Part of my beat as a reporter here in the Virgin Islands entails me interviewing and documenting the lives of some of the territory’s senior citizens.
This is something I enjoy doing. You seat for an interview with these seasoned residents and you leave feeling refreshed and with a very new and joyful outlook on life.
One of the seniors i’ve interviewed is Carmelita O’Neal.
Ms. O’Neal lives just a few yards away from my office. Each time we meet, she has the most inspiring things to say and is almost always grateful for like.
Monday was no different. I was standing outside the office when I saw her approaching. She had just returned from having her quarterly check up at the hospital.
She stopped briefly and we had our usual conversation.
I noticed she was carrying two bags, so I offered to help her carry them and accompanied her home.
Ms. O’Neal will be celebrating her 91st birthday in February, by God’s grace. Despite her age, Ms. O’Neal is still active and pretty much takes care of herself. I pray I’m nearly as independent as she is when I get to, say 70.
Here’s the feature I did on the very interesting lady about two years ago, or so.
Carmelita O’Neal was the first Virgin Islander to officially qualify as a midwife. She worked as a seamstress on her native Virgin Gorda before moving to Tortola to learn nursing skills at the hospital. After stints there and on Anegada, she studied in Antigua and became a registered nurse.
Ms. O’Neal left Virgin Gorda at the age of 16 to train as a nurse on Tortola. After travelling to Antigua to further her training, she became the territory’s first nurse to become formally certified as a midwife.
She retired in the 1970s and now resides at her Road Town home, where she spoke with Beacon reporter Ngovou Gyang about her career.
The following are her words, condensed and edited from an interview conducted as part of a series in observance of Senior Citizens Month.
I was born on Virgin Gorda, February 25, 1925. It wasn’t much going there. You go to school, and we only had seventh standard. That was the only education you got. After you leave school at seventh standard, you go home, and that was it.
After I went home, there was nothing to do, so my mother sent me to learn a trade [with] a lady, where I learned to sew. That was where I made my living. I learned to make dresses. I used to sew for people. I had a good practice, and that was how I made my living. It was 25 cents when you made a dress for anyone; 10 cents for a hat.
NURSE IN TRAINING
My father had a friend, and he lived in North Sound and he was sick. Of course the nurse was stationed in The Valley. He came down and asked if he could stay for the nurse to look after him. He stayed there for two or three weeks. The nurse used to come every day to take care of him.
You know, as a young girl, I wanted to look and see what she was doing. She didn’t stop me from coming around.
In those days, the nurses always had their hot water, so whenever she came I had the hot water ready for her. After the gentleman went home and she stopped coming.
One day she came to visit our home. She told mother she wanted to see me: “Would you like to be a nurse?”
She told Dr. Wailing that she had found someone.
He used to come to Virgin Gorda every month to run a clinic. She told me Dr. Wailing was coming such-and-such time, and she told me to prepare myself to come and see him. I was 16 plus. I made my 17th birthday in the hospital.
I was nervous as anything. He asked me several questions and when he was finished with me, he didn’t say anything. Later the nurse came down and said, “Dr. Wailing said you must come to Tortola on the ninth day of January.”
I don’t remember when this was, but this had to be somewhere around November or December.
Mother got me ready. She brought me down, and from the boat I went straight to Government House. He spoke with me and he told me to go to the Cottage Hospital and I will meet Nurse Georges.
The Adina Donovan Home was the nurses’ quarters. Not as it is now. It was a little house, a little bathroom and you washed with a little basin. The bathroom was so bad, people passing in the street could see you there. You had to put a towel so nobody could see you.
Nurse Georges spoke with me and told me what I had to do. She gave me a dress, a uniform to put on. In those days, you had to wear stockings, and I didn’t have stockings. She gave me a pair of her stockings, apron and a cap — I knew it was her cap because it was a used cap — and I was ushered in the ward.
The capacity of the hospital was 12: five males and five females and two cots for children.
On the first day I was observing, and, of course, they taught me to take temperature, pulse and check respiration on the second day.
I was a nurse for nearly 50 years. I spent three years here. Then I was sent to Anegada to be the district nurse. In those three years, I did everything. You worked in the operating room, worked in the delivery room.
To be an established midwife, you had to see 25 cases before you were allowed to deliver. I learned that fast. I liked it. I was very good at that.
I delivered twins in Anegada. Oh boy, that was a shocking thing, but the Lord delivered me out of that.
We had some good doctors and midwives who trained us well. We had a little stethoscope. We had to put it on the mother’s tummy at different points and of course we were taught to recognise the different sounds. You had to be able to distinguish the sounds. I was able to recognise that they were having twins.
Boy, that was a day I would never forget. That was over 40 years ago, but I can still remember that morning. Two boys. Oh boy.
I spent two years in Anegada, and then they recalled me to run the hospital. Something happened with the nurse who was in charge, and they discharged her and called me to be the nurse in charge until they got someone.
After I came back from Anegada I ran the hospital before Ms. [Adina] Donovan came. She was in Antigua and training there. She returned and became nurse in charge. Soon after that, I was sent over there. And God helped me: I became a registered nurse.
I love caring for people. I would spend my time being at their bedside and helping them in whatever way. I got satisfaction from that. I was getting tired but I loved being around people. Before I went to public health, I got married: Then I went back to help them out with teaching. I told them I couldn’t come back full time anymore so I did part time, mostly at night. After I had my children, I stayed home with my children.
When you look back now, we say it was primitive, but things went well. Sometimes I look back and think how people survived.
One thing I must say: Now everything is the glove. In our time, it was proper hand washing, and there was a technique to it. There was a way you had to wash your hands. In those days we had a lot of typhoid cases. If you were not careful, you could spread it and cause cross contamination. If something wasn’t done right, every patient could have had typhoid.
I know I won’t be able to do nursing again, but that is the only thing I would do. I love it.