Do unto others

Published 12:00 am Sunday, June 1, 2003

At first glance Etta Perkins and Roshanda Smith would appear to have little in common.

One is approaching the autumn of her years; the other graduates high school this year.

But look closer and a number of similarities readily become apparent. Both share a love of people and a desire to be of service. Both are intelligent, goal-oriented people who are not afraid to work hard. And both share a passion for nursing.

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Etta Perkins retired from Selma’s Good Samaritan Hospital after 24 years as a nurse. Roshanda Smith plans to study nursing at the University of Alabama in Huntsville this fall.

Both were helped in their pursuit of nursing as a career by grants and

scholarships from the Edmundite Missions.

Edmundite Missions, which is based in Selma, has been contributing toward the education of students in Alabama since it began its work in the community in 1937. Among the first to receive higher education scholarships were young African-American women who wanted to study nursing at Good Samaritan Hospital, which was run by the Edmundites.

This year Edmundite Missions awarded $25,000 in grants and scholarships to Selma and Dallas County students.

Smith, a 2003 graduate of Selma High School, is the winner of this year’s $2,500 Frank Casey Scholarship. The scholarship is named for Father Frank, the first superior of the Edmundite Southern Missions, who established the work in Selma in 1937.

“I was happy when I learned I had been selected,” she confides, “because I had gotten a rejection letter just a couple of weeks before.”

Smith traces her decision to pursue a career in nursing to a health care science class she took in 11th grade.

“We actually got to go to the hospital and see what went on in the respiratory care unit,” she recalls. “We also went to the pediatric ward, where I got to feed some of them.”

Smith, 17, is the daughter of Herbert and Linda Smith of Selma. She fairly bubbles with excitement as she describes her dream of one day working in pediatrics or anesthesiology.

Perkins smiles as she listens to Smith, perhaps remembering her own youthful enthusiasm.

“You’ve got to have a love for people,” she counsels her youthful counterpart. “Be no respecter of persons – treat everybody the same. And if you tell somebody you’re going to do something, do it. And if you can’t do it, tell them why you can’t – don’t just leave it undone.”

Perkins says she got into nursing because she did not want to be a teacher, adding, “At that time the next best thing in this area for black people was nursing.”

Perkins was in the first class of 11 people to graduate Good Samaritan’s Licensed Practical Nurse program. Up until that time it was common for nurses to be licensed by waiver. The program helped to bestow a sense of professionalism and pride among blacks in the nursing profession.

Later, she would be among the first to pass the Registered Nurse program at Wallace State. A grant from Edmundite Missions enabled her to attend, paying for her books and tuition.

“I had no intention of going back to school,” she recounts, “but I knew if I went the others would, too.”

Perkins was one of six blacks to take the RN class at Wallace. All passed.

At the time, Good Samaritan was one of the few places that treated black patients. Blacks who required surgery were treated at King Memorial Hospital, located in what is now Dunn Nursing Home, and returned to Good Samaritan.

“They had their surgery at King Memorial,” Perkins says. “And when they were through, they sent them back – still asleep. Transportation was a funeral home hearse.”

Smith registers just the slightest hint of incredulity at this first-hand account of the way things used to be.

For the new LPNs the work was intense, the hours long.

“You worked until you got finished,” Perkins says. “If there was nobody there to relieve you, your shift just went on. About our only relief were the nuns, who doubled as RNs.”

Good Samaritan had no private rooms. Patients were kept in wards – men on one side of the hall, women on the other. The maternity ward was downstairs.

“We enjoyed it,” Perkins insists. “We really didn’t know we were being overworked and underpaid. Break … we didn’t know what a break was. Lunch … you ate on the run.”

Overseeing everything was Sister Louis Bertrand, who ran a tight ship but who commanded the respect of those who worked under her.

“She managed every department in that hospital except for the finance office,” marvels Perkins. “Sister Louis managed everything and she didn’t have to run all over the hospital to get it done. You could say ‘Sister Louis said do’ – and it got done.”

The compensation, she adds, was a sense of community – both among the nurses themselves and the patients they cared for – that is too often lacking in today’s high-tech medical environment.

Says Perkins, “We were family. When one hurt, everybody hurt. When one cried, everybody cried. We still have that bond today.”

Although the Edmundites are Catholic, Perkins says there was never any pressure concerning religion exerted on employees at Good Samaritan.

“They even let the head man in the laundry say a prayer over the intercom each morning – a good Baptist prayer,” she recalls, laughing.