Absent the digital world and delivered with compassion

As World War I came to end, the American Red Cross, just like to today, saw a need for nurses in our region. To meet this need, Brownsville led the way in forming the first Public Health Nursing Association (PHNA) within the Red Cross chapter.

By 1918, the pursuit for providing efficient healthcare to this area was led by two civic minded ladies. Mrs. James B. Wells and Mrs. Williams S. West, who were newcomers to Brownsville — they were given much credit for their efforts in establishing the PHNA. But they did not do it alone!

A high degree of cooperation was needed. As the movement to bring up-to-date health care to the city gathered enthusiasm, others volunteered to join the effort. From this point on, community support took center stage. 

Evoking a spirit of cooperation never seen before. Civil organizations, like women’s clubs, the Federation of Church Societies, the Parent-Teachers Association, businessmen, and individuals, quickly formed a landscape of collaboration.  

Notice… that the list does not include governmental agencies, politicians or the need to sell bonds or raise taxes to accomplish its goals.  

Within months, enough funds were solicited, demonstrating that working in unison changed the future of healthcare in the city.

What came next as the Establishment of healthcare clinics. After a health body was formed, a clinic was established on 13th and Jackson St., and within months, a day nursery was founded. Mrs. Lucy Mitchell, founder of the center, was the first nurse employed by the association.  

A second nurse, Mrs. Wilma Gagne, provided for the formation of organized classes in home nursing. In cooperation with the school district, the Grammar school provided classroom space with the association donating the necessary equipment.

By 1920, the association took on another mission – focusing in providing child health care. Within the same year, the first child healthcare clinic opened at the Fourth Ward school, located in one of the poorest sections of Brownsville.  

Then, with the help of local doctors, (with no cost to the patient) examination of school children began with follow-up work in homes.   

No affliction or child was ignored—as special needs children were taken to doctors with some having major operations. 

As the drive to expand health care in the area exceeded expectations, the city was inspired to get involved.   The association partnered with the city to provide milk for the underprivileged school children. 

Beyond city borders


The work of the PHNA continued, with the emphasis placed on the need of a county health nurse. The push resulted in the formation of the Cameron County Health unit in 1925. The flood of health care delivered by the association, the city of Brownsville and Cameron County was given without anyone involved in the process of asking, “What’s in it for me.” 

They succeeded on a shoestring budget, by pushing politics and greed aside—much was accomplished through meticulous planning, hard work, and sincere cooperation. It was an era, when ordinary people did extraordinary things. Unlike today, their motivation was not to make money, but to provide optimal care for those in need— and done so, with much compassion.

Politicians, government and health providers 


Can the main characters of change, form permanent alliances without accusing each other of foul play. Pouring more money and changes in policies obviously has not worked. Evidence to that, is shown where some countries who spend less money in health care and education, have a higher degree of success than we do.  

Do not be surprised if in the future if you see Paul Revere amongst us — riding through Brownsville’s Elizabeth Street. Warning us to the leave the city before it falls under the spell of politicians who are more emotional than thoughtful.  

They should not only be thinking about today’s health issues, but the care of the next generation, and not about the next election. 

Politicians and government officers should refrain from granting favors and preferences to any one on any issue—especially when it comes to healthcare. Thomas Jefferson wrote, “Equal rights for all, special privileges for none.” 

In closing, our healthcare providers have witnessed too much death and agony, but regardless of the “sham, drudgery and broken dreams, it is still a beautiful world.” (Desiderata)

Editor’s Note: The above guest column was penned by Brownsville writer and historian René Torres.


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