After three decades of seeing countless St. John women through their family planning, pregnancy, and women’s health journeys, Veronica O’Brien-Powell has retired from her post as certified nurse midwife at Myrah Keating Smith Community Health Center.
In a healthcare sector where providers often rush through each appointment in a manner that could be considered detached and depersonalized, Veronica’s patience, attention, and efforts to care for each patient’s complete self greatly benefited St. John’s women. In fact, she was so revered by her patients that a Facebook post seeking sentiments on Veronica and her special kind of care was quickly met with more quotes than could be included in a single story; Click here for a full compilation of what the island’s women had to say about their time with Veronica.
Given the way she took to caring for women so naturally, it may come as a surprise that health care was not where she saw herself developing a career.
“I thought I’d be majoring in English or teaching,” says Veronica. “Then once I’d completed a year of college, I ran into a high school friend who was in nursing school. She said it was so much fun, and the room and board was free. I didn’t choose this profession; it chose me.”
After completing nursing school in her native New York, Veronica joined the Peace Corps which took her to Yemen, where her medical knowledge came in handy. The village where she was stationed was in need of a midwife, and Veronica estimates she delivered around 200 babies there before she even gained the title of certified nurse midwife.
“Once I started working with pregnant women, I knew that was it,” she says.
When her stint with the Peace Corps came to an end, Veronica returned to New York, where she studied midwifery at SUNY Downstate College of Medicine in Brooklyn. She was firm in her desire to stay in New York to be near family when she graduated in 1981. And then a recruiter from the Knud Hansen Hospital on St. Thomas contacted her.
“They really needed midwives in St. Thomas at the old Knud Hansen Hospital,” says Veronica. “That recruiter was the most relentless person I’ve ever encountered. I kept saying, ‘No way, I want to be in Brooklyn,’ and she never stopped.”
Finally, Veronica decided she would at least allow herself a vacation to the Caribbean as a graduation gift of sorts, and while there, she would go on the job interview. She walked into the experience with five specific criteria in mind that must be met for her to even consider taking the St. Thomas midwife job.
“Not one thing on my list matched, but somehow it just felt like, ‘Wow, I’d like to work here for a little while,’” she recalls.
Though she lived and worked on St. Thomas, she spent all her free time on St. John. With the planned 1983 opening of the Myrah Keating Smith Community Health Center on St. John, hospital officials suggested the new clinic would be a good fit for Veronica. It was a “big dream” for babies to be born on St. John, says Veronica, with Dr. Roy Lester Schneider pushing for St. Johnian women to be able to deliver their children on their home island, but eventually it was decided that the staff required would be too numerous.
“Back in the day, Myrah Keating delivered my husband at home on St. John, but as progress happens, liability issues come to the forefront,” says Veronica of the administration’s decision.
So while Veronica did deliver babies on St. John when their delivery was imminent, making a trip to the hospital on St. Thomas infeasible, her role at Myrah Keating largely consisted of family planning and women’s health. She initially worked with a women’s health team made up of a nurse, nurse’s aid, secretary, and others.
“Over the last 20 years or so, whenever someone left, they were never replaced,” Veronica says. “It dwindled until I was the last man standing. I kept hoping and praying and writing letters and demanding I get some assistance, but I finally realized that help was not on the way and I had to figure things out myself.”
Veronica made her own appointments, answered calls from patients, delivered specimens to the lab, and all the other tasks that were previously handled by the women’s health team, all while delivering focused, compassionate care to the women of St. John. She was eligible for retirement three years ago when she turned 60, but she wasn’t ready to let go of her role just yet.
“I couldn’t imagine not doing what I do,” says Veronica. “Then, a dozen Peace Corps volunteers who I served with in Yemen decided to have a reunion on St. John this month. They canceled when Irma hit, but one of them had said to me, ‘You might be retired by then. You could hang out with us the whole time.’ There was something about her saying that that made me really consider the idea.”
When Irma hit St. John and completely destroyed Veronica’s home, she says it was like the final part of the Rubik’s cube had fallen into place.
“I thought, it’s time for something new,” she says.
Veronica celebrated her retirement with a getaway to Puerto Rico, which also involved efforts to source windows for her home’s rebuild. A St. Thomas midwife will see patients at the DeCastro Clinic once a week, and Veronica isn’t getting out of the healthcare sector entirely—she will see patients at the Cruz Bay Family Practice office two days a week.
“I don’t see myself retiring and doing nothing,” she says. “It feels great to be liberated from so much responsibility, but I’m looking forward to continuing to see patients.”
Veronica is enjoying dabbling in art and wants to have her own garden. She looks forward to traveling more and spending time with family, and she’ll oversee the reconstruction of her home, which she hopes will be a simple affair.
“I want to spend very little time inside my house,” she says. “I wouldn’t even mind living in a basement. I don’t want things; I just want to spend my time making memories.”
As Veronica reflects on the nearly three decades of care she’s provided to St. John women, she recognizes that the time and attention she was able to give to her patients is unique in the healthcare world.
“I feel so blessed to have been able to practice the way I was trained to practice—to take care of the whole person in every way,” says Veronica. “With the way the medical pharmaceutical complex has evolved in the states, it’s like a conveyor belt of people. Get them in, get them out. It makes me sad, and it makes me aware of how lucky I am to have practiced the way that I do.”