Frances Ryan, renowned Montserrat nurse and pioneer in mental health care, dies at 94

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All photos courtesy Ryan family
Nurse Frances Ryan was a staunch Adventist and served as a church elder in Montserrat and Miami.

Frances Ryan will be most remembered for her three decades as a nurse in Montserrat. But her impact went much deeper. She was a pioneer in many respects, including being the first woman to reach Chances Peak following the Pan Am plane crash in 1965. She changed the paradigm about mental health in Montserrat and was not afraid to embrace challenges or change. She was a “strapping” woman who was physically and mentally strong. She was a mother, staunch Adventist, mean Scrabble player, one-time cricket star, treasured friend, and so much more.

“Nurse Frances” passed away Wednesday, December 6, 2023, in Miami, Florida, following a prolonged illness. She was 94 years old. She died 38 days following the death of her daughter Lauretta, who succumbed to cancer at 67. For a time, the two were in hospice care together, just one room apart.

“She was tough as a mother and always told us, ‘Know better, do better,’ ” says Yvonne Ryan, Nurse Frances’ eldest daughter. “She was big on education and taught us early how to cook and wash so we can take care of ourselves and our grandmother. Also, church was a must.”

Frances Ann Ryan was born March 14, 1929, in lower Streatham in eastern Montserrat. She attended St. Mary’s Anglican School in Plymouth. She did not attend secondary school. Instead she went into farming, assisting her mother, then worked in the kitchen at the Coconut Hill Hotel in Town Hill. She was later hired by popular downtown variety store owner Annie Eid as a domestic helper. When Mrs. Eid found out that Frances could type, she took her to work in the store downstairs.

BECOMING A NURSE

The Eid family home and business was located on the corner of Parliament and Harney streets, just across from the police station. From the second-floor verandah, Frances would watch the St. John’s Ambulance Brigade, which trained there. The SJAB is an international voluntary organization dedicated to teaching First-Aid. They were often present at crowd events in case someone suffered a medical emergency. The “St. John’s” name had no affiliation with St. John’s village in Montserrat or the capital of Antigua, as some assumed. Frances became an SJAB member and learned First-Aid. The Brigade trainer, who was the island’s Matron (top nurse), thought Frances would make a great nurse, so she hired her. At the time, women who were unmarried and had children faced a difficult task getting jobs within the civil service. But the Matron fought for Frances. At age 31 and the mother of two daughters, Frances entered the nursing field in 1960 and was trained at Glendon Hospital.

Frances Ryan is pictured in her St. John’s Ambulance Brigade uniform, circa 1960.

Nurses in Montserrat are normally addressed and identified by their surname. But when Frances’ career began, there was already a “Nurse Ryan”. So to avoid any mix-up, the newcomer was called “Nurse Frances”. Some in the public thought “Frances” was her surname and even spelled it “Francis”.

Nurse Frances worked as a regular nurse and midwife for about a decade before migrating into the mental health field. That came about when Chief Medical Officer Dr. Desmond Wooding sent her to Antigua to check on the welfare of mental patients who were sent there from Montserrat. Appalled by the conditions at the institute, Nurse Frances insisted that the patients be brought back home. She refurbished the former tuberculosis ward at Glendon Hospital and housed the patients there. The ward was eventually closed, and the patients were allowed to reassimilate into the community after being treated.

In 1972, she officially accepted an offer to become Montserrat’s first mental health nurse, and she traveled to Barbados for training. In a 1978 article in the Montserrat Mirror, she stated: “I like looking after mental patients. Maybe it’s because most other nurses tend to shy away from it. You have to know what you’re doing and be prepared to put up with a lot.”

The article further stated that Nurse Frances was responsible for treating up to 150 mentally ill residents of Montserrat. Her duties transcended medical care. She sought employment and housing for many of the patients and would conduct follow-ups to check on their progress and well-being. During the height of her tenure in the 1970s, she was a virtual one-person operation. She sometimes had to physically restrain patients, including men, and administer injections. She also had to battle the often callous attitude toward the mentally ill. In fact there was a running joke among locals whenever someone misbehaved: “I’m going to call Nurse Frances for you!”

Nurse Frances fought against the notion that Montserrat needed a mental institution. She believed that community nursing was suffice and that the mentally ill would function better if allowed to mix with the general population while being treated. She also implored the public to refrain from teasing or harassing the mentally challenged.

