Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Mary Breckinridge Editorial

Mrs. Breckinridge
 2011 was the 50th anniversary of Hyden’s Mary Breckinridge Festival.  For half a century, the proud residents of Leslie County have come together the first weekend in October to celebrate the life and legacy of Mary Breckinridge, a remarkable visionary to whom many in this county literally owe their lives. 

Mary Breckinridge came to Leslie County in 1925 with intentions of helping some of the most underserved and needy Americans.  She developed a system to bring quality healthcare to the families of Leslie County at a time when Leslie was one of the most remote, unreachable places in the entire United States.  Having neither hospitals nor doctors to work with was not a deterrent to Ms. Breckinridge.  On horseback, she traveled up and down every holler in this county, and probably some of the neighboring ones, providing our families with professional medical care, treating them with dignity and respect.  

Ms. Breckinridge was the first person to use the concept of nurse-midwifery in the United States, making Hyden, KY, the nation’s birthplace for this field of healthcare.  She founded the Frontier Nursing Service which recently has morphed into Frontier Nursing University, the largest and foremost midwifery educational facility in the United States.
Perhaps more impressive than anything, though, are the thousands and thousands of FNS babies that are walking among us in Leslie County.  They are our preachers, teachers, mechanics, lawyers, accountants, bankers, supermarket check-out clerks, librarians, and house cleaners.  They are our neighbors, our friends, and our family.  Everyone who lives in Leslie County knows at least one person who was born with the help of a nurse-midwife from the Frontier Nursing Service.  My mother, along with all of her brothers and sisters, were brought into the world thanks FNS nurse-midwives.
(Statue of Mary Breckinridge in Hyden)
We deserve to be very proud of this legacy.  The University in our county has produced nurse-midwives that are working not only throughout the United States, but all over the world.  Most of the things people outside of our area hear about us are negative: drug problems, Mountain Dew mouth, poor and helpless people; but, Frontier Nursing University is educating professional nurse-midwives every semester, and those students are returning to their homes in every corner of our nation.  I can only hope that FNU is also instilling in them the heritage and vision of Mary Breckinridge, and her love for the people of this county as well.

The reason I question this at all is the 2011 Mary Breckinridge Festival parade last Saturday.  In every festival parade I can remember watching in downtown Hyden, and I have watched more than I care to share, a Frontier Nursing Service Courier (the FNS Courier program is another excellent program started by Ms. Breckinridge) led the parade walking with a riderless horse, in homage to the extraordinary Mary Breckinridge.  This year there was no riderless horse, no courier, no tribute to Ms. Breckinridge at all.  After the parade was over, I knew something was amiss, but could not quite put a finger on it.  When I finally realized what it was, that Ms. Breckinridge had not been honored at all, I was saddened and disappointed.

We all know the turmoil FNS and Mary Breckinridge Hospital has been through in the past year.  The struggle, resulting in the formation of Frontier Nursing University and the ARH system purchasing the hospital has been emotional and hurtful to many.  For years, the Mary Breckinridge Hospital was FNS’ public persona to the people of Leslie County.  Now that it no longer belongs to them, my hope is that they will find a new way to connect with the people who they have served, helped, and nurtured for nearly a hundred years. 

Change can be difficult, but great things can result from it.  One of Ms. Breckinridge’s strongest beliefs was that she must involve the local community in order to be successful. She stated many times her intention was to work through the community, not for the community.  As Frontier Nursing University begins its new life without Mary Breckinridge Hospital, I hope its leaders echo its remarkable founder’s sentiment.  I hope they remain involved in our community.  We desperately need them to do so. 

I hope that the riderless horse was just something that was accidently missed or fell through the cracks this year, and not a harbinger of more neglect of heritage and tradition to come.  Mary Breckinridge, and our county, deserves more respect than that.
(Mrs. Breckinridge and her beloved horse.)


  1. Thanks for honoring her story to mountain folk and flatlanders alike.

  2. Thank you so much Keith for writing this. Ms. Breckinridge means so much to so many. As a nurse, she is one of the reasons why I work at our hospital. Her legacy is such that we who work there still hope to continue, To care for our community. For her to not be commemorated was a shame and a disgrace. Thank you for this lovely tribute to our heritage.

  3. Very nice , it's a main part of leslie counties history if you ask me , and was a well put together story , you may want to critique my blog if you wish as a fellow leslie county member lol