excerpts from oakracokers
Several of the approximately twenty houses on East Howard Street are close to a century old. One of them belongs to Elsie and Irvin Garrish. Elsie, who is my aunt on my father’s side of the family, has spent most of her life as a nurse. Even after her retirement from nursing, she has remained active in the island’s health care, serving on local health boards and caring for the sick and injured when called upon. Her husband, Irvin, is a retired ferry captain and former Hyde County commissioner, the first Ocracoker to serve on the board.
For many periods in its history, Ocracoke had no doctor. Over the years a number of doctors have come here, perhaps staying for a few years or less, but until recently none actually settled here to practice. So Ocracokers learned to take care of their sick or injured themselves, using home remedies and relying on the wisdom and experience of the old people. “Back when I was growing up,” said Else, “and even long before, people here on the island had to treat their own ailments. They used home remedies handed down from generation to generation and trusted certain old people for advice. I remember that my family used to depend on this older lady named Miss Joannie who lived near us. A lot of the older ones, including her, used to make blackberry wine. They’d put a batch in during the spring when the berries started to ripen. They used it for diarrhea and upset stomach. I still use it sometimes.
Mrs. Lola had little training, but she did take a correspondence course from the Chicago School of Nursing. One of her first cases occurred on her oldest brother’s wedding day. She couldn’t go to the wedding because of the delivery and complications. The woman had twins; a boy, who came feet first and died, and a girl, who survived.
Although Nettie Mae Fulcher was the first Ocracoke woman to become a registered nurse, she did not settle on the island to practice nursing. Not until Kathleen Bragg finished her nurse’s training did Ocracoke have one of its own residents to come back home to practice. Kathleen was born and raised near the lighthouse in a home where she lived most of her life and where she eventually died. Her grandfather, Samuel Dudley Bragg, was one of the early Ocracoke pilots. He had a lookout tower on the shoreside near their house where he could spot ships as they approached Ocracoke Inlet. Kathleen’s father, Hallis A. Bragg, was also a pilot and continued until their services at Ocracoke became obsolete.
In 1923, Kathleen left Ocracoke to attend nursing school in Rocky Mount, North Carolina. After spending three years in training, she returned to the island to begin her practice. Her test scores during her nurse’s training were unequaled for many years. In addition to caring for the sick and injured, Kathleen also delivered over one hundred babies.
Kathleen began employment in 1953 with the Hyde County Health Department as a school nurse, a position she held for fifteen years. When I was in elementary school, we came to fear Wednesdays, the day that she spent at school. Wednesdays also became known as “shot days.” High school boys would circulate rumors Wednesday morning and sometimes the evening before, that a “new batch of shots” was in. The younger ones were continuously reminded about the time she supposedly broke off a needle in a student’s arm. High absenteeism was not uncommon on Wednesdays.
Kathleen was dedicated to Ocracoke School, however, and anyone who remembers her walking along the road toward the old school building, in all kinds of weather, a large black bag in one hand, cannot help but feel a moment of love and respect for her. Her brother once told me, “She went when she was called. People depended on her.”
Kathleen died in 1975. The inscription on her tomb reads “Well done thy good and faithful servant. Enter into the joys of thy Lord.”
Elsie Garrish, who was at Kathleen’s side when she died, then assumed the role of the island’s nurse. Fortunately for the people of Ocracoke, the careers of its midwives, nurses, and doctors have tended to overlap. With the death of one, another was there ready to take on the responsibility.
Elise left Ocracoke in 1935, two years after she graduated from high school. “I had to wait a few years,” she said. “It was during the Depression and there simply was no money. I worked in one of the general stores and sold ice cream to make money for my training.
She received her training at Rex Hospital in Raleigh, North Carolina, and eventually became the supervisor of the men’s ward there. After working in a number of mainland hospitals, she returned to the island in 1963. “I didn’t really come back here to work. I’ve never been employed here. What I’ve done, I’ve done for humanity’s sake. I’ve always been willing to help the people here in any way I could, and I guess I’ve had plenty of experiences here that you don’t normally find in hospital work.”
Most of Elsie’s unusual island experiences involve emergencies and the transporting of patients to a doctor or hospital. “One night I got a call to go this house where a man was having a heart attack,” recalled Elsie. “He had been working real hard all day long on his house, and I believe he had forgotten to take his medicine. The house was set back in the woods and could only be reached by a small dirt road. I had been raining and the road was very muddy. The deputy sheriff was there giving him oxygen, and both of us working together managed to restore his breathing some.