“She was kind, she was friendly and she was very brave,” says retired nurse Mary Cooper, a contemporary of Nurse Frances. “She really cared about the mentally challenged. Some people were afraid of her because of the injections she used to give some of the patients, but she was a very compassionate person.”

A woman of many talents, Nurse Frances plays the trombone.

CONQUERING CHANCES PEAK

Nurse Frances made history on September 17, 1965, when a Pan Am aircraft crashed into Chances mountain in southeastern Montserrat, killing all 30 aboard. She spoke about that day during an interview with the Montserrat Mirror.

“When I got to work, the Matron told me there was a plane crash somewhere. She sent me out with Joe [Buffonge] and James [Daley],” ambulance driver and orderly, respectively.

Battling dense fog, rain and a muddy terrain, Nurse Frances was the first woman to reach the crash scene, more than 3,000 feet above sea level. It was an incredible feat, considering that even members of the Montserrat Defense Force were unable to reach the site until the following day.

“We couldn’t get to the people but it was clear that everybody was dead,” Nurse Frances was quoted in the article. “All we could do was stand there and watch the plane burn and all the dead bodies. It is an experience I’ll never like to go through again.”

Aside from nursing, she ventured into other fields historically dominated by men. She was an airport taxi driver on her days off and also drove trucks, transporting sand for building contractors. In the 1950s she was a star cricket player in the local women’s league, representing Harris Village. She still found time to be an attentive mother.

“She did not allow us to miss her even when we were living in the country and she was working in town,” says Yvonne, who as a tribute to her mother gave her three children names that begin with “F”. “She was always on the road bringing us something and waking us up so we can see her.”

Nurse Frances with (from left) granddaughter Fayre Ryan and great-grandchildren Emari and Erviyon Dyer, circa 1997.

MIGRATION TO AMERICA

In 1994, shortly after retiring, Nurse Frances visited Miami to spend time with family. The following year, the volcanic eruptions began in Montserrat and eventually destroyed her home in Webbs Village. Nurse Frances settled in Miami, where she joined the Tabernacle Seventh Day Adventist Church and became an elder. She even baby-sat the children of some in the congregation.

In recent years, despite her deteriorating health, she maintained her trademark sense of humor and stayed in touch with old friends, including Nurse Cooper. A friend once phoned her requesting to “pick her brain” regarding research about Montserrat. “I’m old, leave my brain alone, please,” she quipped.

Nurse Frances is survived by her daughter Yvonne Ryan and stepson Jerod Gerald, plus three grandchildren, three great-grandchildren, and two great-great grandchildren. Her funeral will be held at 3 p.m. Sunday, January 7, 2024, at the Tabernacle SDA Church in Miami. Per her wishes, her ashes will be repatriated to Montserrat. A service will be held at the New Carmel SDA Church in Lower Friths on Wednesday, March 13, 2024, the day before what would have been her 95th birthday.

4 COMMENTS

  1. What a beautiful tribute???????? Although I was very sad to hear about Nurse Frances passing, I loved reading the history of how she became such a remarkable staple and well known in Montserrat. It brought a smile to my face to see the common phrase used in this article “I’m going to call Nurse Frances for you!” Even until this day my 83 yr old uncle still use that phrase on us… ????. Thank you Edwin for this beautiful Spotlight????????

  2. For those of us at Tabernacle SDA Church, we did not know of her rich history because she was so humble and helpful. Our family was fortunate that she watched our children in their formative years and they are better people today because of her.

  3. Sis. Ryan, a woman who loved people, God, and loved to pray. Candid, frank, but loveably and loving. I remember meeting her after I moved here in 2001 and started attending Tabernacle SDA Church. A friend, Sis. Yvonne Opebiyi introduced her to me and I can truly say that I am a better person after spending time in a presence.

    Her beliefs in God, her love for the Adventist Church, and in the power and belief of prayer were phenomenal. She was not shy about sharing her life story and how she became a born Christian. I will truly miss our conversations and her kind words of encouragement.

  4. She will be missed by those of us from the Ryan and Corbett Families respectively, may her soul RIP. She was my Grandmother’s niece Geraldine Corbett of Lees.

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