Samuel Merritt University (SMU) students, staff and faculty members who listened to Rose Lim Luey talk about her life last week walked away with a better understanding of the Asian-American experience.
The 87-year-old nursing alumna shared her stories of growing up as the child of Chinese immigrants in Oakland, working as a public health nurse, and her lifelong community volunteer service during an Asian Pacific American Heritage Month luncheon on April 6.
Her presentation was the first in a series of oral histories planned by the SMU Office of Diversity and Inclusion to showcase the trailblazing role played by healthcare professionals of color in Oakland.
SMU Assistant Professor Beth Ching called Luey “a role model.”
“If you know anything about Asian American history, she embodies that,” said Ching.
Luey’s parents grew up in poor villages in rural China and came to America in the early 1920s. They settled in Oakland and opened a laundry, where Luey starting working when she was 6.
“My job was sorting dirty socks,” she recalled. “I’ll never forget that smell.”
Luey graduated in 1951 from what was then known as Samuel Merritt Hospital’s School of Nursing, where she was among the first Chinese-American students. Her tuition for three years of study was $250, and that covered her monogrammed uniforms — a blue-and-white-striped dress with white apron and a navy-blue cape with red lining. School officials were uncompromising disciplinarians, she said, who made certain that the students’ uniforms were clean, their caps on straight and that they stood up straight before going on duty.
“For me it was good,” Luey said of the strict training.
After raising three children — she was named Oakland’s 1972 Mother of the Year — Luey returned to work as a public health nurse for Alameda County Health Care Services, where she used her bilingual skills to care for Chinese-American patients. She later managed the county’s Perinatal Hepatitis B Program, which screened pregnant women for the virus and vaccinated their newborns.
Volunteer work is a thread woven throughout Luey’s life. At the end of the Vietnam War, Luey met Vietnamese immigrants at the Oakland Airport and provided them with healthcare services at relocation sites. She was a founding member of Asian Health Services in Oakland’s Chinatown and also spent 20 years volunteering for the Oakland chapter of the American Red Cross.
Since her retirement, she has been working at a healthcare clinic at St. Vincent de Paul Community Center in Oakland and, along with other retired public health nurses, started a monthly podiatry clinic — supported by SMU students — that also distributes free shoes and clothing to homeless and low-income patients.
In 2008, Luey and her husband established an endowed fund that awards scholarships annually to SMU nursing students.
At the end of her talk, Luey offered advice to today’s healthcare professionals: “If you have a second language, keep it up. Be supportive, kind and concerned.”