Saturday, December 7, 2013

Nursing in the Barrios

The Sisters expanded their ministries to direct service with the poor from the beginning.  They soon discovered that basic health care was needed and several sisters with nursing degrees were sent to help in make-shift clinics in the campos.   

Sister Mary (Maureen) Wainman graduated from nursing school in 1949 and was sent to Puerto Rico in 1953 where she served for a year in the St. Tomas de Aquino Clinic in the barrio of La Perla in San Juan.  Sister Mary went back to New York to earn her master’s degree and worked with a mentally ill.  She was sent back to Puerto Rico to the same clinic in 1961 and stayed until 1978.  Sister recalled, “The big problem was tuberculosis and I participated in a national research survey on tuberculosis in thirty-five different areas.”   

She tested everyone and found even newborn babies with PPD’s and clinic worked mainly on providing injections for that in the early 1960’s.  Then there was an epidemic of addiction to heroin and cocaine.  There were treatment centers in the area for males but nothing for the female addicts.  Sister Mary went to the Cardinal who gave her permission to open a clinic for female addicts.  She named the clinic Casa Providencia in honor of Our Lady of Providence, and worked teaching nursing in the local junior college to earn the money needed to keep the convent running so she could offer support services to teenage girls in trouble with addiction and pregnant. Sister Mary began to take an interest in psychiatric nursing at La Perla and pursued postgraduate study in psychology.   

She recalled, “While I was working with the poor in La Perla a psychiatrist who was attached to the army hospital started to teach me psychiatry.  He would come every week and give me classes in psychiatry... He got me started on it, and the addiction got me started on it because that’s all psychiatry, and I took some courses.  I have some post master’s credit in psychology from the University of Miami.” (Wainman)  Sister Mary ran Casa Providencia for seven years until the United Way began to respond to the need and provide aid, and it became possible to turn the program over to a local congregation of Oblates of the Blessed Mother.  At that time Sister observed that large numbers of Puerto Rican veterans were returning from Vietnam with addiction problems.  

The Cardinal persuaded Sister Mary to take a position in psychiatric nursing at the VA hospital in San Juan.  In 1978 she was transferred to the VA hospital in Charleston, SC where she became a psychiatric clinical specialist working with alcoholics in recovery, a work she continued at the Brooklyn, VA until her “retirement” in 1997.