“When we got ready to transport him, we found that there was no way that the two of us could transport him on a stretcher down that muddy road. We finally had to get him on his feet and walk him out to the station wagon. There was no ambulance here then, and this wagon was both the ambulance and the deputy’s patrol car.
“In the meantime, the other deputy had radioed over to Hatteras for them to send a Coast Guard boat. When we got to the north end of the island, the boat was there. We transferred him to the boat, and myself and the deputy went with them.
“It was just a nasty night. The wind was blowing hard and it was still raining and cold. After we had been under way for about fifteen minutes, the boat hit a shoal. The man was getting worse from all the tossing about. They radioed for another Coast Guard boat to come and pull us off, but we managed to get off ourselves a few minutes afterwards.
“As we crossed the inlet, it got rougher. The deputy said he just knew the boat was going to flip over. Minutes after he said that, a big wave hit us broadside and the boat rolled on its side. The patient slipped off the stretcher and fell on the floor of the boat, cutting his head. Equipment went everywhere.
“The boat kept going, though, and finally made it out of the inlet. Then we hit another shoal. By then the man was so bad off we thought for sure he was going to die. The other Coast Guard boat got there and started towing us off, but the line broke. We somehow slid off and made it to Hatteras ten minutes or so after that. The man had gotten worse and even Dr. Burroughs at Hatteras said it didn’t look good for him. They transported him to the Elizabeth City hospital and he lived.”
Since there is no hospital at Ocracoke, and only a recently a health clinic and doctor, over the years hundreds of patients have been transported to mainland hospitals, by whatever means available. Before regular ferry service began, patients either remained on the island to battle their injury or illness or risked the long, sometimes rough trip across Pamlico Sound on the mailboat or freight boat. If they survived the trip, they were then admitted to one of the small hospitals in either Morehead City or Washington. Many, of course, chose to remain on the island.
Visitors to Ocracoke often ask, “If someone becomes seriously injured or sick on the island, how does the person get to a hospital?” Although we now have a health clinic and doctor, more serious cases of injury or illness must still be transported to a hospital. If the case is not life threatening, the Ocracoke Rescue Squad will take the patient to a nearby hospital, usually Albemarle Hospital in Elizabeth City. More serious cases are flown out on helicopters which are based in Greenville, Norfolk, and Elizabeth City. A Coast Guard helicopter has been serving the Outer Banks for several decades. Even today, the sound of a helicopter causes Ocracokers to wonder who could be sick or injured.
Although she has never been classified as a midwife, Elsie has delivered around fifty babies, learning from practical experience began long ago, “I used to help Aunt Lot get things ready for some of the deliveries she made. These deliveries were my own brothers and sister. There were seven of us in my family. Aunt Lot delivered all of them, including your daddy. A doctor visiting the island and staying in one of the boarding houses delivered me.
“One thing that always fascinated me about Aunt Lot was part of her procedure. When I got into training later, I always wanted to ask somebody about it, but was too embarrassed. She used to cut little pieces of cloth about four inches square and put them on top of the stove to scorch. Then she’d take a large, seedless raisin and put on the baby’s navel. I later found out that it was supposed to have a sterile drying effect and make a cleaner navel.
“Most of the deliveries I’ve made have been during emergencies when the woman was caught here on the island. When I get called to a patient who’s getting ready to have a baby, I always check them to make sure they’re not that close to having it. If they were real close, within an hour, say, I usually wouldn’t send for a helicopter to fly them off, but would go ahead and deliver it myself.
“I’ve had some pretty unusual experiences with delivering babies here on the island. I’ve encountered a few cases where women didn’t even know they were pregnant until the baby was born. I even delivered a baby one night and just as I was helping it through, a big dog jumped up in the bed with us, I must say, I was more shaken by the dog than the women was with having the baby.
“Perhaps my most unusual experience was delivering a baby during the peak of a hurricane. The lady’s mother came and got me late that night and said that her daughter was having labor pains. This was during Hurricane Hazel, one of the worst we’ve had here lately.
“The house was only a several minutes’ walk away, but the storm had already hit and I clearly remember the sea tide rushing down the road just before we got to the house. We were wading up to our knees in the water and some of it even started to enter the house. I thought for sure that we were going to have to move the mother up on the second floor. We didn’t, though, and the mother and the baby made out fine. He was born at the very peak of the hurricane when the winds and rain seemed to come down on us the hardest.”