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Newtown VNA Supporting A Century Of Community Wellness

Published: September 22, 2018 at 07:00 am

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A dark and tattered front page Newtown Bee editorial referencing an influenza outbreak in the winter of 1918 appears to be the very first call to Newtown residents and local leaders to consider the need for a “community nurse.” And so began an important, occasionally history-making century of health care support facilitated by the agency known today as the Newtown VNA.

By August 1 of 1919, a front page notice called for all citizens to mobilize and codify the formation of a “visiting nurse” program in the Town Charter to assure Newtown was the first community in the state to create such a program. Margaret Brew, secretary pro-tem of the fledgling movement, even imbued a sense of competition to the effort, noting, “Don’t let Stratford get too far ahead of Newtown. They expect to begin active work with a visiting nurse by September 1.”

The community responded in kind and en masse, and within a week, the paper reported that “a Visiting Nurse Association was formally inaugurated; a constitution and by-laws were adopted. The announcement proclaimed, “A visiting nurse would be... on call on payment of a small fee and would go gratis where cases required.” The membership fee for any citizen to support the cause was set at $1 annually.

By early September, 350 residents had signed on and paid their dues and a Grange Hall meeting was called by the association’s newly-elected directors. Citizens were called to attend to hear a lecture by Professor C.E.A. Winslow of Yale University, who was said to be an authority on public health nursing. From this early stage, the association’s founders also had the political wherewithal to announce that the association would be fully self-funded by residents who pledged their annual membership, “and will have no connection whatever with town finances.”

Already, the question was being posed: “Who will be the nurse?”

The article went on to say that the ideal candidate would be a “graduate nurse with special training in public health work aside from hospital training and must be a registered nurse in the state.” Within weeks, a Gerda Anderson was named as the registered nurse for the community, and the association’s growing list of officers, members, and supporters busied themselves with raising money to support her work.

In February 1920, the Newtown VNA announced a series of suppers to benefit the cause, and by the association’s first anniversary in September, the organization had formalized a varied list of duties to be performed.

Besides offering “all phases of nursing and concern with the general welfare of the public, child welfare work, tuberculosis, prenatal, and maternity nursing is carried on.” Another main function was school nursing, where the nurse would encounter and define any health concerns as she reviewed all public school students and coordinate whatever care they might need in the home.

As always, while general nursing advice and care was provided, whenever more serious health issues presented, the nurse was bound to call upon a local physician for consultation and to possibly take on that patient’s care. She would also “be on the lookout for contagious disease and [would report] the latter at once to the Health Officer.” As an early precursor to more modern day and current practices, the 1920s-era visiting nurse was also charged with monitoring any dental, sight, hearing, and nutritional deficiencies.

Support For Services

In the months and years to follow, The Newtown Bee carried dozens of routine accounts of issues being discovered and treated by Newtown VNA nurses, while community members and groups continued to work, raising funds and holding benefits to underwrite VNA services. Among them, a July 1921 “Old Maids Convention” at the Town Hall, a band concert, and a June 1922 showcase of entertainment given by the local Knights of Columbus that helped raise $100 for the effort.

As the popularity of the service grew, so did the need for Newtown’s visiting nurse to be able to get around the sprawling community to tend to the sick and infirm. In November 1922, the association suggested the need for an “enclosed car” for the service, and within a month, the service received word that a car was being readied for delivery to the VNA.

In March of 1923, a Miss Aileen Finkle assumed nursing responsibilities from the recently wed Gerda Anderson. Membership dues and events continued to produce support for the VNA, including an annual carnival that opened in June 1925 at the Newtown Inn. By Christmas of that same year, an individual only identified as “Miss Baker” in any public reports had assumed duties as the town’s VNA nurse. In October 1931, Robina Johnson took the helm as the latest public health nurse.

The year 1934 marked more new developments with the VNA. In May of that year, the association announced the formation of a “Fresh Air Children” program after hearing from New York socialite, economist, and social worker Mrs George E. Hill. VNA members were so moved that they called for local families to open their doors to metropolitan youths so they could experience the “abundance of good food, sunshine, and fresh air, and the opportunity to run and play free from the confinement of narrow, traffic-clogged city streets.

“The country itself is a novelty to [these] children,” the appeal noted, and as was the spirit of the community even then, several families immediately stepped up to host “One or several of these children for two weeks.” And in November, the association began making plans for distributing cocoa to local schools during the winter and initiating a school physicals program with the help of Dr. E.L. Kingman.

