Over the course of my first year in Jamaica, 1960 , I came to know our Swiss nurse, Louise Reimann. She was in her fifties and had dedicated her life to helping the poor people of Jamaica in whatever way she could. I never met Mother Theresa of Calcutta, but Louise is at least as dedicated. Louise would go out into the bush and find people who needed medical attention. She would do for them what she could, and if that was not enough, she would see to their transport to the best hospitals and make sure that there was no cost to the poor for these services. Her services to the lay missionaries were more than purely medical. She offered romantic counselling, and fought the onset of illnesses with her Swiss "Groque" remedy and a prescription for sleep. I wish to enclose a newspaper article about Louise, "Boozy" as we christened her, written thirty five years later (1995), in the Jamaican Herald newspaper.
Working with the people of Above Rocks
Louise Reiman speaks of her joys
BY GILLIAN SCOTT
"These are her people now. These humble, hardworking residents of simple means in Above Rocks, up in the cool St. Catherine hills-ever since she stepped off a plane at the Norman Manley International Airport on a two-year mission and ended up staying 42 years.
"People ask her all the time, she chuckles, which one she likes better, Switzerland- the country she left for good, or Jamaica- her adopted country. The answer is pretty easy, she tells them:"Jamaica is my homeland. Switzerland is my fatherland." Years later she sums it up in these neat words:"I've been here 42 years. It feels like one."
The woman we drove miles through hair-raising grades and sharp hairpin twists to see, is Louise Reiman, an 80 year-old Swiss nurse with a bag of poignant, sometimes zany memories, and a fierce love for the Above Rocks health centre she founded some five years ago. She came to Jamaica in 1959; to Above Rocks one year later. From her verandah, where the soft breeze flutters like little carefree ghosts, she can survey the Above Rocks hills, her people going about their business and the health clinic below where her life in this adopted country truly began. Along one of the steep paths that score the St. Mary Mission grounds, the SUNDAY HERALD first saw her negotiating a steep path with strong nippy steps, her head covered with short-cut white waves, eyes watching her step. I call to her. She stops, smiles softly, and says with a lilting French/German accent, "Hello".
We sit down, at right angles from each other, and when she spies the camera, says without guile:"You want to take pictures? I have to comb my hair." Almost on cue, she starts talking about the clinic, charmingly unaware that we could be interested in her life story. She speaks glowingly of its Swiss and American benefactors. Now, she says gently, the clinic needs Jamaicans to donate cash and kind too so that the clinic can survive. "The Swiss have done so much" she says, "Now I want to see Jamaicans respond". With expenses of running the clinic at an estimated $210,000 per year, and inflation and devaluation eating up our overseas donations, a Jamaican hand could come in...well...handy.
Doctors charge dirt cheap fees of $40 per patient(1960), and the center charges 1/3 the prices on medication in Kingston. The center, situated at the front of the St. Mary Mission grounds, is a lifesaver for thousands in Above Rocks and its outlying districts. It is equipped with a mobile clinic that makes visits to hinterland villages, does inoculations, pregnancy tests, care of mothers and children and all sorts of medical and dental care.
A dream come true
This was the dream Louise Reiman had for the lush, quiet community high above the hot city when she came to it in 1960. Her life in Jamaica had started a year earlier when she landed here from the United States to work in Kingston.
"The minute I arrived I knew immediately where I was going to stay. There was no doubt about it...no second thoughts," she said. Her life outside of Switzerland started earlier than 1959- as early as 1950, when she travelled on the French ship,"Liberte" to New York then took a five-day Greyhound bus ride to San Diego in the huge state of California, United States. Louise Reiman, then a 38 year old nurse with no family to hold her back and few if any commitments went to the proverbial gold-lined streets of the States to make her fortune(in a manner of speaking). "I really must say, from the minute I left Switzerland, Providence led me. I was led by Providence. From the first day.
She arrived in San Diego, not knowing a word of English. If she wanted food, she used her fingers to communicate. She was offered a job with a group of Doctors and stayed with them for nine years. In the first five years she saved frugally and built up a nice nest egg. "I wanted to save for my old age. I wanted to be independent," she said. After she built up enough cash reserves Louise really started to live. "I bought everything I wanted to buy...Took vacations to Mexico, Seattle, California, naturally Arizona. Any Saturday afternoon I had my suitcase ready to go." But after four years of the same thing, she says in her own words, "I had enough. I thought life must have another purpose." So Louise took pen to paper and wrote doctors on various missions. A priest from Jamaica wrote her saying, "I have a well equipped clinic, come immediately".
