by Deb Seminary
Growing up on a farm two miles southeast of Mott, Mary Ann Foss learned a lot, especially the essence of hard work. “I was just a little girl and already out in the barn helping milk the cows,” she said. “It was my job to get the eggs, help weed the garden, dust the furniture, there was no end to the work. Since I was the first girl after four older brothers, my mother thought she would finally have help in the kitchen. She was SO wrong. I was a first class tom boy and was out stacking bales before I boiled water. The kitchen is still not my favorite place.”
That upbringing is something she can’t replace. “We didn’t have any money. We raised everything we ate. I didn’t have a store-bought dress until I was in the sixth grade, my mother sewed all of my clothes sometimes using fabric from my brothers’ old shirts. I didn’t have a bicycle growing up, I had a horse. Like all my brothers before me, Cherry was my mode of transportation. I rode her back and forth to town for band and cheerleading practice, even to go swimming.”
Foss had big dreams. She grew up wanting to be a teacher and her life time goal was to get to college. “I was an achiever and I wanted to do so much,” she said. “My maternal grandmother had been a country school teacher and was a major influence on me. She loved trivia, and up until her dying day in her mid-nineties she could recite all of the presidents and vice-presidents in order. She ended up living with us and after school I would read to her and we would play trivia.”
Her dreams were put on hold when Foss was a sophomore in high school and she became “in trouble.” In 1961 “in trouble” meant she was pregnant. The school board verified the town rumor and expelled her with only one week of school left before summer vacation.
Determined to get her high school diploma, Mary Ann began correspondent courses as she waited for her baby to be born. She finished two eighteen-week courses in four weeks. Her son was born in late August, and she finished two more before Thanksgiving.
Just taking the courses proved to be a challenge. The state required a certified teacher to monitor her progress. The first four (teachers) she asked said ‘no’ because she was a “bad” girl. “There I was, just barely sixteen years old. It would have been so easy to quit,” she recalled.
Right before the second semester of her junior year began she walked to the school, burst into the superintendents’ office, knelt down in front of his desk and begged him to let her come back to school and finish with her classmates. After much deliberation (because they feared she would be a bad influence on the other students), the school board let her come back and take classes, but not participate in any extracurricular activities. That was hard for Mary Ann, because she had been in several activities.
She didn’t have time anyway. She had a part time job and had to take care of her baby and husband. She did, however have time for her studies, and she graduated as salutatorian.
The couple stayed in Mott, two more babies were born and Foss worked to help make ends meet. “I never planned out each step of my life, but I know I have always been where I needed to be,” she said. “I worked as a legal secretary for Charles Crane, at a time which turned out to be very traumatic and critical in my life. I turned 25, and over the next couple years, my dad died, my mother died a year and two weeks later, and I also lost two grandmas and four close aunts and uncles. Well, Charles Crane was our family attorney and since I did almost all of the estate work, he never charged my family attorney’s fees.
“Later when I worked at Hettinger County Social Services, I was able to help two of my brother’s families because I could refer them to available programs which helped them through their tragedies.”
When her teen-age marriage ended after almost 20 years, Mary Ann moved to Dickinson and finally fulfilled her life-long dream of going to college. “I never planned on being a nurse, but my niece was going into the nursing program and kept asking me why I wasn’t doing that, it only took two years,” she said. “I was 35 years old and when I walked into the school to register, I thought, ‘if I take the 2-year RN program I can have a job in 2 years.’ So I did it! Cassie (her niece) and I graduated in 1982.”
While attending college in Dickinson, she started dating Jim Foss, an old friend. They got married and she moved back to Mott. “I worked as Jim’s secretary and at a doctor’s clinic for awhile, then got a job at the Hettinger Hospital and drove 80 miles back and forth for eight years,” she said. “I loved all the great people I worked with and each patient I cared for. I also volunteered on the Mott ambulance crew and was an EMT and CPR instructor. Any chance I had to do teaching, I would work it in.”
In 1992, Jim and Mary Ann moved to Bismarck. Shortly after, Mary Ann went to the Medcenter One School of Nursing to catch up with her old friend Connie Kalanek. Thanks to Connie, she came home enrolled in their two-year BSN program. “I told Jim if we could make it on just his salary, I would finish in a year and a half and be ready to go to work. I finished in a year and a half.”
Mary Ann went to work in the Emergency Room at Medcenter One and had a wide range of experiences, including flight nursing. Then a job opened up at the North Dakota Department of Health, working in the Women’s Way program. She was hired as the Women’s Way nurse consultant and was responsible for professional and public education on breast and cervical cancer. Another teaching opportunity!
She became the Women’s Way Program Director in 2003, continuing nurse consultant duties. In 2005 she became the Director of the Division of Cancer Prevention and Control, as well as the Women’s Way Program Director.
“I have loved every job I’ve ever had,” she said. “The experience I had in each previous job helped with the one I currently was doing. When I brought all my life’s experiences to my position at the North Dakota Department of Health, I was convinced it was where I was meant to be.”
