Faces of Colby: Getting to know Helen Balgooyen

The Garrison-Foster Health Center is quite possibly one of the busiest spots on Colby’s campus, especially during cold and flu season. From strep tests to Z-pack prescriptions, the health center is not only a source of general medical care, but is home to the exceptionally compassionate and intelligent team of Colby nurses and doctors. One of the health center’s longest and most consistent staff members is nurse Helen Balgooyen, RN who, although technically retired from full-time work here, still calls Colby home through a part-time job.

“My husband is a Colby grad, and he always wanted to live here,” Balgooyen, a Connecticut native and graduate of Simmons College’s Nursing school, said, “We started renting the farm in Norridgewock [a small town about 14 miles outside of Waterville] in 1970 then bought it in 1983 when we moved up here permanently. We have been there ever since.” Balgooyen did not immediately begin working at Colby, however. “I initially worked at the hospital in Skowhegan, but after six weeks, I was told anyone who was not working more than 24 hours a week would be laid off.” Even though Helen worked over 24 hour weeks, she decided she wanted a more laid back and comfortable place of work. But it was this change that brought her to Colby, where she remains to this day. “There was an opening here, so I officially began working at the Colby Health Center in 1984,” Balgooyen said.

Over the years, Balgooyen has witnessed the health center undergo many changes. “When I first came here, we had 24 in-patient beds, and 24/7 nursing services. A lot of times, this would basically foster the creation of a ‘drunk tank’ over the weekends. But gradually, there were fewer and fewer beds until there was only one left,” Balgooyen said, “They also did away with the 24/7 policy soon after I officially retired- it was definitely one of the hardest parts of my job, trying to find night nurses because they had to be so self-sufficient that they would be able to deal with any type of emergency on their own without the assistance of the rest of the staff or doctors. And yet, most nights, there were no such emergencies, no in-patients, so the job was dead boring and therefore not a lot of people wanted to do it. The termination of this policy was very much expected.”

Balgooyen herself spearheaded many of the positive changes to the structure of the health center. “I am to blame for the electronic medical record system. When I was the head nurse here, that was one of the things I said we needed to prioritize: computerizing medical records,” Balgooyen said, “So we developed an in-house electronic organizational system and that worked well for a number of years, and soon after I stepped down from the position of head nurse, we moved for the more ‘official’ electronic organizational system which we still use to this day.” 

“The ability to easily institute change,” Balgooyen said, is one of her favorite aspects of working in a college medical center. “In college health, there isn’t this hierarchy that there is in a hospital. For instance, if you go to a medical conference and there’s a good idea you think would help improve the functionality of the practice, you can actually implement that change; you don’t have to jump through the hoops that would be present in a larger scale operation,” Balgooyen said. However,  she disclosed that the minimally structured hierarchy of Colby’s health center is not the only reason she prefers operating in a smaller-scale environment. “I love working with and really getting to know the students, obviously. But it’s also good for my brain to not know necessarily what a patient has when they walk in the door-even if I have just seen them days before. It could be something simple, or something highly complex so that is really fun for me,” Balgooyen said, “The camaraderie here is also just so great. We have an amazing staff here, and it is absolutely incredible to work with people who are so good at what they do, and love it so much.”

Since she is technically retired, Balgooyen only works on-campus for about eight hours a month at the health center, “although I try to get more because it is so much fun,” she admitted. Outside of Colby, however, Balgooyen keeps herself busy at her farm in Norridgewock. “We raise chickens and grow all of our own vegetables and beans,” she said, “I have also had a history of doing every craft that has come along; I went through a basket-making phase, a black ash pounding phase, a stain glass phase, a quilting phase, a pottery phase, basically any craft you can think of. But I also enjoy reading and walking, and have been known to do them at the same time.”

Nurse Balgooyen’s history with the health center has not jaded her view of it, and in fact she describes the sense of awe she still feels surrounding the entire operation. “I am just really impressed with the staff here, and students should always feel very comfortable coming here whenever they need help.”