It was a hot summer day in 1931 and the fire inspector, a stout middle-aged man, set out to inspect the newly built 12-bed hospital in Hyden, situated high in the mountains of Eastern Kentucky. Highways at this time were still rather primitive and did not extend to all communities. The inspector had to leave his car a half mile from the hospital and finish his journey on foot by climbing straight up the mountainside. His size, the heat, and the strenuous climb all worked against him and when a nurse, Miss Mackinnon saw him plodding along she became alarmed and immediately called for water and aromatic spirits of ammonia. She had good reason to be alarmed because when the inspector reached the steps of the veranda he sat down, loosened his collar, and began to gasp and turn purple. After being revived, he looked up at Nurse MacKinnon, and without any other greeting asked, "Is God in?" The poor man thought that he had indeed climbed to the gates of heaven.
The fire inspector did not meet God on that day, but he did meet a saintly woman who devoted her life to giving and caring for the people living in the remote and difficult mountainous regions of Eastern Kentucky. He met Mary Breckinridge.
Mary had been born into a prominent southern family and had all the advantages of her family's position. Most of her early years were spent in places such as Russia, France, Switzerland and the British Isles. Her education was provided by governesses and tutors and she was brought up in the genteel, ladylike traditions of her day. Although she enjoyed her life as it was, she yearned to do something useful. Mary found her calling when she became a nurse and was also certified in midwifery.
Bringing her skills to the area of the Kentucky Mountains, a place she knew and loved, she established the Frontier Nursing Service (FNS). She recruited dedicated women to come to her home at Wendover and train to become nurse/midwives. These courageous women traveled by horseback, carrying medical supplies in their saddlebags, to care for families in areas that were inaccessible to any other mode of transportation.
Mary Breckinridge chose to begin her endeavor in Leslie County because of the high mortality rate and the inaccessibility of the region. It is a tribute to her efforts to note that in the first 10-15 years of FNS the mortality rate in the areas serviced by Mary and her nurses dropped by two thirds.
Familiar and welcome sights in the mountains, the nurses made regular rounds and were also available at any time of the day or night for anyone in need. They tended to the sick, treated wounds, gave lessons on nutrition, and delivered babies. It was said that when mountain children asked where babies came from their mothers would tell them that the nurses brought them in their saddlebags.
Mary's love for the people she served was seen in every action she took on their behalf. She arranged for doctors to come to her clinic on a regular basis to treat patients in such fields as gynecology, optical, and dental. These mountain people had never been seen for any of these problems. Prior to the clinics of Mary Breckinridge, tonsillectomies were not known; now children received the care they needed. The procedure was primitive, but mountain children are stoic. They were brought into the office where they were given an injection. They then had instruments with wires attached thrust down their throats followed by a scalpel. Mary described this procedure as it was performed for a group of six children. She said that the children did not make a sound, but several blinked furiously to hold back the tears. One child, with a trickle of blood oozing out of her mouth said, "Thank you, doctor," before walking out of the room.
Worms were the scourge of the frontier child. There are known cases of a single child expelling thirty worms. Through her work for more sanitary conditions Mary helped to eradicate worms in the children.
The perception of the mountain people at that time was that they were slow, slovenly and stupid. Mary was aware that this was untrue. The more she got to know them the more she realized that they were very intelligent, kind people who were mannerly and polite. There were many times when a nurse could not return to Wendover before dark and needed to stay overnight with families along the way. The nurses were never turned away but rather they were provided with a safe place to sleep and a share of the small amount of food available. Never wanting, or expecting charity, they would pay for what they received in any way they were able, sometimes this would be a single egg.
Mary Breckinridge's devotion to the people of the Kentucky Mountains was without limits. On holidays her home in Wendover, known as The Big House, was open to all for celebrations. Particularly festive were Thanksgiving and Christmas. She used every resource available to her to bring down mortality rates and to make life more comfortable for those she served. She remained administrator of FNS until her death in 1965 at the age of 84.
The work of this virtuous lady continues to grow through Mary Breckinridge Health Care clinics, and the Mary Breckinridge Hospital that opened in 1975 and admits approximately 2,300 patients yearly. Her Frontier School of Midwifery is the largest school of its kind in the nation and draws students from every state. In 1999 the Nurse Practitioners Program was begun to further enhance services currently provided.
The dream and mission of a woman who left her privileged life to do something "useful" continues today in her beloved Kentucky.
Her home in Wendover, The Big House, which served as the center of operations for FNS activities and housed her first clinic is now operated as a Bed and Breakfast offering hospitality to visitors to the Kentucky Mountains.
The Big House in Wendover can be reached at 606-672-2317. For more information about FNS go to www.frontiernursing.org.
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