Resident used nursing career to help wounded soldiers

By Samantha Cronk

For Berkeley County native Dorothy Leavitt, 93, the desire to help people is natural, so when the call came for volunteers to assist soldiers wounded in World War II, Leavitt needed no other prompting.

While she was aware of WWII and its effects, the war became personal for Leavitt after she helped care for eight severely wounded soldiers who were recovering in an army hospital in Martinsburg.

Leavitt graduated from Martinsburg High School in May 1937 at 18 and by September, she began training to become a nurse. In 1940, Leavitt graduated as a registered nurse as part of a graduating class of fewer than 10 women.

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Journal photo by Samantha Cronk
Berkeley County native Dorothy Leavitt, 93, used her profession as a nurse to help soldiers wounded during World War II who were sent to recover at the Newton D. Baker Hospital in Martinsburg.

"I knew even when I was a young girl that I wanted to be a nurse. My mother had her babies at home and the nurses would be helping the doctor, and I just always wanted to be a nurse," she said.

It was during her time as a nurse that Leavitt chose to volunteer her services to wounded World War II soldiers at the Newton D. Baker Hospital, a military hospital, in Martinsburg. In 1946, the Newton D. Baker Hospital became the VA Medical Center as part of the Veterans Administration.

"I always worked in the paraplegic ward. There were about five cubicles, and each one had eight men in it. They were all young men in their 20s, paralyzed from the waist down. We always went back to the same eight men, so those eight are the ones you say you took care of," Leavitt said.

"We worked during the daytime and then every night for 18 months we went down from 7 to 10 p.m. or later, because sometimes they had to pull us away," Leavitt said.

Leavitt described her job as anything that would make the men comfortable, including rubbing their backs, washing their faces and changing their sheets.

Eventually, the men Leavitt cared for were transferred to hospitals close to where the men lived. Along with other nurses who volunteered in the paraplegic ward, Leavitt helped form the Newton D. Paraplegic Group, which kept soldiers and nurses connected.

Through the group, soldiers and nurses would stay in contact through letters and meet at least once a year for food and fellowship.

As a nurse, Leavitt worked for several local doctor's practices as well as in private duty. She also worked at the VA Center for one year in the medical ward.

Through her career as a nurse and life in Berkeley County, Leavitt has experienced many professional milestones, including working with Martinsburg's first radiologist, as well as witnessing almost a century's worth of change to Martinsburg.

"I liked to take care of patients, and I just didn't want to be behind a desk. At the time I was going for my training, it was just a job. Now, I've had some time to think back, and I realize that some of that stuff I saw during my nursing career was really miraculous," Leavitt said.

Leavitt's thumbprint can be found throughout Martinsburg. Of the 64 acres Leavitt and her late husband Charles owned as orchards, Leavitt retains 53 acres. On some of the land she sold sits the Martinsburg water tank and Orchard View Intermediate School.

"The amount of change, it's amazing. It's still a good place (to live). You can see the changes. Of course they paved the roads, we get mail and they've changed the name of (Delmar Orchard Road) so many times," Leavitt said.

Leavitt can recall living through the Great Depression, claiming that her family was fortunate to avoid the harsh conditions many families found themselves in during that time. Leavitt credits her father with providing for her mother and siblings, saying that he worked hard to find work and always provided them with new shoes and textbooks before every school year.

"I went to a two-room school house through the eighth grade. When we finished eighth grade, we had to go to the old Martinsburg High School and take a test for two days to see whether or not we were allowed to go to high school. I made the second highest (grade) in the county. You remember that kind of stuff," Leavitt said.

Leavitt said her parents supported her ambition to become a nurse. Although it has been many years since she has worked professionally, Leavitt still considers herself a nurse.

"Once you're a nurse, you're always a nurse," she said.

Source: The Journal 

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