In the 1960s, Lowcountry physician Dr. Donald Gatch reported swollen-bellied children infected with intestinal worms and children dying of starvation in Beaufort County.
Roundworm and whipworm, or both, were found in three out of four children through a study of 178 black preschoolers in the Lowcountry, a 1969 New York Times story reported. Malnutrition caused the children to suffer from rickets, intestinal parasites and scurvy.
The needs of Lowcountry families were brought to Congress in 1968 when Beaufort community leaders Thomas Barnwell Jr. and William Grant testified before the Committee on Nutrition and Hunger.
By 1970, Beaufort-Jasper Comprehensive Health Services was formed to tackle these problems, but people were needed to administer health care. The community elected female leaders to help poverty-stricken families in Beaufort and Jasper counties. This elite group of women, known as Family Healthcare Workers, first had to gain the trust of many families who had never seen a doctor.
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The women performed myriad duties, including helping diabetics learn how to administer injections and driving patients to the hospital or clinic.
They made house calls, often not sure what they would find. If they discovered a family's health was at risk because of an infected water source, lack of indoor plumbing or something as simple as a screen door to keep insects out, they made sure it was taken care of.
Out of 18 female graduates of the first program in 1971, the 11 remaining held a reunion Saturday at Wesley United Methodist Church in Beaufort.
'THE FOOT SOLDIERS'
For more than 14 years, Minister Lillie Mae Young Washington, 80, of Port Royal cared for more 200 families as a Family Healthcare Worker.
When she was nominated by her community to serve Port Royal and Burton, Washington juggled night school and caring for her eight children and husband for a year to become certified.
She might not have delivered any babies, but she was responsible for ensuring mothers-to-be received prenatal care. She also arranged to transport the new mothers and their infants to regular check ups.
Witnessing the healing of her patients was her greatest reward.
"I had one lady who had a terrible sore on her leg," Washington recalled. "I'd visit her and wash her wound and bandage it up, and it healed and that made me feel good."
The rewards also were great for Pearlie Mae Murray Gadson, 69, a Hilton Head Island native. During her training, Gadson also cared for her six children and husband.
Gadson saw her share of poverty.
"We were the foot soldiers," Gadson said. "We would seek out the problems and get the kids to be checked."
Gadson saw the need for fresh water and indoor plumbing.
"The children had parasites," Gadson said. "I saw it here on the island. That's why we went in and helped solve some of that problem."
Running red lights when driving mothers in labor from Hilton Head to the hospital in Beaufort is a keen memory for Gadson.
"It was so nerve-wracking that I had to drive from Hilton Head to Beaufort," she said.
To this day, people still thank her for getting them to the hospital, Gadson said.
"My reward was seeing people heal," Gadson said. "You learned so much compassion for those patients."