Longtime St. John resident Sally Browne has been through a lot.
As a child during World War II, she survived the bombing of Britain by Nazi Germany. In her 20s, romance took her to the States and New Jersey. An advertisement in a nursing magazine led her to St. Thomas in 1968. There were stops in Oklahoma and San Diego.
And after a long stint with the V.I. Health Department, at 77 she’s launched a new career working for the University of the Virgin Islands Nursing Division’s Caribbean Exploratory Research Center.
“It’s very interesting and completely different,” Browne said.
The job takes her to St. Thomas several days a week as well as to St. John health facilities. The goal is to determine if women who experience domestic violence from their partners or are in unhealthy relationships use health care facilities more than others.
She looks at records for women ages 18 to 55 at Health Department facilities on St. Thomas and St. John and the Community Health Clinic at Roy L. Schneider Hospital. If patients in the waiting room at those facilities are willing, she provides a computerized questionnaire for them to fill out, and if they agree, she looks at their records a year later.
The job is a long way from the small village near Cambridge, England, where she grew up. She got her nursing degree at Cambridge, studied midwifery in London and met a young man who had accompanied a friend to the hospital emergency room where she worked. She followed him to Princeton, worked at Princeton Hospital and for a pediatrician, met and married someone else and had her first son, Rick Metterhauser, now 52, and eventually moved to North Carolina.
It was cold and dreary in November 1967 when she saw the advertisement in the nursing magazine for positions in the Virgin Islands. St. Thomas needed midwives and public health nurses, and St. Croix wanted midwives. She opted for St. Thomas and after about six months of filling out paperwork, she and her son went from England to Holland to start their trip.
“We got on a freighter and landed in Frederiksted,” Browne recalled.
After spending the night attending the movies with the sailors stationed at Frederiksted’s submarine base, she sailed into Charlotte Amalie harbor the next day. The view was superb and she was delighted to arrive in such a beautiful place.
The Health Department had booked her and her son into LaBorde’s Guesthouse in Hospital Ground, where they stayed until she found a more permanent apartment in Hospital Ground. Her salary at the old St. Thomas Hospital was $5,900 a month.
“And I could walk to work,” she said.
After a year on St. Thomas and a taste of St. John through regular weekend visits, in 1969 she took a job at the Morris deCastro Clinic on St. John. She and her son lived in the nurses’ residence, now the Planning and Natural Resources Department office located across from Elaine I. Sprauve Library.
“Working at Morris deCastro was so much fun,” she said. In those days, the nurses did everything. They rode in the ambulance with the patients, accompanied them on the ambulance boat to St. Thomas and delivered babies when they arrived too quickly for the trip across Pillsbury Sound.
She remarried and daughter Jennifer was soon born. The marriage didn’t last long, and she and her children went off to Hugo, Okla., where she had a job with the Indian Health Service. She returned to St. John two years later before heading off to England. It was back to St. John in 1982, where Browne was among those who worked at Myrah Keating Smith Community Health Center when it opened in 1983.
California beckoned, and she and her daughter answered. She worked at a hospital in San Diego for eight years before returning to England.
“Then the pull of St. John started again,” she said.
She was heading this way when 1995’s Hurricane Marilyn interceded. It took another month-plus before she arrived to an island nearly entirely without power. Housing was in short supply because residents whose houses were badly damaged or gone occupied what housing had been available. She bunked in a friend’s apartment for a year until she found a permanent place to live.
She went back to the Health Department where she worked as the island’s public health nurse and quickly got back into the swing of St. John.
Browne is one busy woman. She’s a major in the territory’s arm of the Civil Air Patrol, a youth organization that is now not operating on St. Thomas because there aren’t enough adult leaders. She’s a stalwart with AARP of the Virgin Islands and serves on the executive council.
“AARP of the Virgin Islands is a force to be reckoned with,” she said.
She’s involved with the American Cancer Society and spent three months visiting her children, who now live in England, and their families. She grows orchids in the front yard and vegetables in boxes along her driveway, and plans to stay just as busy until she can’t anymore.
Browne has witnessed stunning changes as St. John has grown from a small Caribbean island where she knew almost everyone to a vacation mecca for the well-heeled. She’s not pleased.
“If it wasn’t for the St. Johnians, it wouldn’t be worth living here,” she said, never one to mince words.