The Life and Legacy of Betty Ann Olsen, R.N.

For more than 125 years Nyack College has trained scores of students to serve Christ at home in the U.S. and abroad. Many of them have been an unusual source of blessing where they have labored. One such student was Betty Ann Olsen, missionary nurse to Vietnam. This is a story of hope and triumph, particularly for any of you questioning whether or not you can be of use to God and His kingdom.

Betty was born in 1934 and raised in Africa, the daughter of C&MA missionaries, Rev. and Mrs. Walter Olsen. The Olsens served in the former Ivory Coast, now Côte d’ Ivoire. As a missionary kid, she experienced many of the joys and sorrows that accompany life on the mission field. In From Jerusalem to Irian Jaya, Ruth Tucker describes the teenage Betty Olsen as an obstinate young person who avoided close relationships. Betty’s insecurities intensified when, shortly before her seventeenth birthday, her mother died of cancer (Tucker 2004, 412).

Upon completion of high school in the United States, she returned to Africa. After her father remarried, she went back to America and began nurses training in Brooklyn, N.Y. (Tucker 2004, 412). She received her nursing degree from Methodist Hospital, Brooklyn, N.Y. in 1956 and graduated from Nyack Missionary College in 1961 (Edman 1968, 12).

Betty struggled emotionally, desperately desiring to have a family of her own, but that dream went unfulfilled. She did not believe that the Alliance would accept her as a missionary candidate, so she returned once again to Africa to work with her father and stepmother. She had difficulty working with others, and therefore went back to the U.S. (Tucker 2004, 412).

At the age of twenty-nine, Betty began work as a nurse in Chicago, totally defeated as a Christian. Her depression ran so deep that she contemplated suicide, but was then greatly helped by her church youth counselor. The counselor’s name was Bill Gothard, who later conducted the widely popular seminar called Institute in Basic Youth Conflicts, “based largely on the questions Betty Olsen asked” (Tucker 2004, 412).

In 1964 Betty went to Vietnam to serve as a missionary nurse with The Christian and Missionary Alliance. This was an especially difficult time to live and work in Vietnam, especially for Americans. Betty ministered for nearly three years at the leprosarium in Banmethuot, a place already acquainted with danger and loss. Three missionaries had been taken captive from that same area back in 1962, never to be heard from again ( 3/31/204).

During the Tet Offensive of 1968, six Alliance missionaries lost their lives–Ed and Ruth Thompson, Robert Ziemer, Carolyn Griswold, her father, Leon Griswold, and Ruth Wilting, R.N. “The six were all alumni of Nyack” (Hefley 1969, 186). During that siege the Viet Cong also captured Betty, Hank Blood of Wycliffe Bible Translators, and Mike Benge, an American AID officer. Betty was taken captive during the attacks on the mission compound while she courageously attempted to secure medications for the wounded. For several months, the three captives suffered indescribable torture and indignity. They were forced to march twelve to fourteen hours a day in the jungle on meager rations. Olsen and Blood died during their captivity (Tucker 2004, 411-413).

Mike Benge remained a POW until 1973. Benge came to Christ through the faithful witness and selfless example of the two missionaries. He stated that Betty’s love was more than he could comprehend: “She never showed any bitterness or resentment. To the end she loved the ones who mistreated her” (Hefley 1979, 95, 131).

There are two houses on the Nyack campus named in honor of two of the martyred missionaries, Betty Olsen and Carolyn Griswold. Nyack is looking for those who would join a new generation of students whose desire it is to make an impact on this world for Christ, as these former alumni have done. It is our hope that many of you reading this article will be challenged to follow Betty’s example as a nurse dedicated to serving God and others and that you will be inspired to take advantage of Nyack’s new nursing degree program to prepare yourself for such service. We also hope that others will be motivated to come alongside these students as they perpare to serve the Lord, no matter where He leads.

