“Island Nurse” documentary about Mary D premieres
There was love and affection in the room; a collective bond gilded by laughter and tears and memories that stretched from birth to death and everything in between.
The reason for the gathering was the premier of “Island Nurse,” a documentary that traces the life of registered nurse Mary Donnelly, known affectionately by the Block Island community as Mary D. The showing on Sunday afternoon at The Block Island School gym was just a few weeks after Donnelly’s official retirement from her 54 years serving as the island’s nurse.
The film depicts how Mary D came to practice on Block Island, just 12 miles off the Rhode Island shores. In May, 1958, Donnelly’s husband took a job as telephone repairman on the island. Mary D, already an R.N., but with four children to raise, was recruited to fill the job of island nurse — a state job. She was reluctant, but accepted, and had been the island’s visiting nurse until just weeks ago. There was, at the time she started, no doctor on the island, no other nurse and no community health care center. She was the only caregiver on the island for 20 years, and is the foundation of the unreserved affection so many families have for her.
Mary D recounts on film her feelings going to her first emergency on the island. The sheriff, Arthur Rose, knocked on her door at 1 a.m. so that she could tend to a man thought to have had a heart attack at The Florida House hotel. “My knees shook,” she says in the film.
Nurses are frequently invisible in the media, though they are the caregivers who handhold and care for the sick and infirm long after the doctors have made their diagnoses and distanced themselves. The camera follows Mary D as she makes her visits. Filmaker Sue Hagedorn, Ph.D, is also a nurse practitioner, and she captures the nurse-patient interactions with sensitivity and skill as Mary D brings hands-on care and cheer to her patients. Donnelly goes about her business efficiently, but brings a moment of tenderness to each visit.
The film is also punctuated by memories of Mary D’s daughter, Liz Masci, who recalled the times when she felt as though she and her six siblings were sharing their mother with the entire island. Mary D’s husband died at the age of 48, leaving her with seven children to raise and support.
In the end, though, Masci said that Block Island was “like one big extended family. People who don’t live here don’t understand. Wherever else I go, I look for it and do not find it.”
By the end of the showing, the question on everyone’s mind was “what will we do now that Mary D has retired?” But it did not have to be voiced, as Mary D stepped forward and in the way she is accustomed to doing, reassured them. “I’m still here, still in my office every day,” she said. “It’s the happiest place in the world to go.”
“Island Nurse” is available on DVD for $20 through the Block Island Historical Society. Proceeds will support the Mary D. Fund and the Historical Society. The film was supported in part through the production company, Seedworks Films, The Block Island Historical Society and a grant from the Rhode Island Council of the Humanities.