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Rx for 1970s nursing shortage at HVCH: Filipino nurses

J. H. Osborne • Jan 24, 2020 at 6:00 PM

A few days ago, a friend who works in healthcare asked if I knew about nurses being brought to Kingsport from the Philippines. Of course I knew. It was big news. I might only have been 10 years old back when it first started. But even then, I kept up with big news. It probably helped that at the time the Filipino nurses were big news, one of my parents’ renters, Clenis Babb, was a nurse and fueled my curiosity about all things medical. She and her husband, Phil, had even let me tag along on the first public tours of the “new” hospital, Indian Path — privately owned and considered posh compared to Holston Valley Community Hospital.

“Philippine Recruiting May End Nursing Shortage Here” read the lead front page headline of the Kingsport Times on July 29, 1971.

According to that article, HVCH representatives were set to travel the next week to Manila to “scout” for nurses, in what the hospital’s director described as “a major step toward solving the hospital’s shortage of nursing personnel.” The interviewing team hoped to select 25 nurses. After selection, they’d apply for visas to come to the U.S. — to Kingsport. They’d work at HVCH and “be paid the same salaries as similarly qualified nurses and also receive the same fringe benefits.”

At the time, HVCH employed 94 full-time and 33 part-time nurses, in addition to the new hires from the Philippines.

On Jan. 4, 1972, an article announced 27 nurses were expected to arrive, by plane, on Jan. 11. But they didn’t, according to an article published on the 11th.

“As the big jet pulled into Tri-Cities Airport a hospital delegation moved forward to greet the arriving nurses,” the article reads in part. “Smiles turned to looks of consternation as it was realized the nurses were not aboard the plane.” It turned out they’d had a six-hour delay at a stop in California. The group had left Manila on Jan. 9 and made stops in Hong Kong, Guam, Honolulu, San Francisco, and Atlanta. When they arrived on a later flight, there were only 23. Three were delayed due to paperwork, but expected to arrive a few days later. One had dropped out of the program.

Of the 26 who ultimately made it and went to work here, 24 were women and two were men. They were mainly in their 20s. All had B.S. degrees and were chosen from applicants at three major nursing colleges in their homeland. They were in the U.S. on one-year work visas, which could be renewed twice — for a total of three years. Once here, they had to pass the Tennessee State Nursing Board’s exam and undergo six weeks of training “to grow accustomed to the way American hospitals are run.”

All were fluent in English. But regional dialect, at times, proved challenging, according to later articles — one of which indicated food might have been the biggest adjustment for some. They were surprised rice wasn’t on many restaurant menus. They tried grits instead and ... said they were beginning to like them. Some went home after a year. Others stayed longer. And more came, a second contingency arriving in September 1973.

Within a few years, the Filipino nurses dropped from the headlines. But they haven’t been forgotten.

Ned Jilton II is a page designer and photographer for the Times News as well as the writer of the “Marching with the 19th” Civil War series. You can contact him at njilton@timesnews.net.