Life Lessons

Talya Sanders, Samuel Merritt University Magazine

“I was born of a nurse and married a nurse,” Howard “Mike” Milliken, MD, proudly declares when asked why he has such a strong connection to Samuel Merritt University nurses. During his 40-plus years as a physician working in obstetrics and gynecology on Oakland’s “Pill Hill,” Milliken enriched the learning experiences of hundreds, maybe thousands, of nursing students by providing clinical skills training and hands-on experience with patients at his office and on hospital rounds.

The son of a family physician and a nurse, Milliken grew up in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania and earned his doctorate in medicine at the University of Pennsylvania. He did his residency in Hawaii, where he met his wife, Patricia. “It was love at first sight,” he says.

In 1950, the couple moved to Oakland, where he began a residency at Samuel Merritt Hospital. After serving in the Korean War as a Naval Medical Officer in Oakland and Kodiak, Alaska, Milliken had a private practice in Oakland until he retired in 1998.

Starting in the 1950s, nursing students met Milliken during clinical rotations on the maternity floor while earning their Registered Nurse degrees at Samuel Merritt Hospital School of Nursing. Some spent their “Doctor for a Day” experiences with him, shadowing him as he cared for patients in his office. And several trusted and respected him so much they asked him to be their own doctor.

“My mother, wife, and an aunt were all nurses, and that left a lasting mark on me,” says Milliken, who was drawn to obstetrics and gynecology because it combined office and surgical care, and because it gave him joy to deliver babies. That’s why he supports multiple SMU nursing students each year who exhibit academic excellence, have an interest in obstetrics and women’s health, and have financial needs through the Dr. Howard and Patricia Milliken Scholarship.

As Milliken celebrates his 98th birthday this June, we asked several alumni and SMU faculty to reflect on his legacy.

What nurses are saying

“During nursing school, I worked with Dr. Milliken on the maternity floor at Merritt Hospital and observed a birth with him. He was such a sweetheart and so gentle with his patients and us nurses that when I was pregnant a few years later, I asked him to be my obstetrician.”

—LINDA DOBSON, RN ’66, worked in orthopedics, gastroenterology, and the emergency room at Samuel Merritt Hospital for more than 30 years.

“Dr. Milliken was so generous with his time, and he treated us young nursing students as equals. He made us feel comfortable asking questions, which was unusual at the time.” 

—JULIE SWANSON JACKSON, RN ’82, worked in post-anesthesia care units, gastroenterology, and fertility clinics around the Bay Area.

“Dr. Milliken instilled a sense of confidence in us and made us better nurses by sharing his clinical knowledge of obstetrics and gynecology. As a newly graduated nurse, you worry you’re doing something wrong, but I never felt intimidated by him, and that allowed us the freedom to learn and grow.”

—PROFESSOR EMERITUS LINDA CHAPMAN, RN ’70, worked with Milliken as a student nurse, labor and delivery nurse, and SMU instructor during her 30-year career.

“Dr. Milliken was always thoughtful, supportive, and caring when he taught us nurses new things. There was one particular night I was a new labor and delivery nurse working with Dr. Milliken that influenced the rest of my teaching career.

I was still learning how to check a patient’s cervix, and after I told him that I’d measured 3 centimeters, he did his own exam. In front of the patient, he said that was a good assessment, but when we stepped out into the hall—and away from the patient’s earshot—he told me that the measurement was actually 6 centimeters. Then he clearly explained to me the proper way to do the examination. He had me go back into the room, check the patient again, and tell her how she’d made great progress and was now 6 centimeters.

Rather than correcting me in front of the patient, he made it a private learning experience. It was my ‘ah-ha moment’ about how to correctly check a cervix, something I’ve gone on to do thousands of times in my career. I’ve never forgotten the way he taught me, and now I use that method to teach other nurses.”

—ASSISTANT PROFESSOR SUSAN CANTRELL, first met Milliken when she was fresh out of nursing school and working in labor and delivery at Samuel Merritt Hospital in 1986. She still thinks of him as one of the best doctors she’s worked with.

“Dr. Milliken was very kind, friendly, eager to teach us, and interested in our lives. I enjoyed my maternity rotation with him so much that it made me choose him to be my personal doctor when I had babies.”

—PHYLLIS HOLMES, RN ’66, BSN ’88, worked in medical-surgical units and then the operating room for many years at Samuel Merritt Hospital.

“Dr. Milliken made everyone a better nurse by treating us with dignity. He would teach us in a gentle way and was never critical. He was always calm, and that’s a big asset.”

—NANCY MCKEOWN MCFARLAND, RN ’61, began her career in obstetrics at Samuel Merritt Hospital, then worked in the medical-surgical unit at Doctors Hospital in Pinole before shifting to a pediatrician’s office.

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