Areas of Study

The child in the hospital bed was just waking up after having his tonsils taken out. His throat hurt, and he was scared. However, the young nurse standing by his bed smiled so cheerfully that the little boy smiled back. He forgot to be afraid. The young nurse was May Paxton and she was deaf.

May Paxton graduated from the Missouri School for the Deaf at Fulton near the year 1909. Three years later she went to see Dr. Katherine B. Richardson about becoming a nurse. Dr. Richardson was one of the founders of Mercy Hospital of Kansas City, Missouri. She had never heard of a deaf nurse. Dr. Richardson told May that her salary would be very small and that the work would be arduous. However, May said that hard work did not frighten her. Dr. Richardson was impressed with her, and accepted May as a student nurse.

Dr. Richardson never regretted her decision. In fact, she was so pleased with May’s work that she later accepted two other deaf women as student nurses. The first was Miss Marian Finch of Aberdeen, South Dakota, who was hard of hearing. The second was Miss Lillie “Bessie” Speaker of St. Joseph, Missouri. These three were called “the silent angels of Mercy Hospital” during the time they worked there.

May and Marian did not know each other before Marian was hired by the hospital. When Marian first came to the hospital, Dr. Richardson introduced May to Marian. She showed them to the room they were to share. During the next two days, the two girls wrote notes to each other. Finally, other nurses asked Marian if she knew that May was deaf. Marian ran to the bedroom and asked May in sign if she really was deaf. May answered in sign. Then, as the joke sunk in, the two girls burst into laughter.

May was always conscientious about following orders. Only once did she disobey Dr. Richardson. It took a lot of time to care for all the sick children, as a result, Dr. Richardson asked the nurses not to take the time to hold the new babies when they were crying. However, May hated to see the babies cry. When Dr. Richardson was not around, she found time to hold them. This small change helped the nursery to run much more smoothly. When Dr. Richardson discovered what May was doing, she recognized that May’s actions had improved the nursery, and decided to overlook May’s disobedience.

In spite of their success, none of the girls finished the nursing program. Marian had to go back to South Dakota because of a family problem. Illness forced Bessie to give up her nursing career. May decided to give up nursing for marriage, and married Alexander Benoit.

Dr. Richardson often spoke of her faith in the girls’ ability to learn nursing. She wrote to May, “For three years, you have been with us … It is wonderful to me that no man, woman or child ever, to my knowledge, made a complaint against you … ”

Adapted from: Goodstein, A. & Walworth, M. (1979). “Interesting Deaf Americans.” Washington, DC: Gallaudet University. Used with permission from the Gallaudet University Alumni Association. Revised by Vivion Smith and Ellen Beck.

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