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At 98, she still amazes

Rose Finkelstein made it to work last week.

The dire warnings of traffic jams and terrorist jihad that spooked so many into skipping town did not keep Rose from her rounds at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center.

The worst that could happen, she calculated, was a 60-cent bump in cab fare from her apartment in Brookline Village.

"You hit the lights, it's $4.20. You don't, $3.60," she confided. "No reason to stay home."

On Thursday, dressed in a crisp brown shift and cherry red sweater, her hospital identification card clipped to a strand of colored plastic beads, she strolled the corridors of the maternity ward where she has been a reassuring presence to new mothers for 49 years, the last 28 of them as a volunteer.

It was her 98th birthday, and Rose was accepting hugs from a head nurse she praised for the trust she shows in her subordinates and a janitor she touted for his ability to heave bundles of soiled bed linens down a laundry chute without breaking a sweat.

That's why she comes to work, really, the people she gets to meet, the patients she gets to help.

Spry might be an overstatement -- the cane and bifocals are more than fashion accessories -- but spunky might describe Rose well enough.

As understanding as she is of a freshly minted mom nursing a caesarean scar, that's how impatient she is with contemporaries -- and those a fair bit younger -- who whine about the infirmities that come with age.

"They complain about their legs, I tell them, 'Get moving, and your legs will be fine,' " she said, offering a tidy summary of her life's philosophy. "Activity, attitude, and determination, that's it. All you need to keep going. Oh, and you've got to have a sense of humor, or you're licked."

A sense of purpose doesn't hurt either. She learned that herself in 1992 when double bypass surgery sidelined her for three months.

Healing but unhappy, Rose looked to her surgeon for the right prescription. "Go back to work," he told her. "Do what you love."

Why not? She was only 86, after all.

Her first day back on the ward, she had to reassure a nurse's aide that she was not an apparition.

"I'm not dead," Rose told her. "I've come back to work."

She leaves the care of newborns to the nurses and the nurse's aides now that her birdlike frame has begun to show its years.

She is not fragile, though, restocking shelves with cans of infant formula, folding baby blankets and doll-sized shirts for Greater Boston's newest residents.

Babies have been a part of Rose Finkelstein's life since she gave birth to her daughters, Reva and Deana.

Her own mother was not there to lend a hand. She died at 41, when Rose was still a schoolgirl.

Rose was a nurse's aide in the newborn unit when she became a mother herself. It was a job she held until she retired at 70 in 1976. She was back at Beth Israel a day later as a volunteer.

Her colleagues have only the kindest things to say about her and not just because they respect their elders. Her commitment inspires them. Her energy amazes them.

But Rose can remember one critic whose complaints prompted the only reprimand she's ever had.

"She told the head nurse I was doing things for the mothers when I should have been on my break," she recalled. It turned out that wasn't a fireable offense.

The "girls on 5-Feldberg," as she calls the patients and co-workers on the maternity floor, are like family to Rose Finkelstein.

Not that she and her late husband, Sam, lacked for blood relatives. Rose never had to go to work to find a newborn to swaddle.

She passed her passion for babies along to the next generation. Her daughter, Reva, had 15 children, not a twin among them. The oldest is now 52.

Eileen McNamara is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at

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