Dr. Ed Stuart – Department of Intercultural and Religious Studies

Community Response to NYACK’s Nursing Program

Nyack Hospital is just delighted to learn that its partners at Nyack College are beginning a new nursing program for at least three reasons. First, students select the nursing profession because they want to make a difference for patients who need their help. In turn, I can think of no better way for Nyack College to make a difference for both its students and the people of Rockland County than by offering a high quality, convenient nursing program. Second, Nyack College students are themselves an extraordinarily high quality group of individuals. My colleagues and I have enjoyed the privilege and pleasure of working with them in many different contexts and we are confident that the nursing students will be just as expert, energetic, and exceptional. Last, the societal demand for well-qualified nurses has never been greater. More and more highly trained nurses are a necessity, not an option, for effective health care delivery as the population ages and medical technology advances.

Nurses care not only for patients, but also care about them. Nyack Hospital salutes the vision of Nyack College in undertaking its new nursing program and looks forward to participating actively in the teaching, mentoring, and recruitment of Nyack College nursing students.

David Freed,
President and CEO, Nyack Hospital

Shell Point Retirement Community is gratified to learn that Nyack College is beginning a new nursing program. This program will be critical in the training of nurses and caregivers that are of critical need to the health delivery system throughout the country. The provision of this nursing program by an evangelical college will provide expanded ministry opportunities to a growing segment of our population. The effort to develop this academic program will enhance ministry and service and clearly represents the progressive action of the college to respond to the convincing demographics that will require healthcare providers to meet the needs of the retiring Baby Boomer generation.

It is encouraging to see this institution of higher learning developing a nursing program that takes advantage of the opportunity to nurture both the spiritual and physical needs of those who are served by their graduates. These students will be of special value to the healthcare industry. Their understanding of God’s love and care for those that He has created will make their ministry and service even more effective. Because of their understanding of the “culture of life,” they will provide service that will give glory to God through the provision of excellence in their service as healthcare professionals. The healthcare and retirement industry is in need of well-trained, qualified nursing staff who are committed to the provision of geriatric nursing services. The development of a nursing program at Nyack College demonstrates their leadership in providing an opportunity for expanded ministry for their students.

Peter Dys, President
Shell Point Retirement Community 
Fort Myers, FL
Wonderful!!! I wish that time could reverse and I could be a part of the program as a nursing student.

Rebekah Cockman, RN
Children’s Medical Center at
The Medical College of Georgia
Class of 2001

In an age where human voice and human touch have been replaced by automated machines, there is perhaps nothing more soothing or healing than these two things. Nursing is an avenue whereby we can reach out to people in need and show them mercy and love through our touch and our words. The Art of Nursing is a powerful way to be the hands & feet of Jesus in this world and it will be nurtured in a Christian environment like Nyack College, where students are integrating their faith with a practical skill to reach this world for Christ.

Cheryl Phenicie, R.N.
Serving in a women’s clinic overseas
Class of 1980

In today’s “me” (or selfish) society, the loving and holistic care of a good nurse has far-reaching impact. I am thrilled Nyack has launched a nursing program to train nurses in providing skillful, compassionate care that ministers both to the body and soul.

Jessica Schaeffer, R.N., M.Div
Class of 2002

As a registered professional nurse, I am thrilled at the news that Nyack College is launching a Nursing Program.

Nursing theorist Virginia Henderson defines nursing as “Assisting the individual (sick or well) in the performance of those activities contributing to health, its recovery (or peaceful death) that he would perform unaided if he had the necessary strength, will or knowledge.”

To come along side individuals in need as a nurse grounded in the Christian faith is one of the most satisfying career paths I can imagine.

We currently face a critical shortage of nursing professionals. May God bless Nyack College as they live out their core values through the introduction of this program. Even now I am praying for those who will accept the “call to nursing” and enter as Nyack’s first nursing students.

Donna J. Duss, RN MSN (Class of 1972)
Consultant/Professional Coach
Duss Healthcare Consulting, LLC
Alexandria, VA

I am so glad to hear about the new nursing program. As you know, there is a major shortage of nurses in the US. The key reason for this shortage is that there is a shortage of nursing professors. Most people do not see nursing as a profession, which is false. However, most people will go into the nursing profession because of their caring and merciful nature. As of now, with the shortage of nurses, the nursing profession is one of the top money making businesses in the States. The opening of the nursing program will draw in people who are both interested in missions and nursing.

Sheng Peng
Nurse Care Manager
WIN Healthcare