the new device was barely past the prototype stage.
Friends recalled her dedication to her profession.
“I worked with her at Highland Park Hospital as a private duty nurse for over 25 years, and when we both had p.m. shifts, Gertrude would insist on sharing her homemade dinners that she brought to the hospital. . . . She would say, ‘Join me for dinner, kid, you have to try my ratatouille,’ ” said Laura Fitzpatrick. “She was . . . always willing to do the most for her sick patients, even if it required working double shifts .
“As a widowed mother at a very young age caring for four beautiful young daughters, I saw her work to assure that they all had wonderful educations — money would not stand in the way, she would just work more,” Fitzpatrick said. “Never once did she express any self-pity or unhappiness with her responsibilities. . . . What made Gertrude happy was helping and working for others.”
“She was a nurse for me, an outstanding nurse, when I had surgery,” said another friend, Florence Weese. “She also was for my mother, and a number of people. She would go above and beyond the call, available every minute.”
A world traveler, Mrs. Drell visited Hawaii, Hong Kong, India, Pakistan, the Philippines and Thailand.
Funeral services are scheduled at noon Friday at Weinstein Funeral Home, 111 Skokie Blvd., Wilmette. Burial is to follow at Westlawn Cemetery. In addition to her daughters, Mrs. Drell is survived by four grandchildren and two great-grandsons.
“My mother never really looked back,” Adrienne Drell said. “She forged ahead.”