ALBANY — Queen Victoria Jenkins, who will be 80 later this month, is the last of 10 siblings. She also has the distinction of having been one of the first black nurses at Phoebe Putney Memorial Hospital.
Jenkins is a native of Waycross who is living now in Albany with her niece. She graduated from Center High School in 1957 and went to the Grady Memorial Hospital School of Nursing — graduating in 1960, nine days before her mother died.
“It wasn’t much money back then,” she said of the nursing profession.
As the years went by, Jenkins said she lost her siblings due to a range of causes such as accidental drownings and lifestyle problems. Her father developed a drinking problem, which he died from in 1962, and her mother was unable to read.
These are among the many memories that remain sharp for Jenkins after nearly eight decades. There were no phones in her early years, at least not in the neighborhood she grew up in, so adults communicated by shouting from house to house.
She had a support system that made sure she always had something to eat. Her mother in particular was adamant that she and her siblings get an education.
“My mother said she wanted to go to school,” Jenkins said.
At the time Jenkins was looking at nursing school, the cost was $394 for three years. Room and board was free, and students got three meals and a snack each day.
“The upperclassmen would teach us the ropes,” she said.
Jenkins went to Tuskegee University to receive psychiatric training, which she said did not appeal to her. At the age of 20, she started working at Phoebe.
She passed the state nursing boards on the first try. Her mother’s death being so close to graduation did result in her having to make up the time lost leaving school to attend her mother’s funeral.
“My mom died and I had to come back to work,” Jenkins said. “I didn’t want to go to Waycross, so I landed in Albany.”
She would eventually marry and have three sons and live through the Flood of 1994, which she said destroyed some of her personal belongings. Another one of her siblings, a sister, also went into health care — going to New York to work as a licensed practical nurse in mental health.
Jenkins said one of her sisters did “a little bit of everything” to help support their mother in her final years. While working toward her nursing degree, Jenkins had to make sure there was enough time and money to eat breakfast to maintain her own health.
The valedictorian in her class, she was offered a small amount of money to go to Albany State College, even while she saw football players get four-year scholarships.
Once she got to Phoebe, she worked the 3 to 11 p.m. shift, as the nurses — and the patients themselves — were still segregated. The security guard came to escort them onto the floor.
“I was there for quite a while before they integrated,” Jenkins said.
She ended up delivering a few babies, although not intentionally. She said she worked in the emergency room only a few times, spending most of her time on the medical floor and eventually on the surgical floor doing many of the same procedures her peers were doing.
All the while she worked with what she had gotten from Grady, which was a diploma.
“I didn’t even try to get no degree,” Jenkins said. “I wanted to work with what I had.”
She worked with patients of all ages with various ailments, and acted in a leadership role to an aide and licensed practical nurse.
“Do only what you are supposed to do,” she would tell her team. “They did a good job. I had to show them what to do.”
When Phoebe did integrate, Jenkins said she was offered a different shift. She eventually did go on the day shift but could not accept it at first because she had a baby at home.
While the racial divide in place then could have acted as a barrier, she did not view it as an obstacle in her day-to-day activities.
“Just get in and out of there and do the work,” Jenkins said of her mindset.
While she was working as a nurse, Jenkins’ husband taught school. He pursued ministry, and older preachers taught him how to manage. Later on, someone who had retired from their career at the hospital would watch over him while Jenkins ran errands.
Asked by The Albany Herald whether she felt she was able to make a difference through her nursing career, Jenkins told the story of one patient who had to stay overnight. Jenkins was responsible for watching him, and when the family left, it was apparent that he was sad to see them go.
When he walked out of the hospital, the staff and security guard were brought in to help find him. He was eventually found at the bus station.
“You are going to meet somebody (who has an impact),” Jenkins said.
She said she could have made more money if she had stayed longer, but decided that 39 years was enough.
“I was tired,” Jenkins said. “My Social Security check was higher than my (nursing) check.”
Reflecting on her upcoming birthday, which is Sept. 19, Jenkins said she is surprised to see it happen. She is the last of her siblings and has diabetes.
“I thought I never would make it to 80,” she said. “All my siblings are gone, and one was a diabetic also.”
The groundbreaking former nurse said she will celebrate her 80th birthday knowing she’d done her best by following her mother’s example.
Jenkins’ family is attempting to collect 80 cards for her birthday celebration. Cards can be sent to 1327 Montego Court, Albany, GA 31705.