In the hands of women

Historian traces the long story of medical care on Whidbey Island and finds much of it was in the hands of women

“Right from the beginning, Whidbey Islanders have relied on each other when they were sick or hurt.By combining their labors, they made sure that one was available to sit up nights with a neighbor who was ill, Trebon writes in the preface to her book, A Common Need. A local farmer suffering severely from rheumatism could rest assured that his crops had been brought in, thanks to the cooperation of the community. … women … aided a friend in childbirth, or nursed a sick infant through an epidemic of diphtheria.Women, in particular, stepped in to care for each other’s families, Trebon said, so much so that her book is dedicated To the women of Whidbey Island for their comfort and healing to those in need over the past 150 years, their courage to dream, and act, against formidable odds.The primary care givers were the women of the household, Trebon writes. Mothers passed their skills on to daughters, and some families developed their skills to the point where neighbors often called on them in times of need. Julia Hancock was one of those caregivers. Trebon records that in the early 1900s Hancock went to the aid of a Japanese family that lived near her farm on Ebey’s Prairie. Preparing to butcher a pig, the family had heated a large metal kettle full of water to boiling point, in order to scald the pig’s carcass and more easily remove its hair. To their horror, their young daughter fell into the scalding water. Hancock hastned to help them care for the severely burned girl throughout the night. When the girl died the next day, Hancock assisted in the final sad duty of helping the mother lay out her little girl.Whidbey also had women who were medical professionals. The first woman doctor to practice on the island was Agnes Harrison, whose husband, Isaac, was also a doctor. She came to the island in 1883, at a time when it was very difficult for women to qualify as doctors. We were derisively called ‘Hen Medics’ Mrs. Dr. Harrison recalled. Women medical students were kept separate from male students, professors gave them simplified lectures and they were allowed to dissect only female cadavers, Trebon records. Harrison’s practice wasn’t easy, either. She often hitched up the horse and raced out through the night, once with her three-week-old son in her arms, since there was no one to leave him with. She cared for the island’s Indians as well as the settlers, and learned to cope with their different ways, which included communal healing practices. Trebon found this account of one such call:I was mighty annoyed when I had a delicate operation to perform on a squaw … I chased all her relatives and other curious tribesmen out of the house. But … as fast as I shooed them out the doors they came back through the windows. Finally, I couldn’t waste another minute so I operated – with a ring of muttering Indians looking on! In the early 1900s two sisters living on Ebey’s Prairie, Hattie and Luella Jenne, were among the first island women to train as nurses. Luella, whose picture appears on the cover of Trebon’s book, trained at Seattle General Hospital.She came back to the island to nurse her brother, Carl Jenne, through the Spanish flu epidemic of 1918. In 1997, at the age of 96, Carl told Trebon how his sister was at his side 24 hours a day for several weeks, administering sweat baths and hot lemon water and changing his soaked clothing. Bless her heart, he said, she stuck to it. Audrey Kingma Bultman of Clover Valley was also among the first nurses. She got her nursing degree at Everett’s Providence Hospital and went on to establish several maternity homes in Oak Harbor.The first Oak Harbor maternity home, as far as Trebon was able to discover, was started by another nurse, Maria Arnew, who opened the Arnew Hospital in the late 1920s. Her first hospital was in a house at 811 Jensen St. She soon moved around the corner to a newly completed house at 850 Ireland St., and then moved back to the Jensen Street house. Both houses still stand today, Trebon writes, and to look at the small structures is to be amazed at what she accomplished with the help of her husband and a hired girl. The work was hard and the days were long, for although the house had running water, heating and cooking were accomplished on a wood cookstove.Maternity patients stayed for 10 days of bed care, and in between maternity cases, Arnew also cared for the sick who had nowhere else to go. Audrey Bultman ran three maternity homes in different Oak Harbor houses between 1935 and the late 1950s. Her daughter, Irene Bultman Tyhuis, told Trebon about the days when there were as many as six new mothers in the house – which also served as the family home – and new babies lined up in baskets. There, too, according to the wisdom of the time, new mothers were kept lying down for the first 10 days after delivery. Irene remembered how amused she and her sisters were as children when they watched their mother help the ladies get up when it was time to go. They’d sit there and then she’d try and stand them up and oh! They’d keel over; they’d faint after lying in bed that long.Nurse Bultman provided good care. No mothers were lost under her care and only one baby died at birth due to cord strangulation.Other Oak Harbor midwives of around the same time included Jessie Kingma Kruick, who delivered more than 100 babies at her little house in Ely Street and a Mrs. Ritchie, who had a little home hospital in 8th Street. And north of Oak Harbor, Goldie Wayman ran a small hospital in a one-room log cabin at 136 W. Troxell Road.Earlier, around the turn of the century, Anna Lang delivered babies on North Whidbey, and Carolyn Leys Youngsman also delivered babies. Her daughter, Elsie Noorlag, told Trebon that her mother had no nurses training. She charged a dollar a day and for that took care of the mom, baby, other kids, washing, ironing, cooking, and cleaning for 10 days.In Coupeville the queen of the midwives was Polly Harpole who delivered an entire generation of Central Whidbey children. Many of the midwives stories were all but forgotten before Trebon began to gather them for her book. I had to dig so hard, Trebon said. Most people don’t know any of the history.Trebon also gives credit to the island women,who banded together together in the 1950s and said enough is enough. We need a hospital of our own. They were an incredible force. They made it happen.Many men were involved in the process, too, and made valuable contributions to getting Whidbey General Hospital built, and opened in 1970. That effort harks back to the way islanders worked together in earlier times, Trebon said, a theme that stretches through her book. I really wanted people to be aware that the hospital is only as good as the community participation in it, she said. From the beginning, people always helped each other, and that has been a vital element in the island’s health care. That community spirit is what helped create the hospital, and it will be what ensures its health in the future. Note: Information in this article is extracted from A Common Need, by Theresa Trebon. “