For years Mary Ann suffered from stomach pains, diarrhea and migraines. She was told it was related to stress. “In 2001 I went in for my annual mammogram and pap test and asked if something could be done,” she said. “My doctor referred me to a gastroenterologist and after a couple tests, it was determined I had celiac disease. The villi in my small intestine were completely destroyed, I was not absorbing any nutrients. My body was literally starving.”
She was instructed to begin a strict gluten free diet. Grocery shopping took a lot longer and after about a year her symptoms completely disappeared. “It feels so good to feel good,” she said. “Over the years, it has become easier to live this life style. Food labeling laws have helped and there is more awareness.”
Foss never ingests gluten on purpose, but if something is cross-contaminated she is sick for two weeks or longer. Some people have a sensitivity to gluten and some, like Foss, are full blown celiac. Foss explained: “Some can eat a bun without any repercussion. All I need to do is touch the bun. lick my finger and the next two weeks will be totally miserable.”
Celiac disease is an autoimmune disorder, which impacts a lot of other systems in the body and in 2008 Mary Ann was diagnosed with diabetes. That year she was also diagnosed with Idiopathic Pulmonary Fibrosis (IPF), which is caused by an unknown injury to the lining of the lung that causes progressive scarring. “When I was first diagnosed I went online and did some research. I found that after IPF diagnosis, 66% of people die within two-three years. There is no treatment or cure. I have been very lucky so far. It is like having cancer, kind of a black cloud hanging over my head, but last year when I went in, my doctor felt I was stable, it didn’t seem to have gotten worse. I cried all the way home.”
She uses her diagnoses to educate about celiac disease, diabetes and IPF by sharing with others and giving presentations for various organizations and other events.
Living with multiple chronic conditions, for which there is no cure, could cause some to put on a pity party. A member of Charity Lutheran Church, Mary Ann’s Christian faith holds her together – she knows where she is going to spend eternity. Because of this, Mary Ann choses to continue to live her life as she always has, as an enthusiastic go-getter. Together she and Jim have six married children and 16 grandchildren, including two great-grandchildren. In addition she has several “adopted” sons and daughters which she considers to be part of her family. Their house is small, but she loves it when they are all there. “Families staying personally connected is so important, there is nothing better than a warm, loving hug,” she said.
Women’s Health Conference
The Women’s Health Conference (WHC) evolved from a Women’s Way event in 1997. “We had several hundred Women’s Way volunteers throughout the state and we wanted to do something special for them,” said Foss. “First Lady Nancy Schafer hosted a gathering for the Women’s Way and American Cancer Society volunteers at the Governor’s Residence, we had a couple speakers and everyone just loved it. The next year we held it at the Seven Seas and everyone asked if they could bring a friend or relative. So, the third year Nancy and the committee decided to open it up to the public and called it the Healthy Aging Summit.”
After John Hoeven was elected to the governor’s office, Mikey graciously agreed to serve as hostess and chair, building it to be the fantastic event that is now held annually in both Bismarck and Fargo. Mikey, Mary Ann and the conference committee have worked closely for the past 15 years to create an event to inspire women of all ages to a lifetime of healthy living for themselves and their families. Accepting Mikey’s invitation back in 2001, Mary Ann loved serving as emcee until 2013. Mikey is still on the planning committee and Mary Ann has taken over as the chair. The name has changed over the years: Women’s Health Summit, Mikey’s Wellness Expo, and now Women’s Health Conference. Foss said, “I love seeing the women enjoying the day – connecting and learning. It is important for women to stay informed because they are the caretakers. It makes all the hard work so worth it.”
The next Bismarck Women’s Health Conference will be held Monday, September 29th at the Bismarck Ramkota Hotel. The conference is celebrating North Dakota women and the three keynote speakers are all North Dakota natives. Anne Mahlum, Melanie Carvell and Kat Perkins will share stories. To register visit womens-health-conference.com and stay connected at facebook.com/womenshealthconference and @WomensHealthCon on twitter.
Foss retired from the ND Dept. of Health on December 31, 2012. “I worked until I was almost 68. It was a difficult decision because I loved what I was doing and I love being busy,” she said.
And how is she spending her time? Her dedication and passion for the Women’s Health Conference will keep her busy for years to come. She attends weekly Bible Study at Charity. She has been updating their house and has finally cleaned closets and cupboards. There was no time for these projects when she was working. “Jim and I like movies and once a week we have date night here at home. We have popcorn and string cheese for dinner and watch a couple movies,” she said. “I like to sew and cross stitch and I want to get back into oil painting. Several people have said I should write a book, especially our kids. I don’t know if writing a book is relaxing, but it could mean I’d have to sit still. I’m not sure I can do that,” she said, with a big grin.
Everyone tells Mary Ann she needs to slow down, so she is trying to live by a quote her 96-year-old uncle taught her: ‘When I get up in the morning I have nothing to do and when I go to bed at night I’m only half done.’ Since her uncle started writing poetry a year ago, it looks like Mary Ann will never have nothing to do.