Family Photo Albums: Doctors and Nurses

Catherine Norah Egan, pictured far right, with friends, circa early 1940s.

August / September 2013

Catherine Norah “Norrie” Egan

My mother, Norrie Egan, born in Dublin, graduated from St. Vincent’s Hospital/UCD with a Diploma in Radiography in 1940 and worked at St. Mary’s Hospital, Paddington, London during WWII. She was injured during an air raid – not from a bomb – she was cycling her bicycle to work when she was hit by a cab. Though it was wartime, she loved her job and being in London. She had many stories about the war, one being that because she spoke French, she was sent to meet the injured soldiers, French and English, who were brought to England after the Battle of Dunkirk. Another story was of working with St. Mary’s alumnus Sir Alexander Fleming who won the Nobel Prize in 1945 for his discovery of penicillin. He was conducting a trial using penicillin on returning army vets who had contacted syphilis. The trial involved follow-up x-rays, and thus they met.

After the bicycle accident Norrie returned to Ireland to recover from a broken pelvis, and honored her mother’s wishes not to return to London until after the war. She took what was to be a temporary posting at Nenagh Hospital in Tipperary, met the man who became my father, Patrick Harty, a farmer, with whom she had 13 children.

But medicine was her first love, and after her youngest started school she returned to Nenagh Hospital’s X-Ray Department, where she worked until she retired at 65. Soon after retiring, my father having passed away some years before, she immigrated to San Francisco to be with her many children and grandchildren who had settled there.

She was an amazing woman, ahead of her time. Her father was a doctor in the British Army and her young life was spent in India, Scotland, and Jamaica, where her father is buried. Following his untimely death the family returned to Ireland and she went to a convent boarding school in Northern Ireland. Throughout her life she never lost her love of medicine or her love of travel. She encouraged her children to spread their wings with the refrain “Travel broadens the mind.”  She passed away on New Year’s Eve, 2008. – Patricia Harty

 

Two Saints and a Surgeon

Nellie O’Connell

In the 1930s and 40s the neighborhood doctor was vital to the community. By Emmett O’Connell

Dr. Henry Kubel’s office was on the ground floor of a five-story-over-basement apartment house of the type with low-rise stoops leading from the sidewalk up to the hallway entrance. Across the broad cobble-stone thoroughfare and trolley tracks of 138th Street stood the Gothic-style edifice of St. Luke’s Catholic Church. Rising gently from Brook Avenue, 138th Street reached its crescent just beyond.  A hollow-sounding “gong” would announce each patient entering Dr. Kubel’s office. Inevitably, they would have to shuffle in sideways as the office door struck the leg of a chair in a crowded waiting room. Body odors mixed with the astringent smells of antiseptic lotions and bandages, but most notably it was always warm. Even on the coldest days, the heavy cast iron radiators hissed and gurgled a chorus of comfort. Dr. Kubel was slightly built with a widow’s peak of steel-gray hair. He wore wire-framed glasses over his twinkling eyes and sported a small 1930-style mustache. Always smiling, he greeted each patient or supplicant by name. You would imagine he was greeting an old friend not seen in years. Jewish doctors held a special position in the Irish, Italian, Eastern European immigrant mix that made up much of the South Bronx. Catholic mothers-of-five could discuss matters with a Jewish doctor that couldn’t be mentioned elsewhere. Working men of the 1930s, often of socialist inclination, could seek character references for employment from the only professional dignitary they were likely to know, complete with personal letterhead, initials before and after their names, and a telephone number to boot. Dr. Kubel’s office served as a secular confessional in addition to a medical practice. He, and others like him, provided much of the adhesive that held together the disparate social structure of the neighborhood. In the evenings, he made his rounds of house calls. If unsure of directions to the building or apartment, he would ask for assistance from any of the young men gathered at street corners or in hallways. As likely as not, he would be personally guided to his destination. Everybody knew Dr. Kubel. There were five children in the O’Connell household, and Dr. Kubel was a frequent visitor when the usual childhood lumps, bumps and fevers needed curing. My mother always had the two-dollar doctor’s fee (that’s right, two dollars) ready on the kitchen table, along with a fresh cup of tea. If I was to be the subject of his ministrations, the story would be told again how special I was, as it was Dr. Kubel who brought me into the world, and how he had to leave his wedding day celebrations to make the delivery. The story was told to me so often, and from such a young age, I never questioned the circumstances. Some forty years later, in the early 1970s, I finally discovered the full details. By the 1960s, the O’Connell children had grown up and shipped out to Rockland County, Texas, and Europe. My parents retired on my father’s modest pension and, after 47 years in New York, moved back to their native Ireland. In 1974, my mother was taken seriously ill and I went to visit her in hospital in Dublin. When I inquired of her condition the doctors mentioned the necessity of getting a full disclosure from my mother of previous illnesses and operations. Apparently, she had been less than forthcoming. The doctors had noted during examination a large scar across her abdomen, which was too extensive to be appendicitis. What caused it, they had no idea. I gently chided her for not helping “the poor doctors” sort out the mystery. “Oh that,” she said. “It’s a story of long ago. We were living in a cold-water flat on 136th Street, near where the Triboro Bridge begins. I was heavy with child when severe pains struck my stomach and side. Really bad pains,” she added, placing a hand on her abdomen. Dr. Kubel was summoned. A pregnant mother in distress was high on his priority list. Hastily, she was admitted to the public ward in the old Lincoln Hospital and an operation was scheduled. It was serious, Dr. Kubel told her. The baby would be lost, aborted. “I refused the operation,” she said “and Dr. Kubel pleaded that both our lives, mine and the baby’s, would be lost if action wasn’t taken. Still, I refused to lose the child.” Dr. Kubel left the ward and returned with the surgeon who was to carry out the critical operation. “He was a blond-haired, blue-eyed Jew,” she said, “and I have prayed for him every day of my life since then.” In a final attempt at persuasion, the surgeon spoke of the dangers and risks involved unless the suggested provision was followed.“Still I refused. Dr. Kubel was crying by now. He was sure it would all end in tragedy. The surgeon promised to do everything possible to save the baby, and I was wheeled away to the operating theater.” The following day she awoke, groggy and sore, but still carrying the child. “The surgeon was as good as his word, and two months later I gave birth to a healthy baby. Do you know which of the five of ye it was?” she queried. “No,” said I, in a monosyllabic reply, my mind now frozen in the unfolding drama. “It was you,” she said, pointing a finger in my direction, “and when I wonder how it was that you got on so well in life, I put it down to God making up for the hard time you had coming into the world.” We buried my mother shortly after her telling me that story, and at her funeral mass I lit a candle and said a silent prayer: Thanks be to God, to my mother, to the blond-haired, blue-eyed surgeon, and to Dr. Kubel.

