PAWTUCKET – Every weekday at about noontime, as her shift came to a close, Irene Gagne would walk toward the front doors of the Heritage Park YMCA Early Learning Center, turn around, look at nearby co-workers and offer them this bit of advice: “Behave, ladies.”
Those colleagues are still coming to grips with the fact they won't hear that anymore.
The news of Gagne's death reached Heritage Park during the late-morning hours of Wednesday, March 9, and her colleagues admitted they walked around the massive building's halls dumbfounded.
“I cried and cried and cried,” explained Nella Freiha, a lead toddler teacher, of Gagne, who at 71 suffered a massive stroke that morning while preparing for her duties as the center nurse. “I loved Miss Irene. She was like a mom to me. She was always there for all of us. She'd give you advice on everything, even if you didn't want it.
“I miss her because I worked with her for over 10 years, and I'd see her every morning,” she added. “She'd say, 'Hi, Nella. How are you?' and she always had a smile on her face, even if she wasn't having a good day. She also used to yell at me. If I made a mistake, or said something crazy, she's say, 'Nella, what's wrong with you?'
“That was just her way. She was very direct and forward, just brutally honest, whether it was going to hurt your feelings or not. You always knew she was trying to help you make the right decision. We all loved her, and felt her love in return.”
On Monday afternoon, Gagne's co-workers shared their memories of a woman who reveled in taking care of children, and adults whom she considered her own.
“When I found out, I was stunned,” noted Walsh, the center's administrative assistant. “It was as if we'd been hit in the head with a stick. Nobody quite knew how to react. Nobody could fathom it. Irene was all about caring for the children and staff here. She didn't treat it as her job, but treated us like we were all part of her family.
“That's what she called us, her 'other' family, though she was very much into her own family, too.”
Offered Freiha, shaking her head: “Work will never be the same around here, not ever again. I feel an emptiness in these hallways, and it's because she can never be replaced. I will say this: The next nurse will have very big shoes to fill.”
Christy Carrion, Heritage Park's Assistant Director of School-Aged Programs and Parent Engagement Coordinator, has known the Gagne family for decades now; she went through 13 years of school with Gagne's daughter, Sherrie.
“We're still friends,” Carrion offered. “Actually, Sherrie had called me that morning to tell me the rescue workers thought she had suffered a stroke, and that they were transporting her to Rhode Island Hospital. A little while later, I called to see what was happening, and Sherrie told me Irene was still alive, but they had taken her off the respirator. They were waiting for her to pass.
“I came out here to see Mary (Walsh) and Ana (Santos), and I almost fell down,” she added, her eyes moistening. “I left work and went with my mom (Penny Suchan) to the hospital. I couldn't believe what had happened. She always was so full of life. She definitely was too young.
“She absolutely had a heart of gold. She was definitely quick-witted. She always was smiling, but she could put the smack down on you when she felt she needed to.”
Santos, the center's Administrative Coordinator, couldn't believe what others were telling her that fateful day.
“I didn't think it was true until we all went to the wake at Tripp Funeral Home,” she said. “I thought she would still walk through the doors. She used to come in every morning and grab the medicine basket before heading to her office. When I'm by myself, I'll imagine she's about to come in, so I'll go and pick up the basket, put it on the counter so she could take it.”
Gagne's job was to spend three hours – 9 a.m.-noon, Monday through Friday – checking on the health and welfare of the youngsters (ages six weeks to eight years) attending Heritage Park.
“She would dispense medications and take care of children who were ill, or became ill while she was here,” stated Sharon Friedman, the YMCA Branch's Executive Director. “She also was sought by staff or parents for advice, and she'd offer her wisdom as well.
“I actually hired Irene back in 2000, and it was basically because she had all of the qualities for the job, and an enthusiasm for caring for young children,” she continued. “I also had another staff member whom I respected tell me she had known her for years, and that she should be hired.
“When Christy told me what had happened, I just thought, 'Oh, my God!' We were all stunned. I mean, she had been here about 10 ½ years, and had just received her 10-year pin” at the YMCA's annual meeting at Pawtucket Country Club on Feb. 7.
“She took her responsibilities very seriously. She loved the nursing profession. It was her life. She was a licensed practical nurse, and what made her tick was that love for nursing and, of course, her kids.”
Despite the fact she worked only part-time, Gagne – a Darlington resident – always volunteered her services for “family nights” or other activities.
“She went above and beyond the call of duty,” Friedman stated. “If we had a family or a child here that needed support, like toddler clothing or food, she'd make sure on her own to find clothes for them. She'd talk to families or her friends to seek donations, then she'd bring them in here for distribution.
“She also had a tremendous rapport with some of the area doctor's offices. If they had extra samples of medicines that could help the kids, she'd grab them and bring them in. I also think, because she was a person of experience, some of our young staff members would seek her out for advice and information. She was very well-regarded.”
Walsh indicated Gagne helped her through her mother's health problems, and had issued her first aid on occasion.
“I remember she placed butterfly stitches on my thumb, and treated a second-degree burn to my hand,” she said. “She even guided me through a serious health issue, asking all the right questions to the right doctors.
“Over the years, we became great friends,” she added. “She'd make me laugh. If she thought you were wrong, she'd grill you like a cheeseburger.”
After Gagne's death, Carrion assembled the children to make a commemorative banner of their handprints, and she draped it over the casket during the funeral mass.
“They folded that up like they would a flag (afterward),” Carrion said. “While we were doing the banner, some of my second-graders asked, 'Who's going to take care of (a diabetic child)?' That really hit me, and I didn't know what to say. Finally, I said, 'Don't worry. He'll be OK.'
“You know, her office is right across from mine. It's really hard walking past it, or going in there to get something, or giving out medicines to the kids. Anytime we were in her room and moved something, oh, she'd know. She'd come in the next day and say, 'Alright, who was in my office, and why?!'”
Julie Solitro, Heritage Park's Director of Early Childhood Education, mentioned she can feel Gagne's spirit when she's by herself in the building.
“I feel like I'm in her space,” she said.
“When Christy told me about Irene, I was devastated,” sighed Lead Infant Teacher Denise Laurens. “I mean, not even 24 hours before, she had spent the morning in the infants' room bathing a baby. She had a bloody nose. It just doesn't make any sense. She was always so caring with the kids. She went well beyond her duties.
“She was concerned about each one of those children, and loved her job, what she did. She'd spend her own money on food and clothes for the babies. She wasn't into candy for the kids, but would bring Munchkins in from Dunkin' Donuts for them to snack on at Halloween.
“She really meant a lot to me,” she continued. “She was older than me, and had more life experience. If I needed some advice, I'd call her at home, and she wouldn't mind. When I had my first grandson, Dominick, I was lost, but she guided me through it, told me the right things to do if he was sick.
“I miss her very much. I don't think we'll ever have a nurse like Irene. When Sherrie and the family went through her house, she brought Christy a bag of clothes with the tags still on them, and this was two days after she died. She was still giving.”
Gagne even pushed lead toddler teacher Mark Sharkey to go back to college to earn his degree.
“She could be hard sometimes, but that was the best part,” he grinned. “If you needed a little kick, she'd give it to you … She helped me decide what I wanted to do with my life. She treated me like her son.
“I had suffered a foot problem a while back, so I asked her if she would recommend a food doctor. Fifteen minutes later, she told me she had called a podiatrist she knew and made an appointment for me. That's not the only thing she did for me, trust me.
“She's the best,” he added. “We'll never forget her.”