"When I went there, there was not even an aspirin" she grins. "I started with one of our medic ladies and she showed me around. The 'clinic' in Above Rocks turned out to be a two-room place. There Louise served with some "happy-go-lucky" bunch of volunteers. "We had the most wonderful group you could ever imagine. I don't think you could find in 100 years a group that harmonized the way we did."
Every five years or so she returned to Switzerland, and while there begged funds for the mobile clinic. With the mobile clinic in hand, "we grew and grew" and from there built the Above Rocks health center on the grounds of the St. Mary Church mission. Up to two years ago, she said, she was the only nurse catering to the needs of the thousands. In 1991 another nurse joined the ranks for the first time, alleviating much of the pressure.
Never call her old
Miss Reiman says of nursing: "I love the contact with the people...to be able to help them. I wouldn't do anything else if I could be young again". Correction. Younger. "I can't imagine I am old, you know?" hazel eyes twinkling. She used to hitch hike without fear up until a couple of months ago and does practically everything for herself. The other day she walked into a clinic and the woman announced to the Doctor, "An old lady is here to see you". "What did you say?" Louise asked her. Now in her twilight years she wants to see the clinic develop to the potential she knows it's capable of achieving. She would love to have an ECG machine one day and a day care center so the mothers can leave their children in safe hands while they go out to work. Having retired from the health center a couple of days ago, she says she will turn her full attention to social work among the people she loves and admires so much. "They teach gratitude. When they have nothing, Jamaicans always say it could be worse...They thank the Lord for everything...Our people are so happy with so little."
At first she wanted to leave everything she had to people like them- the poor who barely squeezed an existence from their income. Now she says, she has changed her mind and her Will so that all that she has will be left to the health centre. For Louise Reiman, it is the best expression of her love- to keep health care at a minimal cost for thousands instead of giving it to a few. "I don't think the Lord will take me before the project is finished," and she adds, "That is what I live for". Nevertheless, Louise Reimann has written on a piece of paper instructions for key persons to follow when she dies; where to bury her; who shall carry her coffin; who shall preach the sermon; which relatives to notify. Everything is there, in black and white. But make no mistake, she isn't making plans for God's kingdom quite yet. Leaning forward in her chair she says charmingly with that lilting accent, "Right now, lady, I don't feel like dying."
[End of Newspaper Article]
[End of Newspaper Article]
One day she told me about an elderly couple she had discovered in a wattle and daub hut in the bush. She asked Chuck Duncan and me to accompany her to their hut. When we arrived, we saw the old man(75) in the bamboo lean-to kitchen behind the house, stirring heated water in a large iron pot. When “Boozy”, our loving nickname for “der nurse”, asked Bram(Abraham Edwards) what he was cooking, he showed us the rind of a hand of bananas (without the bananas). He was making a tea for his wife as they were out of food. When we went into the hut, we discovered Mrs.Edwards lying on a wooden platform as a bed, and covered with layers of newspapers for blankets. Louise subsequently discovered that Bram’s wife had suffered a stroke and was paralyzed down the left side of her body. Later that day we transported Mrs. Edwards to an ambulance and saw that she was admitted at Saint Vincent’s Hospital in Kingston.
Bram was moved closer to the school in a vacant hut nearby. In the hut he had a bed, a crude table with pots and utensils, and a kerosene lamp. The hut had a wooden door, a wooden cover over a window opening, and an earthen floor, with a makeshift bamboo kitchen outside. Every night at the school, we teachers would eat together. They’d always be leftovers. Chuck or I would take turns carrying a pot of these leftovers to Mr. Edwards. It would be after sunset when we’d get there and Bram would eat his supper gratefully, we’d smoke and sit and talk with this wise man. He had never learned to read or write, but he’d memorized huge amounts of the Bible, or poems he’d heard, and he possessed depths of wisdom from all the goodness he was and all the sufferings that he had endured. In all my life, I had never met a man who lived the Sermon on the Mount as had Mr.Edwards. He never said a bad word towards any one, not even to those related to him who had abandoned him in his present plight.
Many years later the memory of this man would be at the center of my prayer, as it was when a letter came from Boozy to me in the monastery telling me that after Bram’s wife died, he had walked out into the bush and was never seen again. The local people started a rumor that he had been taken into heaven directly as had Elijah.