Early Health Care Initiatives
The recent reopening after renovations of the Frederiksted Ingeborg Nesbitt Clinic, in Danish times known as the Frederiksted Hospital, brought back memories among many citizens of early times. Today, however, probably no one is alive who can recall first hand what took place there prior to the sale of the Danish West Indies to the U.S. in 1917.
Historical records from Danish archives, however, tell a moving and compelling story about the sad state of public health in these islands around the turn of the 20th century. Infant mortality in particular was alarmingly high, primarily because many infants were born to single working mothers, most of whom had not received any counsel on child care. The alarming statistics were brought to the attention of Crown Princess Louise of Denmark, who took a keen interest in the islands and their health system.
As a result, she initiated a nationwide collection in Denmark to enable the dispatch in 1904 to the Danish West Indies of two groups of nurses to alleviate the situation: A group of Deaconesses, religious nursing sisters, not only started Queen Louise Home for Children in Frederiksted, an institution that continues today under the leadership of Lutheran Social Services, offering housing and for neglected children. The individual deaconesses also went out to the plantations on the island where they made contact with mothers of infants and pregnant mothers-to-be. Their instruction in basic hygiene and infant care essentials helped lower the mortality rate to a manageable level. These brave women became objects of great affection and appreciation for their efforts, and the Deaconess project continued even after the Transfer to the U.S.
Concurrently, Crown Princess (later Queen) Louise also initiated the dispatch of another group of women nurses, these with an affiliation with the International Red Cross, to the islands. Their task was different, but equally important. They were sent to improve the health standards at the local hospitals, with the application of a new procedure called rational medicine. Previously, the Danish doctors at the hospitals had used male attendants, primarily from the military garrison, to assist them in performing operations and other procedures. The new nurses were not only sent to replace the male attendants but to assure a loving care of patients at the hospital, where most that had been admitted until then had been left to fend for themselves and therefore seldom survived. And, most important, the nurses were given the task of training young local women to become nursing assistants and nurses themselves. These were challenging duties, and the nurses had a two-year minimum stint to perform this revolutionary change; a few stayed longer. They were met with resistance from some of the doctors, and finding suitable nursing candidates was not easy, but their efforts and success built a foundation for the noble tradition of nursing that prevails in the U.S. Virgin Islands today.