By January 1935, the Newtown VNA was reporting its programming was the sixth most supported program of its kind across Connecticut, and the VNA was named host of the regional VNA meeting, which was held here that March. That same year, in September, Barbara Gratto took over as the town’s visiting nurse. And by the following April, a fundraising drive was initiated to purchase the VNA’s second new car.

In the chilly days of February 1938, plans were hatched to establish a local VNA Thrift Shop, and within weeks, that shop opened at 33 Main Street in what was then called the Atchison Block — later to be renamed the Chase Block. Since Newtown had mostly small school houses with few amenities, the VNA decided to take on the responsibility of delivering milk to local students.

At the close of the school year in June of 1938, it was reported that more than 19,000 half-pints of milk had been provided.

Tuberculosis Prevention

In April 1939, the VNA enhanced its public health outreach by mounting a tuberculosis prevention program. And by July of that year, the Newtown VNA transitioned from a grassroots initiative to an incorporated agency. One month later, the ambitious annual fundraising goal of $1,000 was set by VNA leadership. As the war was escalating overseas in early 1941, the VNA was partnering with the Red Cross to deliver training courses.

In May of 1943, the VNA was not only utilizing multiple sources for fundraising, but leaders decided to initiate a flat fee of $1 per visit to anyone calling for services. As the effects of World War II continued to take their toll, demand for medical support enticed nurse Gratto into Army nursing, and a short time later, it was announced that Newtown’s new visiting nurse would be Mrs Julia Larkin.

It is not clear whether Mrs Larkin’s tenure was short-lived, or if the VNA simply added a second nurse to the service by the name of Helen Rutishauser. By the following spring, the association was singing the praises of a dental hygienist program it had helped launch in the local school system.

The VNA continued to tout the preventative dental program into 1944. With hopes of making it available to the general population, the VNA held numerous benefits and used the initiative as the driving motivation behind that year’s fund drive. In September 1945, Mrs George Brown took on the role as the local visiting nurse. She was followed by a Mrs Ann Hobbs, and in quick succession, by Mrs Edith Cher and Martha Kline.

Continuing to play a vital role in the health and development of local children, the VNA convened its first “Well Child Conference” at Hawley School in January of 1947. In the following spring, the VNA decided to take advantage of x-ray technology to mount a chest x-ray program for school-age children.

In October 1948, demand for Newtown VNA services grew so great that the association decided to add a part-time nurse to its rolls. With the goal of maintaining a capable supply of medical support in town, the VNA launched a home nursing course. And in September of 1950, Ms Adelaide Barrett became the community’s new full-time visiting nurse. Just a few months later in January 1951, it was announced that a newly completed addition at Edmond Town Hall would in part provide a permanent office for the VNA program.

Later that year, the VNA added the expertise of a Mrs Douglas Watson, and by October 1951, the VNA had launched free monthly tuberculosis clinics. The following September, Ms Mary Nolan came on board and helped launch the effort through the VNA Thrift Shop to acquire a variety of dental equipment to donate to Newtown High School.

In August 1954, Registered Nurse Rita Millmore was named assistant visiting nurse.

Response To Flooding

Following devastating floods that ravaged many riverside communities across the state in 1955, Newtown VNA was at the front of the line, collecting clothes and other necessities through its Thrift Shop to dispatch to those who lost everything in the widespread disaster.

Over the next decade, the VNA continued its work across the growing community. And by 1965, its leaders determined their program could only continue successfully with a dedicated fund drive exclusively for health care delivery.

With that in mind its leaders began engaging leaders at the state level about making the services eligible for Medicare subsidies, where appropriate. In September of 1968, having just honored retiring VNA President Mrs John Holian, the association held its 50-year celebration as part of its annual meeting.

It did not take long for the excitement to be replaced by a new challenge, however, as the arrival of 1969 also hearkened the need for the Thrift Shop to relocate, and a space at Edmond Town Hall was made ready for the move. But 1969 also marked the year the Newtown VNA would welcome one of its longest-tenured and arguably most influential supporters, Mae Schmidle.

In honor of the VNA’s 100-year anniversary, the group will have a celebration on September 23, from 1 to 3 pm, at Edmond Town Hall, 45 Main Street, where refreshments will be served.

To read the second story installment of the VNA’s history with coverage of its upcoming party, see The Newtown Bee’s Friday, September 28, print edition.

The Newtown Bee would like to acknowledge and thank the following individuals for the immense assistance provided in the research of this feature: Town Historian Daniel Cruson, C.H. Booth Library Assistant Director Beryl Harrison, 2018 VNA President Anna Wiedemann, and Mae Schmidle.

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