Jamaica Gleaner
Published: Wednesday | July 22, 2009
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'Mama Nurse' - a local hero in St Mary
Nedburn Thaffe, Gleaner Writer

Iona Brown worships at the Ramble Methodist Church in Fellowship Hall, St Mary, during a church service held in commemoration of her 80th birthday on Sunday. - Photo by Nedburn Thaffe

It was the era of limited taxicabs, little or no tap water and electricity and a time when quality health care for mostrural Jamaicans was a scarce commodity.

A pioneer of her time, Iona Brown was the first midwife to settle in Mango Valley, St Mary, and the first to ensure people of the neighbouring Fellowship Hall community saw the first Type One clinic set up.

As she celebrated her 80th birthday on Sunday, Iona Brown or 'Mama Nurse' as she is affectionately called, looks back on more than 40 years of service with the zest of an eight-year-old. Part of what makes her career so fulfilled are the countless babies she has helped into this world.

Brown's education had its genesis at the Bickersteth Primary School in St James and later at Montego Bay Secondary High School.

Her professional career started when she became a certified midwife in the 1950s. Her early years of practice were in St Elizabeth and St Catherine, before being transferred to St Mary at her own request. To date, the question of why she moved to St Mary remains a mystery to her, save for the fact that the dirt in St Elizabeth was 'too red' and that there was probably some amount of divine intervention.

"I did not know St Mary or anybody in St Mary, so I have concluded now that I was really sent by God to this parish," she told The Gleaner.

At the time, midwifery was relatively new to some areas of the parish and she had to win the confidence of the locals while making some treacherous journeys on foot.

"I went around and sat people at ease, talking with them, telling what my work was all about ... . Little by little the word got around and people became open to my service," she recounted.

Service for her meant making the journey to surrounding communities such as Comma, Ramble, Retreat Mountain, and Dressikie, adminis-tering prenatal care and delivering babies. When she wasn't doing that, she was dressing cuts, bruises, doing blood-pressure and diabetes checks, as well as offering family-planning counsel.

Surmounting obstacles

She later pioneered the first clinic in Fellowship Hall, surmounting many obstacles.

"When I saw the needs of the people, they were many ... . In those days I didn't have refrigerator for the clinic, I had to store medication at my house and buy a kerosene oil stove to do my own sterilisation at the clinic."

She added that many times she struggled with water shortages at the clinic and had to depend on the courtesy of neighbours.

When asked to recall the fondest moment in her career, the midwife, now 80, laughed herself to stitches as any frolicking child would, sharing details on how she hauled a dying mother over her shoulder and walking a long distance to save her life.

"A man held on to her feet and I struggled down the hill with this 200lb woman until we could find a taxi ... . I have never had a dead patient and I decided that she wasn't going to die on me," she said in jest.

"There was nothing in midwifery that could turn mi off ... . Dem (mothers) tear off mi clothes, dem do everything to mi but nothing could turn my mind from it."

Outside of midwifery, Brown was a stalwart mom, rearing six children on her own. At a time when her salary was just 16 pence, like most rural persons would, she supplemented it by doing a little dressmaking and farming, planting cash crops such as Irish potatoes, cabbage, carrots and other vegetables. Brown said she taught her children the 'important lessons of life' which were to cook, sew, work, respect others and put God at the forefront of their lives.

Errol Kerr, the eldest of her six children, remembers her strong disciplinary philosophy and a mother who did not 'spare the rod and spoil the child'.

Great memories

He recalled how his mother ensured he learnt well the art of cooking, sewing and even combing his sisters' hair.

For Jacinth Kerr-Downs, daughter, the memories that stand out in her mind were the times her mother would participate in games with the children such as cricket and baseball. Trips to and from church on Sundays, with their mother lagging behind, are also not forgotten.

Norma Carty Royes, long-time neighbour to Brown, describes her as someone who was always willing to help her out in her studies.

Now retired, Brown lives in Canada, but cannot seem to resist the urge to make the occasional trip to Jamaica to visit her old church and catch up on old times with neighbours.

"Whenever I come to St Mary, I am at peace with the world," she said.

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