 

The Carrolls

This is a photo of my parents, Anne Connolly and David Carroll, right after they were married in Ireland. They met at St. Vincent’s Hospital in Dublin, where my father worked as a doctor and my mother was a nurse. In 1971, he was offered a position at UCSF in San Francisco. After he was offered the job they got married in Ireland and then moved to California.

My older sister Aisling was born in 1972, I was born in 1973, and my younger brother Rory was born in 1977. My father worked on staff at St. Mary’s Hospital in San Francisco as the infectious disease consultant. In 1980 he opened an internal medical practice in Stonestown, San Francisco. After a short illness, my father died of lymphoma on August 10, 1981. My mother raised the three of us on her own, and she was greatly supported by all our Irish and American friends in the Bay Area. She returned to the medical field and worked at a pediatrician’s office in Marin County for 15 years.

On New Years Eve 1994, she was introduced by friends to Christopher Cochrane, a Scottish businessman. They were married on March 21, 1998. Although he’s not Irish, he is a fellow Celt, and Chris has been a great addition to our family. – Louise Carroll

 

Dr. Daniel O’Keeffe

The O’Keeffe family was driven by the Angelo Normans from their original homeland in East Cork. If I am not mistaken, the original Irish spelling is O’Caoimh, which means they were descendants of Caemh. The family is descended from Art Caemh, whose father was King of Munster in the 9th century. Our family originated in County Cork around Dunhallow, a name most commonly found in County Cork.

My grandfather migrated over from Ireland into Canada, and then from Canada down to Hadley, New York. He was previously married and had three children. After his wife died, he met Margaret Maginn, whose maiden name was Margaret McSweeney. One of fifteen, she was a widow with one daughter. My grandfather married Margaret McSweeney-Maginn, and together they had seven children: Jim, John, Dan, Ed, Leo, Marguerite and Anna. Often my grandmother would say to my grandfather, “David, your children and my children are fighting with our children.”

In the O’Keeffe family, of the five boys, there ended up being three physicians and two pharmacists. My father, Jim O’Keeffe, was the oldest and never graduated from high school, but still passed an equivalency test to go to Albany Pharmacy. He attended Albany Pharmacy for one year when he came back home, worked on the farm and sent his younger brother to Albany Medical, where he spent a year. He came back, worked on the farm and sent my dad back to pharmacy school. With all the brothers working and taking time off, three became physicians and two became pharmacists. Of the two girls in the family, Margaret and Anna were both school teachers.

Subsequently our family has been affiliated with medicine for a long time. My uncles were the first generation; I am the second generation. My three children, Jim, Dan and Kate are all physicians. They are the third generation. Now, my granddaughter, Katie, is the fourth generation of O’Keeffe’s to attend Albany Medical College.

The original physicians were Dr. John, Dr. Dan and Dr. Ed. I am Dr. Dan II, my son is Dr. Dan III. Dr. John had two sons, John and David, and my uncle Ed had one son, Dr. Ed. My uncles all worked on the farm part time to help pay their tuition. There was a famous club on Albany called the Fort Orange Club which would often feature venison. My father and uncles would supply venison to this club to help pay their tuition through school. The work ethic of my father and uncles fits with the O’Keeffe family motto: “forti et fideli nihil difficile” (To the strong and faithful, nothing is difficult.) – Daniel O’Keefe

 

Jeanne Fergus O’Donnell

My mom, Jeanne Fergus O’Donnell, was a nurse for almost her whole life. She graduated from St. Vincent’s Nursing School in New York City around 1958.

When I was growing up, my parents worked multiple jobs to support the family. In addition to working on Wall Street, my dad would teach business at the New School at night. My mom would take care of the family and then work nights as a nurse. She worked very, very hard – both my parents did. They really inspired and instilled in me a passion for work, commitment to family, and an incredibly strong work ethic.

My mom also, in addition to working and taking care of the family, went back to school and got her bachelor’s degree in nursing from St. Joseph’s out on Long Island. I’d watch her type her papers and study in between working and cooking and cleaning (we children certainly weren’t the most helpful in that regard).

Eventually she decided to become a school nurse, and she absolutely loved it. She spent almost 30 years working with elementary school kids. All the kids loved her and she loved them. She just retired two years ago at 73.

I respect my dad’s entrepreneurship and work ethic; my mom’s determination in going back to school. From them, I only know one speed, which is, if you’re going to do something you make sure you do it well. – Jim O’Donnell

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