Even when she was a little girl, Cheryl Cottrell always wanted to be a nurse. Always. She would play nurse with her dolls and read the “Nurse Sue Barton” series of books. She even considered being a missionary nurse through her Southern Baptist church.

“That didn’t happen. I was too strong-willed,” recalled Cottrell with a laugh. “But we can be missionaries in our own backyard.”

Which is, in the end, exactly what she did. After growing up in the Upper Keys and graduating from Coral Shores High School, Cottrell studied to be a nurse and followed her calling, practically in her own childhood backyard in the Keys.

She received her associate degree in nursing from Miami-Dade South, a bachelor’s degree in nursing from FIU and a master’s degree in health service administration from Barry University. Along the way, she put in 45 years at both Mariners Hospital and Fishermen’s Community Hospital, now a part of Baptist Health. She rose from a nursing assistant to vice president of nursing services and chief nursing officer. 

And now, at age 70, she is retiring. Her last day as a nurse will be Dec. 18. But one gets the feeling that her love for nursing runs so deep, she might not be able to stop.

“I’m glad I made the decision (to retire),” she said. “It was a hard decision to make. I’ve worked since I was a teenager. Really, I’ve already started to think about whether I’d volunteer somewhere, maybe one day a week. I love what I do, I love being a nurse and a nurse administrator. I work with a great bunch of people. I think we have the best nurses in all of South Florida. My peers in Miami may disagree.”

Drew Grossman, CEO of Mariners Hospital & Fishermen’s Community Hospital, pointed out her unflagging devotion to both her profession and the Keys in his announcement of her retirement.

“In addition to her daily position, Cheryl is actively involved in Upper Keys community and business organizations,” he wrote. “She has been on the board of directors of Florida Keys Healthy Start Coalition since 1992. Also served as the hospital representative on both Key Largo and Ocean Reef chambers of commerce. Today, she continues her membership in the South Florida Organization of Nurse Executives, American Nurses Association and Florida Nurses Association. … (Cottrell has) served Baptist Health and the Keys community with the utmost dedication, commitment and a legacy that will be hard to match.”

Melanie O’Neill is director of nursing services at Mariners and Fishermen’s and worked with Cottrell for 22 years. O’Neill witnessed firsthand Cottrell’s commitment to her work.

“She’s very humble and goes out of her way,” O’Neill said. “There are so many examples of that. She’ll come in and relieve the nurses. So whatever patient comes through, she makes sure she gets them cleaned up. She does it all the time. It’s just amazing that she has no issues getting in the trenches with all of us. She’ll come in the hospital in the middle of the night so she can help people in the community deal with the illness of their loved one. It’s almost like she’s on call 24/7.

Gayle Maimo, director of cardiopulmonary services at Mariners, worked with Cottrell for 16 years and got to know her well.

“She’s a very dynamic woman. Very. She’s got pictures in her office of her family. She’s religious and does a lot for the community. I was impressed she was very involved with Leadership Monroe County while having a busy family life,” said Maimo, pointing out that her coworker and friend is not afraid of hard work that others may consider below their station.

“Once, here at Mariners, they didn’t have enough housekeepers to clean,” Maimo remembered. “And she would get out and mop the floors. She would do whatever is needed to do. If you see her now, she wears sneakers with a dress.”

“I don’t want to cry, but I’m going to miss her,” said O’Neill. “She’s put other hospitals first for so long, I’m praying she enjoys her time now. Once, she couldn’t go on a hike with her sister because something was going on in the hospital. So I pray she takes time for himself now. She is a wonderful, wonderful leader.”

The good news is, she’s not going anywhere. For the time being — until she’s compelled to volunteer, like she’s already predicted — Cottrell is going to spend her retirement with her adult children, their spouses and her five grandchildren. 

“For me, it’s been a privilege to work in this community and make friends with the people I work with and the people I’ve grown up with,” she said. “It is scary retiring, but I have lots of things I can catch up on. I still live in Key Largo. I live in paradise. Someone asked me if I’ll move. And I think, ‘Well, my house is paid for, and my grandchildren are here.’ So no, I’m not moving.”

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Charlotte Twine fled her New York City corporate publishing life and happily moved to the Keys six years ago. She has written for Travel + Leisure, Allure, and Offshore magazines; Elle.com; and the Florida Keys Free Press. She loves her two elderly Pomeranians, writing stories that uplift and inspire, making children laugh, the color pink, tattoos, Johnny Cash, and her husband. Though not necessarily in that order.