ROCKLAND, Maine — Eliza Steele was a groundbreaker in many respects.
Decades before there was Medicaid, Medicare or other government health programs, Steele, a Red Cross public health nurse, coordinated with the churches, city and civic leaders in Rockland to provide care to people who otherwise would not be served when the Red Cross decided to end its local public health program.
That was the birth of the Rockland District Nursing Association.
Eighty-three years later, Steele’s vision and good works continue through the efforts of the eight nurses who work on a per diem basis for Rockland District Nursing.
Fayelene and John Hawkins are two people who say they appreciate greatly what the nursing association does for them. The couple live in the elderly housing complex at the Rankin Center in Rockland.
“They know us by name. We’re not just a number,” Fayelene Hawkins said of the Rockland District Nursing Association nurses who stop by their residence to provide care.
John Hawkins notes he is not able to reach his feet and that the nurses provide foot massages, cut his toenails and check his blood pressure.
Foot care and sorting out medication for clients are some of the most common services provided by the nursing association. The association holds monthly blood pressure screenings at each of the local congregate housing complexes and provides injections, draws blood, changes catheters, and checks oxygen and pacemakers. These services are coordinated with the primary care physicians of the clients.
Rockland District Nursing Association does not receive any federal or state money. The city of Rockland donates $20,000 to the organization and provides it space in the community building. The association does not take insurances. Seventy percent of the money to run the organization is received from local donations, said Peta vanVuuren, the agency director.
The nursing association visited 300 homes in the past year. Clients pay based on a sliding scale of what they can afford. The bulk of the clients are elderly, and many of the visits occur when insurance does not cover what they need, vanVuuren said.
Carol Melquist, the clinical care director for Rockland District Nursing, said Medicare has been tightening up on eligibility standards. And in terms of foot care, there are no podiatrists in Rockland anymore, she said.
Rockland District Nursing works with Kno-Wal-Lin, which is part of the Pen Bay Health network, and does not compete with that home health organization, vanVuuren said.
A portrait of Eliza Steele hangs in the nursing association’s office in the community center.
“She was a pretty progressive thinker,” vanVuuren said of Steele.
Steele served as the face of the association for the next 40 years, retiring in 1969. During those years, she coordinated with the local doctors to put on health clinics.
“She understood the need for a healthy community and good quality care. She organized vaccinations in the 1940s when communitywide vaccinations were not even being discussed,” vanVuuren said.
“The Shore Village Story,” a history book on Rockland, referred to Steele as a pioneer in nursing services for Rockland.
“Miss Steele performed numerous acts of dedication which made her an institution in this city. She baptized babies who were dying. She accompanied patients to the Bangor Mental Health Institute because some would not respond to anyone else. She assisted with adoptions; was instrumental in getting children admitted to the Baxter School for the Deaf; worked closely with our city welfare director on many family problems; aided unwed mothers before AFDC was available; testified in child abuse cases; packed toys for needy children at Christmastime; taught classes in child care to candy stripers at the Knox Hospital, and much, much more,” the history book stated.
Steele died in 1976.
Fayelene Hawkins recalls Steele as the school nurse when her children were young. The children would be lined up and the registered nurse would be giving them immunization shots.
Steele also cared for Hawkins’ youngest child when she wasn’t gaining weight. Steele would make home visits, understanding the family did not have insurance.
Melquist also remembers Steele as the school nurse when Melquist was a student.
“I have a lot of respect for her,” Melquist said.
The association also has adjusted to the times on current issues such as how to prevent the diversion of prescription drugs. Working with area police departments, the association has participated in the collection of unwanted medications.
In the past year, the association has worked with law enforcement and health care, and community organizations to put on two training sessions on how to deal with people under the influence of bath salts. Two hundred people turned out in December for one of those forums.
Since the nursing association does not receive government reimbursement or insurance payments, fundraising is important for the continued operation of the community organization.
This year, the association has teamed up with youth in the community to raise money in a program named the Eliza Steele Mercy March. In the 1950s, students would walk through the city and if a person’s house light was on they would stop and seek donations.
This year, youth from local churches and Cub Scout Pack 215 in Thomaston are taking the lead and doing it in memory of Margaret Torfason, a registered nurse with Rockland District Nursing who died Nov. 11, 2011. The students have spoken at churches, civic organizations and on the public access radio station WRFR in Rockland to promote the need to aid Rockland District Nursing.
Pledges are being raised by youth for a fast on March 30-31, hosted by the Thomaston Baptist Church. Fifteen students have agreed to fast one of those days. A dinner will be held at St. Peter’s Episcopal Church in Rockland for the young people who fast. St. Peter’s was the church Steele attended.
People can donate bottles at South End Grocery in Rockland, Andes Bottle Redemption in Warren and Hannaford. The association can be reached at 594-4522.
Margaret Cuccinello is the adult adviser for the youth fasters.
“They are doing something really personal. They are giving their time and their comfort for something local,” she said.