By Clark Fair
In 1939, actress Butterfly McQueen, as the character Prissy, said famously, “I don’t know nothin’ ’bout birthin’ babies” in “Gone With the Wind.”
That story was a work of fiction.
Ten years later, however, when itinerant public health nurse Shirley Denison had thoughts similar to Prissy’s, the situation was real, which could have been unfortunate for the pregnant women of Seldovia, where Denison was stationed.
Denison, now Shirley Henley of Kenai, had just arrived on the Kenai Peninsula in February 1949, following two years of field-nurse work in Birmingham, Ala., near where she was born and raised. Her work in the field had been preceded by studies at Maryville College and then a master’s degree in nursing at Yale.
Her plan, after Yale, had been to go to Alaska as soon as possible. However, to complete her agreement with the Cadet Nurse Corps, which had subsidized her degree, she owed two years’ work. On the day her two years were up, she headed north.
Henley said that she wanted to go to Alaska because it was “as far away as I could get from Alabama.” She said she wanted to escape the crowds and all of the rules and regulations, and she figured the Territory of Alaska offered her the most freedom.
“Up here, the closest any supervision you had was Anchorage, and I only saw my supervisor from Anchorage once a year,” she said.
Talk about autonomy: The Alaska Territorial Department of Nursing hired Henley and stationed her in Seldovia, where an absence of doctors had forced the city’s hospital to close its doors. When Henley arrived, she was the only medical show in town.
With the closest doctors in Seward and Anchorage, she said, “You had to do whatever you had to do.”
One definite drawback to doing it all was Henley’s lack of obstetrics training.
“When I was in Yale, one of the things I very carefully avoided was obstetrics,” said Henley, now 85. “And the first thing I knew I was having to deliver babies.” Three or four women in Seldovia were in the family way.
One of her first pregnant patients was Nelda Calhoun, who was not a first-time mother. Nelda and her husband, Red, had had a poor fishing season, Henley said, and they couldn’t afford to go to Anchorage for the birth. They also refused offers of financial aid because they saw them as charity.
“(Nelda) had had some problems with previous pregnancies, so I wrote to (the supervisor in) Anchorage and said, ‘I will go anywhere and do anything if you’ll just send a midwife down here,’” said Henley, who was only 25 at the time. “And they did have public health nursing midwives available, so I asked to swap places with them until they got these people delivered.
“What they did was send me a huge box of obstetrics books. And the more I read, the more frantic I became because, you know, these obstetrics books told of all these awful things that could go wrong, and I thought, ‘Oh, God!’
“I did some heavy praying.”
And she did the best she could.
“I had done all the prenatal work,” she said. “That was part of my responsibilities, you know — take your blood pressure and make sure your diet’s good and everything. So here Nelda’s in labor, and she says, ‘Well, aren’t you going to do a pelvic exam?’ And I said, ‘Nelda, I’d just as soon stick my finger in my mouth for what I know, so why make you more uncomfortable?”
Soon, though, the spring of 1950 arrived, and with it the inevitable delivery of the Calhoun baby. Henley said she dreaded the thought that any day Red Calhoun would arrive at her door and announce that the time had come.
“I’d lie awake at night and listen to people walk down the boardwalk (below her apartment),” she said. “And I’d think, ‘Oh, God, please don’t let it be Red. Don’t let it be Red Calhoun. I’m not ready for this.’”
Then one night it was Red Calhoun. Full of anxiety, Henley packed her bag and followed him to the Calhoun home.
In the end, everything turned out well — the baby, an 8-pound boy they named Dan, was delivered successfully — but there was one moment of special trepidation.
“When (Nelda) was in the process of delivering, she says, ‘Am I bleeding very much?’ And I said, ‘No.’ And she says, ‘Well, thank God. The last time I hemorrhaged.’ I didn’t want to hear that,” Henley said.
Throughout her short time as an itinerant public health nurse, she had many other adventures — when Yule Kilcher’s dog bit her on the butt the day she came to vaccinate his children, for example — and when she went into public education in Kenai in 1958 she had plenty more.
Henley, who continued as a nurse until her first child, Ruth, was born in 1952, said she never did get comfortable delivering other people’s babies.
“I’d read all those books, and I knew what could happen,” she said.