Nurse Lavia – a true Florence Nightingale
May 13, 2005
Nurse Lavia – a true Florence Nightingale

by Sheron Garraway

It is mere coincidence that Florence Mathis Lavia carries the name of the famous nurse who has cared for many “Florence Nightingail”. As fate would have it, the Vincentian Florence has spent 35 years labouring and caring in that noble profession.

The 62-year-old Lavia started her nursing career in 1964 at the age of 18. Her first few years of training to be a nurse were challenging but enjoyable. “I went to the ward at 7 a.m., left to go to the classroom from 9:30 1:00 p.m., then I got back on the ward for 7 p.m. {{more}}

“When you did the night duty, you had to go from 7 p.m. to 7a.m. for 10 nights straight, with one night off. Then for three months, we had to be in charge of a ward and this made many of us nervous, but we made it.”

Nurse Lavia thanked Nurse Carol Connell, who was Sister Tutor in the 1960s and trained many, including herself. She however believes that a few nurses of today don’t have that same passion as before.

Lavia said nurses back then would visit every room to greet patients with a kind word. She lamented that nursing was more than just tending to the health needs of patients. The veteran care-giver recalled that nurses would comb their patient’s hair and just sit and chat with patients.

She expressed concern that too many patients nowadays have to make it on their own without that extra care.

She does not recall any bad experiences from patients who would want to abuse nurses by throwing things on them or even spitting at them. She said that patients sensed that nurses were genuinely concerned about them.

Lavia however still believes that nurses in St.Vincent and the Grenadines are the best, compared to others around the world. She recalled when she was receiving medical treatment in the USA, the nurses there were very rough.

She emphasized that nurses are “special people. It is not a job cut out for just anyone.”

Throughout her career, Nurse Lavia cared for thousands of patients. She spent 15 years at the then Kingstown General Hospital (KGH), 8 years at the Lewis Punnett Home and 12 years as a Nursing Administrator back at the KGH, where she did emergencies for a total of 35 years before retiring in 1998.

One may be surpirsed to learn that this nursing legend never attended a secondary school, nor did she attain a degree in nursing. But she has relied on her many years of “hands on experience” which she said, she would not trade for the world.

Lavia reminisced on how nurses used to pass by and touch patients, even if it was just a toe: “I think nurses have to realise that one day, they too could become a patient like me.”

Nurse Lavia knows what it really means to ensure that a patient gets proper care. Today she is at home suffering with Adorned Cystic Casanova Cancer of the face. It is a rare cancer that struck her. So rare that she is only the 19th case in the world with this prognosis. When she started getting sick, she thought it was just a bad case of her sinuses. “When Dr. Thomas took the specimen and got back the results of tests, he made sure that I had two of my closest friends there to support me when I got the bad news.”

She did countless surgeries in February, March, April, May and June 2001.

Doctors in the US had to saw out her jaw-bone on the left side of her face to remove the cancer cells which were in their last stage. The veteran nurse said that there was no real warning about the severity of her condition. Now she is in so much pain that she has to take high doses of pain killers twice a day.

“Doctors had to remove the bone from the left side of my jaw and remove the skin and muscle tissue. They then had to take muscle and skin from other parts of my body to replace the cancerous tissues. I have to take a hand full of pills every day for diabetes, hypertension, an enlarged heart and cholesterol. You never know real pain until you are sick.”

After her surgeries, relatives couldn’t recognise her. Her face was so swollen and disfigured that other patients in the hospital in the US were afraid to look at her.

These days she lives a virtual shut in at her home at Arnos Vale with her only daughter, Lisa.

Nurse Lavia constantly thanks God for her daughter whom she said is heartbroken to see her in so much pain. Lisa has never seen her without the bandages she wear on her face.

“Lisa said that she wants to remember me the way that I was. She has never seen under my bandages and she and other family members, friends and co-workers can’t stand seeing me like this. It makes them cry.

“I guess they want to remember me as the caring nurse who wore my bright red lip stick, and a bright white uniform with her shoulder bag.”

With tears in her eyes, she said that she feels consoled by the persons who would visit or share a kind word through the phone.

Lavia believes that she is today receiving the kindness she gave as a nurse back then. She said nurses like Esther Carmichael, Patricia Allen and Camella Murray have also been caring for her and dressing her bandages. She also thanked her house helper Jessica Lewis for doing her daily chores.

While she is home, she is blessed by the ministry from Praise FM that lifts her spirits.

One of her saddest moments as a nurse was a maternity case where a mother was in the hospital from the first month of her pregnancy up to the delivery. The mother bled to death after she gave birth.

Everyone on the ward cried, and was sad, but a nurse eventually adopted the baby. She remembered how the mother had even knitted a dressing table set for her before she died.

She recalled that she had one thankful patient who used to visit her family with a gift each Christmas and after he died, still visited her.

“One night I was asleep and I felt the side of my bed move as if someone sat down next to me, but when I looked around, no one was there. This was around the time he used to visit and I knew it was him and I quickly told him that I was no longer pleased with his visits.”

Sister Lavia represents a pillar of dignity throughout her suffering. She said nurses are special people who need a kind word of gratitude every now and then. They should never be taken for granted.