Doctors, nurses, and other healthcare providers are always important to a community; however, they have become even more vital during the pandemic of the past year. One of these people is Eldra Simmons, a retired nurse from Greenbelt, Maryland. Simmons was born and raised in the U.S. Virgin Islands on an island named St. Thomas, Charlotte Amalie to be exact. At the early age of 12, Ms. Simmons realized that she had a passion for helping others. “I remember feeling the need to help anything or anyone who needed someone’s assistance.” Being from the U.S. Virgin Islands played a major role in her life. Growing up in Charlotte Amalie with her three siblings, their dad had a lot of land and animals. On her father’s land, there were chickens, donkeys, pigs, and more. One of her chores around the house was to take care of the animals on the land. A normal kid, like myself, would complain and whine about doing manual chores, but she never did. When it came to taking care of her animals, she couldn’t have asked for a better job. “To have hands-on experience taking care of these animals really furthered my opinion on doing this for the rest of my life.”
Ms. Simmons loved going to school, especially reading. She mentioned that one of her favorite things to do as a child was read her books while rocking in a rocking chair that her grandfather had built for her. “My childhood was great, I loved everything about it. I wouldn’t change anything.” The school she went to was right across the road. At the age of four, she would go watch the first graders in their class through the classroom window. One day the teacher had caught her continuously looking into the classroom. The next day, her teacher talked to her mother and she was enrolled in the first-grade class at the age of four. Normally, a child would have to wait until the age of six or seven to begin first grade, but Ms. Simmons was an exception. Simmons explained that there was this nurse that really inspired her too, who later on, became a midwife. When she was younger, Simmons didn’t know the title of this woman’s job. “As a child, my parents told me and my siblings that storks would drop off babies and I thought that this nurse helped the storks deliver the babies.” All she knew was that wherever this lady went, babies were born. Simmons left her home in the Virgin Islands in August of 1954 for bigger and better opportunities that would allow her to transform her dream of becoming a nurse into reality. Leaving the only place she knew to go somewhere foreign was terrifying because she went from living on an island to living in America. “Everything was new and I had to adapt to living in the states with all the different seasons and all these people I didn’t know.” Living on an island has a real sheltered lifestyle. On a small island, everyone knows everyone, but moving to somewhere like Virginia and New York was a complete culture shock to Simmons. She ended up going to the Hampton Institute in Hampton, Virginia for her BSN (Bachelor of Science in Nursing) and refers to someone who has earned a bachelor’s in nursing in addition to being a licensed registered nurse. She had been working as a nurse for a couple of years. In September of 1963, she decided to go to school to become a midwife. A midwife is a licensed healthcare professional who specializes in women’s reproductive health and childbirth. She went to the Maternity Center affiliated with downstate/King’s County Hospital in Brooklyn. Ms. Simmons ended school in 1965 and did a three-month internship and was later hired at the hospital in 1966. Simmons was an obstetrical nurse, who is responsible for helping care for female patients during pregnancy, labor, and childbirth. She worked on the floor where women would come after they had their babies. “I loved working with my patients because a part of my job was to teach the mothers how to take care of themselves along with their babies.” As someone who loved school as a child, Ms. Simmons got to incorporate education into her daily life. That’s one of the many reasons she cherished being a nurse. She mentioned that the hardest thing about nursing was the immense amount of studying that had to be done. Something that was also difficult for her was dealing with racism. In the 1950s, there were still tons of racism being thrown around, especially in the workforce. It was a real shock to her because back home in the Virgin Islands, she never experienced racism before. “Nothing can be 100% perfect,” Ms. Simmons said. “ I would have to say the worst thing about being a nurse was seeing other nurses treat their patients with no compassion or respect.” Back then, working as a nurse paid good money, people would fight over who got overtime hours. The more you work overtime, the more money you receive. Simmons sometimes felt that some nurses were in the profession for the wrong reasons. Simmons became a nurse so she could help people, they became nurses because they only wanted the money. They also never looked out for the best interest of the patients, which was depressing. “Never did I think that there was something else I wanted to do for the rest of my life. I believe that God put me on this Earth to help people in their most vulnerable state.” Simmons was working as a nurse from 1966-2001, if you do the math, that’s 35 years. Nursing takes hard work, dedication, and perseverance, all of which are traits that Eldra Simmons personifies perfectly.