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Treasured Health Care Heroes of Appalachia: Mable “Skip” Spell

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As you travel east on the Hal Rogers Parkway, you’ll pass through our small town of Manchester, Kentucky, eventually driving by Hyden, Hazard, and a myriad of other small communities in Southeastern Kentucky. Tucked in between Manchester and Hyden lies the small community of Big Creek in Clay County. If you venture off this small exit (don’t blink or you’ll miss it on your journey), you’ll find a path to the communities of Big Creek, Red Bird, and Oneida. These beautiful communities were the homes of the Oneida Mountain Hospital and a small clinic staffed by nurses from the Frontier Nursing Service. One of those nurses was Mable “Skip” Spell, a nurse practitioner and midwife that dedicated her life and career to serving the families of these small communities in the mountains of Appalachia.

Mable Spell, affectionately known as “Skip,” came to Southeastern Kentucky to complete her nurse practitioner and nurse midwifery training at Frontier Nursing Service (FNS) in Hyden, Kentucky. While she journeyed to the mountains to learn and train, she had absolutely no intention of making these rural communities her forever home. In fact, Skip shares how it took divine intervention from God to soften and open her heart and help her to surrender to her calling to serve the people of Appalachia.

In May 1963, Skip journeyed to the mountains of Southeastern Kentucky from Miami, Florida, to continue her nursing education and train to be a nurse midwife. Highly motivated by some stressful and very close calls during various complicated deliveries, Skip decided she needed to expand her knowledge so that she could provide the best care she could to the mothers and babies entrusted in her care. Once she completed her course work, Skip planned to return to her job in Miami, but little did she know, God had other plans in mind for her and that the mountains would teach her so much more than the practice of midwifery. Skip recalls,

For the babies’ sake, I decided to come to the mountains, but I didn’t plan on staying. I had trouble with the culture. I thought I knew what poverty was, but I didn’t have a clue. I thought I could speak fairly good English, but I couldn’t understand what was said to me and the patients didn’t understand me. I had to learn to speak their language and take them as they were. Towards the end of the class is when I think God had a different idea for me and He changed my plans. And I’m so glad that He did! I am a much better Nurse Practitioner and Nurse Midwife and a much better person because I stayed here in the mountains.

Life in the mountains was a rude awakening for the bright young woman, who had been raised in Tampa, Florida. Her nursing career working in a general hospital in Miami had not prepared her for the work she would encounter in a small, mountain hospital. So why did she stay? Skip admits, “I wanted to leave so bad that two of my classmates offered to drive me and my car back to Miami and they would fly back, at their expense, because I complained all the time. They called me ‘skeptic Skip.’” However, one night after a long shift at the hospital, God showed up in an incredible way that helped Skip to embrace God’s calling and led her to be “hooked on the mountains” for the rest of her career.

One night when I was working in the hospital, I had gotten off work around midnight and had felt sick all day and all night. And I knew what it was. I wasn’t sick physically; I was sick spiritually. So, I went to the chapel and decided I was going to talk to the Lord about this, and I knew He would take care of this. As the Lord works, He breaks your spirit sometimes before you can hear what He has to tell you. I was there at least an hour or two hours, I just sensed in my spirit that he wanted me to stay in Kentucky. And that was like asking me to eat a pot of poison meat, ya know. I said, “I can’t I just can’t do this. I’ll go to China.” Which to me China was the end of the world and I thought that would be a big sacrifice. “I’ll go to the Indians, I’ll go wherever you ask me to, just don’t ask me to stay here.”

Well, the heaviness didn’t leave. The miseries didn’t leave. And finally I admitted to the Lord that the reason I didn’t want to stay is I didn’t have that love in my heart for my patients that I had always had from the time that I decided to be a nurse. That love has always been there, and it wasn’t there. I just found fault with everything; I was a crab. So, I prayed and prayed and finally I told the Lord that was the reason I couldn’t stay. I can’t do You justice and I sure can’t do anybody else any justice, so I just need to go somewhere else. So, I felt a little bit better and I got up and left and went to the nursing quarters and I went to sleep at around 3-4 o’clock in the morning.

I had only been in bed for about an hour and the phone rang and it was for me. They needed me back in the delivery room. They had a mother that had 5 babies and all 5 of them had been still born. They said labor was threatening and they needed someone to sit with her and asked if I would sit with her. So, I went and had to time her contractions, I had my hand on her abdomen the whole time, and everything was going really well until after an hour or so I noticed that the heart beat was dropping and when it dropped to 10 bpm, I called my supervisor and said, “you need to come right now.” She said, “you call Dr. Beasley and tell him what you’ve told me and I’m on my way.” […] Dr. Beasley came right away. I got the room set up and let him know it was ready and he said “no, this one is yours.” And I said, “don’t you understand this woman’s history?” He said, “I do and I’m here, it’s yours.” Well, that put a whole new color on everything. I think I was in shock. But I sat down and talked to the mother, but before I took the mother in there, I asked her if I could pray with her. And she said, “please do.” [… After I prayed with her,] I sat down and I looked at the patient, and I could see black hair and the next thing I knew, the baby was there, and he was screaming his head off. Well, I looked around at the doctor, Dr. Beasley had tears running down his cheeks; the midwifery supervisor had tears running down her face; the patient was bawling; and I had tears running down my cheeks—it was a happy little baby boy! So, I asked the mother, once I got [the baby] all cleaned up, “can I pray for your baby and would you mind if I dedicated him to the Lord?” And she said, “would you please.” And I did. Well, I kept up with them for years and [lost touch, but] then, when I went to work with Dr. Cornett and Dr. Becknell for a while, someone came in and asked if I use to work in Hyden and I said yes, and he said are you the one they call Skip, and I said yes. He said do you know “so and so” [the name of the baby boy Skip delivered that night] and I said, “Yes! Where is he? What’s going on? I haven’t heard from him in years!” And he said [the boy] had just graduated from seminary.

I tell that story to say that through that experience, there was a love in my heart that I hadn’t felt since I came to Kentucky. And I had enough spiritual sense to know that I couldn’t leave. […] I sold my home in Miami and that love for my patients and this place has been there ever since that night. And I worked until I was 72 years old. My work was really my ministry […].

The incredible experience she had that night, when the Lord opened and softened her heart, was just the beginning of the incredible love and fulfillment she would have over her long career serving the people of Appalachia. Skip completed her midwifery training and continued her education by completing the nurse practitioner program in 1971, becoming board credentialed in both specialties. After completing her education, Skip was stationed at the Red Bird Nursing Center, where she served patients from Red Bird, Big Creek, and Oneida. Throughout her career, Skip worked with physicians like Dr. Chu and Dr. Wheeler from the Oneida Mountain hospital, and was among the ranks of the heroic jeep nurses, traveling deep into mountains and “hollers,” through sometimes impassible terrain with her medical bag and her jeep to provide medical care to her patients. Ms. Mable “Skip” Spell is a true treasure to our communities. She has been a fixture of Leslie and Clay counties throughout many of our community members’ lives. Our small corner of Appalachia is exceedingly blessed that she made our home her home—becoming a health care hero, a mountain woman, and a forever member of our families.

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