As she holds Andrea Lopez’s baby boy, Ethan, the ear-to-ear smile of nurse Michelle Ennist is broken only when she coos: “You’re so handsome, aren’t you? Yes, you are.”
When Ennist cuddles Adela Perez-Delgado’s newborn, Milan, the nurse’s baby talk has the little one listening carefully: “So what are you going to do today? You want to play, don’t you?”
The more you watch the 62-year-old Ennist work in maternal child services at University Medical Center, the more you realize why the unit’s director, Lisa Pacheco, says that with the nurse’s upcoming retirement, the hospital is losing “a solid part of the foundation of the unit.”
One minute she’s displaying the right way to hold a child; the next, the best way to swaddle.
“I’ll always remember her zipping around the unit,” Pacheco says. “And she’s been so generous, putting baskets together for families of newborns at holidays.”
For 18 years of her more than 30 years in nursing, she’s taught new parents, and nursing students, too, how best to care for the newest members of the human race.
Ennist can still see the shock on one new dad’s face when, as she was teaching him how to put on a diaper, his baby boy welcomed him to fatherhood with an arching golden stream right in the kisser.
“I thought he was done,” the sputtering dad told Ennist.
“Babies do what they want,” Ennist recalls telling the fledgling father.
While it’s true that tiny bundles of joy get to meet the world on their terms, it’s also true that during Ennist’s journey through life, she’s followed a road, to borrow the words of the poet Robert Frost, “less traveled by.”
How many nurses do you know who once worked in a dancing profession where the amount of clothes worn were no more than that worn by a newborn babe? Do you know of another nurse whose biography includes having appeared “au naturel” as well as partially clothed in Mario Puzo’s 1977 book, “Inside Las Vegas”?
Do you know of another nurse who helped a stroke patient get well by showing him a video of herself performing as a dancer? What nurse do you know who got her neck crushed by a patient she cared for?
Is there another retiring nurse you know who goes out and buys a 31-foot recreational vehicle so she can travel around the United States alone for the next two years?
No doubt about it: Michelle Ennist, who performed across the country as Dina Wells and Michelle Monet, who legally changed her first name from “Monica” because she “didn’t feel like a Monica,” has danced through life to the beat of a different drummer.
She’s also danced through three husbands.
Ennist grew up in Milwaukee with thoughts of one day being a nurse and one day being a dancer.
When a cheesehead she met there told her she could make money as an exotic dancer and probably see the country while she did it, she decided not to immediately follow in the footsteps of Florence Nightingale.
APPLAUSE HELD MORE APPEAL THAN GAUZE
It wasn’t long before Monica (she hadn’t changed her name yet) had people clapping when she took her clothes off for a song. She may not have been as famous as Schlitz, the beer that made Milwaukee famous, but she became well-known enough in her hometown to become disowned by her embarrassed family.
“They didn’t like it, but then you have to remember that was the Bible Belt, ” she says, stressing that it wasn’t easy for her to disrobe at first.
Fortunately, she says, “some sex impersonators and sex changers took me under their wing” and helped her get the confidence she needed to perform devoid of covering.
Soon she was on a club circuit that took her to towns that included Minot, N.D.; Evansville, Ind.,; Sarasota, Fla.; Champaign, Ill.; Kansas City, Mo.; and Las Vegas.
What she enjoyed most about the work, she says, was “meeting people. … I’d have time in between shows and met a lot of people. A lot of them were just regular people, people taking time off to relax and have a drink.”
One of the men she met at a club was such a stand-up guy that she married him.
She says she also met some “creeps,” men who became so obsessed with her that they’d try to follow her home, but she had “nice” bouncers or “nice” cops take care of them. “Sometimes when you’re a dancer it’s difficult keeping your privacy.”
One day the name “Dina Wells” just popped into her head so that’s who she was onstage. On another day she performed as “Michelle Monet” because she liked alliteration and Monet jewelry. On yet another day she went to the courthouse and legally changed her name to “Michelle” because when she looked in the mirror she didn’t see a “Monica.”
