A friendship that has stood the test of time
In the wake of Nurses Month and the Bermuda Day holiday weekend, I am reminded of my outing with two very special retired Bermudian nurses a few months ago.
On a sunny afternoon in January, Gladys Simmons Barney and Grace deShield Washington, retired nurses and best friends for 75 years, were able to spend some quality time together.
Gladys's visit from New York was to see her 91-year-old sister, Gracie Simmons, laid to rest.
These two “young ladies”, from the day they met, formed a sisterly bond that has endured. Now 96 years old, they met in 1944 when they were made roommates in The Cottage Hospital Nursing Home Dormitory on Happy Valley Road, Pembroke.
They both had joined a cohort of young black ladies with aspirations to become nurses. Segregation at the time prevented them from training or working at King Edward VII Memorial Hospital.
Nurse training at The Cottage Hospital was strict and intense. On this particular afternoon, they recollected how every aspect of their training had to be immaculate — from how they kept their dormitory rooms to patient care, to the scheduling of bedpans, to patient bedsheet length being exactly one foot off the floor.
Gladys and Grace credit each other and their fellow student and friend, Maisie Pearman Woolridge, with offering support throughout, remembering that not all students could cope.
Grace recalled, when challenges with the matron came to a breaking point, that Gladys, whose family lived closer to the hospital, would say: “Don't worry, Grace. I'll get my daddy to come and sort this out.”
Upon graduation in 1947, they both were able to study and train for an additional year at Lincoln Hospital in the Bronx, New York. At Lincoln, they studied with a diverse group of nursing students from many different countries.
Grace still has her report cards from that year at Lincoln Hospital. These combined trainings afforded them the qualifications to be registered as midwives in 1949 under The Medical Doctors' Register — years before Bermuda established such a registry.
Nurse Gladys and Nurse Grace are the only two members of The Cottage Hospital Nursing Programme who are with us today. Gladys moved permanently to New York in 1951 to continue nursing and marry. Grace spent many years as nurse and midwife at the Kindley Air Force Base Hospital and at St Brendan's Hospital, the forerunner to the Mid-Atlantic Wellness Institute.
Frequent visitors to each other over the years, they also kept in touch through letters and long-distance telephone calls. They reminisced about the many good times, acting like tourists in Bermuda, enjoying together the music of Mahalia Jackson and shopping at Green Acres Mall in New York.
Over the years, the now quieter but still sociable Grace kept in touch with many of the international nursing students from their time at Lincoln Hospital.
Grace's daughter, Sharon Washington Swan, an accomplished now-retired nurse in her own right and former executive director of The Transitional Living Centre, a re-entry programme for inmates in Bermuda returning to society, recalls her mother's many adventurous travels as a nurse representing Bermuda.
Destinations included in her travels were Russia with The Reading Clinic, Los Angeles for The International Council of Nurses, India with the People to People Organisation, and the Caribbean for substance abuse training.
Grace would often travel through New York to visit Gladys before embarking on her planned excursion. Grace was born in Warwick, the middle daughter of the Reverend John deShield and wife Arabella Grace Burchall deShield. Her childhood was spent in St. David's and then the Town of St George.
She accompanied the family as they rowed across St George's Harbour to St David's for her father to minister Sunday morning services at St Luke's AME Church.
She and her sisters were able to stay connected to their Warwick family by spending summers with “Aunt Leticia” in Cedar Hill. Aunt Leticia had refused to move with the family to what she called ‘the godforsaken country”.
Gladys grew up, among 11 siblings, aunts, uncles and cousins in the Simmons enclave of Government Gate, Pembroke. Gladys clearly told us of the era of the 1930s and 1940s when delicious meals were cooked over wood stoves and fresh breads baked in brick ovens — when it was still uncommon for every young person of teen age to attend high school, which was not free.
It was rarer still for such an experience as theirs: to study nursing in Bermuda and to then to be able to continue their nursing studies abroad.
Both Gladys and Grace give praise and thanks to God for the years they have been given to enjoy nursing, life, family and their special friendship.
They have been devout AME worshippers throughout their lives. Gladys had her foundation in Heard Chapel in North Shore, Pembroke; Grace is a devoted member of Richard Allen in St George's and a long-serving missionary. Always believing in action, her life and nursing motto is “Pray and Move Your Feet”.
Still sprightly, Gladys was interviewed by The Royal Gazette on September 7, 2017. At the time, she said that she intends to return to Bermuda as long as she is able. “It's like a big old garden. I'll come back every year as long as God gives me health and strength.”
Nurse Grace and Nurse Gladys explain the foundation of their friendship simply:
“We were there for each other. We helped each other and we got along. The good old days.”