At the heart of Frontier Nursing University is a talented and diverse community of students, alumni, faculty, staff, Couriers and preceptors. Spotlight blogs feature members of our FNU community that are focused on the mission of educating nurse-midwives and nurse practitioners to deliver quality health care to underserved and rural populations.
In 1928, Mary Breckinridge, founder of Frontier Nursing University established the Courier Program, recruiting young people to come work in the Kentucky Mountains and learn about service to humanity. Couriers escorted guests safely through remote terrain, delivered medical supplies to remote outpost clinics, and helped nurse-midwives during home visits and births. Frontier has benefited tremendously from the 1,600 Couriers who have served since 1928.
Jean Gilcrest was a Courier between her sophomore and junior years of college, in the summer of 1957 . She learned about the program through family members. According to family legend, Jean and Mary Breckinridge were double cousins. It was a combination of family history, an interest in medicine, an interest in riding, and an interest to see what being a Courier was like that inspired her to participate in the Courier Program. She grew up outside of Lexington, Kentucky and was interested to see how living in the bluegrass was completely different than living in the mountains.
Jean has many memories of her time as a Courier, mostly of driving to home visits with the nurses. Jean recalls one visit in particular to a home in which they had to drive the FNS jeep at 20-30 miles per hour to prevent the neighbor’s vicious dogs from jumping in their car. At this home, there was a young girl who was not potty trained—there had been accidents, and messes were everywhere in the home. However, the next time Jean and the nurse returned to the home, it was clean and the young girl was well put-together. Jean wondered if the nurse returning to visit made her mother feel cared for, inspiring the mother to clean up her homestead.
Jean remembers that one of the doctors at Frontier, Dr. Beasley, would bring pregnant women who were going to be having their first babies to the hospitals before they went into labor (to ensure that they would not have any problems at the time of delivery). Around women’s due dates, Jean and the nurses would drive the women in the FNS jeeps up and down the bumpy roads in an attempt to speed up the labor process.
Another one of Jean’s memorable experiences was when she accompanied a nurse to take a child in a brace to Shriner’s Hospital in Lexington. On the day they were to take the child, it was pouring down rain and they could not get the jeep across the creek to pick him up. Jean remembers the father carrying the child across a swinging bridge in the rain so he could be taken to the hospital.
Jean remembers having tea with Mary Breckinridge in the afternoon, although she does not recall whether this was something all the Couriers did or whether it was due to their relation.
Jean not only had several significant experiences while at Wendover, she learned a lot about the culture of the region, as well. Something that significantly stood out to Jean was the lack of education in the area. Kentucky was ranked 47th in the nation for education at that time. After graduating eighth grade, many of the former students became the teachers themselves, instructing first grade through seventh grade. Many of these eighth grade graduates did not continue to high school; if they wanted to go to high school, they would have had to move into town, leaving their brothers and sisters to take over their chores.
She remembers learning about Kate Ireland’s views on the impact of governmental welfare programs that started in the region at this time. Kate told her she believed they had a negative impact on the people in the area because they started using food stamps for white bread and sugar—foods that were more detrimental to their health than the way they used to eat. Their diets were healthier before when they grew their own wheat and made their own bread from whole grain flour.
The things Jean learned about the culture of the area, coupled with her experiences while serving as a Courier, not only had a personal impact on her but she believes her assistance truly impacted the community as well. She was confident that her service made a difference.
After finishing the Courier Program, Jean continued her college education and graduated with a teaching degree. She worked as a teacher until she had children of her own. After her divorce, she made the decision to pursue a nursing degree. She worked as a rehabilitation nurse until she retired. Both her experiences at Frontier as well as a personal experience with injury inspired this secondary career choice.
She enjoyed her time in Wendover as a Courier and stayed on a committee for Frontier in Cleveland for some time.