Ennist enjoyed performing in Las Vegas, and stayed longest at a club on Paradise Road, because the heat of Southern Nevada helped her deal with her arthritis. Mario Puzo enjoyed her work so much that he included her in his book “Inside Las Vegas.”
But even daily temperatures of 100 degrees couldn’t overcome the wear and tear of nearly 10 years of doing the bump and grind. Her knee and hip joints still cried out for Bengay.
“I just couldn’t see dancing that way for the rest of my life,” she says.
CHANGING HER TUNE
It was time to try out the other profession she thought about as a child — nursing. She would make people feel good through health care instead of entertainment.
She took classes and became a certified nursing assistant.
But that wasn’t easy on her joints either.
One day she had to clean up after a 300 pounder in a UMC hospital bed all by herself.
“It wasn’t easy pushing him up because during the 1970s I was only 5 foot 2 and 100 pounds,” she recalls.
Hoping for nursing work that was more challenging and less physically taxing, she took classes to become a licensed practical nurse. At first, things went well.
Never, Ennist says, did she try to hide her dancing past from UMC administrators and doctors.
“I didn’t brag about it either,” she says. “But I knew if you try to hide something, sooner or later someone will try to use it against you.”
Doctors, she recalls, always seemed interested in her past, even looking at pictures she showed them, but never criticized her for her exotic dancing.
“They were always very nice.”
Unfortunately, working as a licensed practical nurse turned out to be the toughest on Ennist’s joints.
Once, she and another nurse were changing a burn unit patient’s dressings. Ennist was on the right side of the bed, holding up the man’s arm, and the other nurse was on the left side of the bed.
Somehow, the other nurse mistakenly touched the man’s raw bare left hand and the patient, in considerable pain, reacted by pulling his right hand over to his left side in an instinctive effort to protect himself.
Unfortunately, Ennist’s head was caught inside the patient’s arm, and her neck was twisted violently, crushing vertebrae. She’s endured three operations and now has a titanium plate in her neck to stabilize it.
As painful as that experience was, it no longer was as painful to go home.
“I was no longer disowned,” Ennist says. “They bragged about their daughter the nurse. But everybody back there still calls me Monica.”
She took additional classes and became a registered nurse so she could be even more helpful to patients.
During her time working in maternal services as a registered nurse, Pacheco says Ennist has become a fine teacher, “one of the best.”
Ennist is proud that new parents and nursing students say they learn a lot about caring for babies from her.
“I really want those babies to be well-cared for,” says the nurse who’s helped raise a stepchild. “I enjoy teaching first-time mothers how to breast feed, how to relax with their child. Some new mothers are actually afraid they’ll somehow break their new baby. But I remind them that the trip the baby made to get there wasn’t all that easy.”
It became a joy for her, she says, to make baskets for parents of the first new babies at holiday time. There would be clothes and diapers and toys for the newborns. “I love to see those smiles,” she says.
“She’d buy all that stuff for babies herself,” Pacheco says. “One time on Christmas Eve she wasn’t feeling well and she was beside herself that parents wouldn’t get them. So my husband and I went to pick them up.”
CHOOSING THE NEXT ROAD
What prompted Ennist to retire in January isn’t that she’s lost her love for nursing. It’s because of her own health.
Ennist was found to have a heart condition in November — a stent was placed in her right artery to keep it open. She says she did a lot of thinking during her recovery.
“I realized that there are still things I want to see while I can,” she says. “So I bought a motor home and decided to do something I’ve always wanted to do — see as many of the national parks and state parks as I can. I figure that will take me about two years and then I’ll think of something else that I want to do.”
As she drives across the country, she says she’ll surely think about both of her former professions. Once she used them both to help a stroke patient recuperate.
“I had been bringing in movies to him to help make him feel better, but nothing seemed to work,” she recalls. “Then one day I brought in a movie that I told him I’d let him see of me performing as long as he didn’t tell anyone. He promised and after he saw it, something just awoke in him. It was amazing. He made good progress and he was able to go home. I felt really good about that.”
Contact reporter Paul Harasim at email@example.com or 702-387-2908.