A Look Back During National Nurses Week

By Donna Curley Nevraumont, R.N., retired Yolo County public health nurse

Nurse Gaither (small) 
 Nurse Mary Frances Gaither
It’s National Nurses Week, an annual celebration starting on May 6 and concluding on May 12, the birthday of Florence Nightingale, founder of modern nursing. This year’s theme, Nurses Leading the Way, promotes nursing leadership as nurses improve the quality of health care, and ultimately, the health of the nation. Nursing staff in the Yolo County departments of Health and Alcohol, Drug & Mental Health play a critical role in assuring that Yolo County is a healthy place to live and work, and have done so for more than 100 years.

In 1863, the Yolo County Board of Supervisors voted to construct an infirmary for the “sick and insane”. It could be said that the history of health care, and public health, began with this vote and the recognition that health was a vital community concern for Yolo County. Unfortunately, construction of the infirmary would not take place until 1885. Records from intervening years indicate there was concern for the needs of the underserved and to that end, there were "county doctors", Drs. Thomas Ross and Thornton Craig, who volunteered their services in this capacity for the county.

No public health system as we think of it today existed, nor did public health nurses with rigorous training and primary prevention as their goal. However, there were certainly some shining stars. These were what we might today call “practical nurses”, nurses that worked for or with physicians. One of them was Mary Frances Gaither, daughter of slaves, born in Cooper County, Missouri in 1865. As a very young woman, she was taken into the household of a physician to help care for his infant son. This physician recognized her ability, trained her as a nurse, and even sent her for technical training. She married Augustus Gaither and they found their way to the Esparto area by the 1880s.

Mrs. Gaither was the nurse-midwife for the Capay Valley for nearly 50 years, taking produce and quilts as her payment. She also founded the first nursing home in Esparto which eventually specialized in the treatment of tuberculosis (TB). Mrs. Gaither often assisted Dr. Craig, who would come from Woodland on horseback for difficult cases. This was a time when it might take hours to get between those places and Esparto did not yet exist as a town. Her 1939 obituary confirmed her place as a well-known and valued member of the community who had delivered many infants over the years.

Another star was Kathleen McConnell who worked for Drs. Fairchild and Blevens at the Woodland Sanitarium, the forerunner of Woodland Community Hospital. Around the beginning of the 20th century, she often made follow up home visits, traveling by horse and buggy.

By 1919, there was increased interest in sanitation and the isolation of contagious diseases. Yolo General Hospital was expanded to accommodate the need for isolated care. The 20s and 30s saw the rise of public health nursing as an integral part of the Yolo County Health Department. For public health nurse Rozzie M. Carrow, home visits included assessment of sanitation, infant welfare, arranging for visits to doctor’s office, and supervising treatment of communicable diseases from scabies to TB. Rozzie also visited 40 schools throughout the county.

Public health nursing services began to broaden in response to community need for better health care for children. The Crippled Children’s Services program was initiated in 1937, funded by the Social Security Act, for all children with physical deformities. For the first time, a countywide dental program for school children was started. Health clinics in Davis, Woodland, Knights Landing, Broderick, Bryte, Winters and Clarksburg offered physical examinations, vaccinations and acute care for children who were not in school and unable to obtain private services. And later in the 1940s, screening for hearing problems was provided by Yolo County nurses. Among diseases under surveillance were TB, polio and malaria..

In 1952, Dr. Herbert Bauer was named Health Officer. He began publishing the Health Department’s annual report in a style easily readable, inviting the reader to “drop us a line and tell us what you think of our program” and signed, “Cordially, Herbert Bauer”. The population of Yolo County in 1954 was about 48,000 and Dr. Bauer was concerned over the county statistics which included death from diseases of early infancy (20), suicide (12) and 20 patients, ages 9 months to 37 years, ill with polio. To address these concerns, the East Yolo branch of the Health Department expanded to three full time nurses. In total, public health nurses numbered four, which included the director of nursing and a supervisor. The department also had five registered nurses making the nursing division by far the largest. Dr. Bauer noted they were also members of organizations such as the TB and Health Association, Red Cross, National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis, Crippled Children Society and Cancer Society.

In 1954, public health nurses continued to follow up on cases of communicable disease. They also followed up, as needed, through Child Health Conferences held monthly throughout the county. Additionally, they were responsible for the “school health plan” as Woodland was the only district employing a school nurse and a part-time physician. Yolo County school nurses gave thousands of vaccinations, vision and hearing tests, and participated in over 4,700 home visits, teacher-nurse conferences and referrals for behavior problems. Dr. Bauer noted that while school nurses gave the advantage of being exclusively available for the school, that nurse may have little contact with the rest of the family. He further suggests that it might be “desirable” to have more public health nurses on staff to render services in a more “holistic” manner, a term not yet in vogue.

Dr. Bauer closed his reports by wishing readers “success in the fight against chronic diseases...relative freedom from major acute communicable diseases...happiness and as much stability as can be achieved in our troubled world so that some of the causes of emotional upheaval may be avoided... health will not merely mean absence of disease but it will give you a feeling of physical, mental and social well-being.” Beautifully holistic, then and now.