The UK’s National Health Service (NHS) is a triumph of post-war rebuilding. Formed in 1948 during the difficult years following World War Two, the NHS provides free, complete care to all of the UK. Its mission has always been to ensure that all people had access to a doctor and the health services they need, and its existence proves that a country’s greatness arises in part from its commitment to the common good.
But developing a fully-funded, comprehensive medical care system from scratch was no easy feat. For starters, the country had a difficult time finding enough nurses to deliver the care that was so desperately needed. To fill in the gaps, the British government recruited nurses from its colonies, particularly the Caribbean.
A student nurse training class attended by many NAJ members
Enter the intrepid nurses of Jamaica, who left their homes for a new life in the UK, lured by the promise of deeper education and the chance to support communities back home. Many answered the call and moved to the UK to fill vacant nursing positions. They helped individuals in need and were fundamental in making the NHS a success.
I recently had the pleasure of speaking with two members of the Nurses Association of Jamaica, or NAJ for short. Dorothy Turner was a founding member of the NAJ when the group formed in 1977, and Paulette Lewis, MBE is the current president.
Members of the NAJ honor Mary Seacole, a Jamaican nurse who served in the Crimean War. Dorothy is second from the left, in traditional Jamaican costume; Paulette is second from the right
The Birth of the NAJ
There is an extensive history of women and men from Jamaica offering aid to the British Empire. Nurse Mary Seacole, who treated the wounded during the Crimean War, was the first is a long line of soldiers, healers and others who answered the call to serve over the decades.
So it was natural for nurses from Jamaica to rise to the occasion when the fledgling NHS needed help. Many saw it as an opportunity to gain excellent training and education that they hoped to bring back to Jamaica in the future. Others remained in the UK and dedicated their careers to helping underserved communities of color.
As the number of Afro-Caribbean nurses in the UK grew, a group of nurses met for a healthcare conference in 1977. Realizing that they could continue to network and exchange information — not to mention support incoming nurses in their quest for training, work, and belonging — the NAJ was born.
Some NAJ members during their working days, attending the Queen Mother’s 100th birthday celebrations in 1977
Tireless Service and Care
In addition to helping acclimate new nurses to the NHS, the NAJ conducted outreach to poor communities, provided professional education about the unique cultural and health needs of Black patients, and helped people in need around the world with their dedication to charitable work.
A newspaper clipping The NAJ featured in
Both Dorothy and Paulette served as midwives in the NHS, and they are particularly proud of their work guiding women from Africa, the Caribbean and other regions through the health system in the UK. Many were afraid or uncertain of what to expect in a British hospital, so Dorothy and Paulette were educators and community supporters as well as medical experts.
Dorothy and Paulette have decades of nursing stories to tell, but some of their favorite moments were as midwives. Hear their incredible stories in this video:
Preserving the Legacy of the NAJ
As the years passed, the founding members of the NAJ grew older, as we all do. Many retired from service to enjoy other aspects of their lives, including travel and spending time with grandchildren. Some died of age or illness.
Knowing that their story would be lost if they didn’t act, a group of NAJ members and founder decided that the time had come to preserve their history. Paulette and Dorothy, along with Tony Leiba, Sherill Gregory and Alina Wallace, began work on a complete history of the NAJ’s founding and work through the years.
The research and writing process was intense, and the group worked tirelessly to gather archives and anecdotes before they could be lost to time. They spent countless hours, working long nights to draft a manuscript.
When it came time to turn their words into a publishable book, the group turned to StoryTerrace for help. Paulette credits their StoryTerrace editor with helping tell the story in a way that would connect with readers. "She said to add more real life things to link to the history and give our personal experiences. The goal was to try to tell the story differently, to make it much more real," she explained.
The book cover of the Nurses' Association of Jamaica Book, "Unity is Strength"
The result of their dedication is Nurses Association of Jamaica: 40 Years of Service, available on Amazon in print and as an e-book. The book preserves the full history of the NAJ as well as the stories of the individuals who worked tirelessly to help others, whether their patients, the next generation of nurses or the country at large. It’s a fitting legacy to the determination of this incredible group of nurses.
Members of the London and Birmingham branches at their 40th anniversary launch (top) at their gala dinner and dance in 2018 (bottom)
If you have an organization whose story is worth sharing, StoryTerrace can help. Our authors and editors are can work with one or many storytellers to compile an oral history that captures your group’s personality and mission. To find out more, get in touch today.