Nurse Leila Yates – our Lady with the Lamp

Many people have come to accept
that the history of professional nursing traditionally began with Florence
Nightingale. Florence pursued her passion for nursing, despite her parents’
objections and was inspired by what she understood to be a divine calling. She
was described as the British nursing hero of the Crimean War and transformed
nursing into a respectable profession. Although Nurse Leila did not care for
wounded soldiers on a battlefield she did make valuable contributions to
nursing in the Cayman Islands.

While many Caymanian women are
nurses and have contributed to the nursing community in their respective ways,
Nurse Leila appears to have been in a league of her own. Born Erksie Leila
Yates on 19 August, 1899, to Caymanian parents, she had her humble beginnings
in the district of West Bay. She was the youngest of six children and grew up
in the first house to have glass windows installed. Nurse Leila vividly
recalled the days when children gathered outside her house just to have the
opportunity to look inside and see people and have people peer back at them
through the glass panes.

She fondly recalled playing ring
games with neighbourhood girls on the beach during moonlit nights and dancing
to rhythmic beats produced by striking pans and scraping graters as a child.
She remembered gazing apprehensively at Halley’s Comet as it lit up the skies
over the Cayman Islands in 1910 and recalled beachcombing to collect sea fans
that were used as sieves in cooking.

Like most Caymanian children of
this generation, Nurse Leila was raised with the understanding that hard work
and working hard was simply a way of life.

Her career

Nurse Leila began her nursing
studies as a result of gentle persuasion from her sister, Mrs. O’Sullivan. Like
Florence Nightingale, Nurse Leila met some resistance from her mother when she
disclosed her intent to study nursing. Being asthmatic, her mother believed
that her medical condition would interfere with her nursing responsibilities,
but she was not disheartened. Eventually, her mother relented and she began
receiving medical training under the supervision of Dr. Overton in 1917. She
later expressed gratitude to her sister for encouraging her to commence her
studies. She was such an enthusiastic student that she walked from West Bay to
George Town just to attend her nursing lectures.

She began her impressive nursing
career in 1919 and started to care for patients in the comfort and privacy of
their homes. This must have been practical for some, in particular those who
were disabled or immobile.

Nurse Leila started midwifery in
1921 and a 1986 interview revealed that she had delivered more than 1,000 babies
in the Cayman Islands, without a loss. She describes having to walk to get to
her patients and once found her way to East End where she had to wait several
days until the baby was ready to be delivered. One can only imagine the
obstacles and challenges she faced as she travelled by foot, boat, horseback
and car to care for her patients.

This column is submitted by Erica
Daniel, Education Programmes coordinator at the National Trust for the Cayman
Islands.