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Milwaukie woman has seen it all, from Kentucky to India

Elizabeth Walton was a midwife on horseback; worked in leper hospital
by: Ellen Spitaleri, Elizabeth Walton

She was a midwife-on-horseback in the hills of Kentucky and she spent more than 30 years of her life as a nurse in a leper hospital in India, but now Elizabeth Walton calls Milwaukie home.

The Rose Villa resident will turn 90 in June, said she feels like 'the best is yet to come.'

She was born in North Dakota and said she knew when she was 12 that she wanted to be a missionary in India.

She went to Bible college in Minneapolis for training, but then she knew she needed a profession and needed to earn some money before going off to do missionary work, so she looked around for a job and ended up doing dishes in a tuberculosis sanitarium.

'Then I discovered there was better pay working in the infirmary and I enjoyed taking care of the patients, so I decided to be a nurse,' she said.

She visited a friend in Chicago and ended up taking care of a widow who needed help with her father and young son.

'She took a liking to me so she insisted I put in an application for a scholarship at a nearby Jewish hospital, where they were starting a cadet nursing corps.

'And lo and behold when it came time for the training to start I went down there and they handed me a uniform and I had a room in the dorm, and it didn't cost me a thing,' Walton said.

Midwifery in Kentucky

'When I was a senior I heard about a woman from Kentucky who had started a midwifery program for poor people, so I thought that would be interesting and good preparation for India,' she said.

It was 1944, and the war had begun, and Walton found out that at that time no ships were taking women or children to India. So she asked the Conservative Baptist Foreign Mission Board if she could go to Kentucky, and was granted permission to take the midwifery training.

'There were three of us, and we all lived together with a cook and caretaker. I'd get home from one call, and sometimes had to turn right around and go back out again.

'We carried all our equipment in our saddlebags. Sometimes they'd come for us in the middle of the night and I couldn't see the horse's head, but he knew where he was going. We'd go up creeks and over mountains,' Walton said.

'I loved it in Kentucky - the mountain people were so friendly and appreciative.'

On to India

She stayed in Kentucky for about eight months, and then finally was given word that a ship in Seattle was going to India.

Her mother was able to accompany her on the train journey to Seattle and waited with her until the ship sailed - Walton was just 27.

She landed in Bombay and eventually ended up working in a leper hospital in Nagpur.

'We took over from a British mission, when they all went back to England,' Walton said, noting in 1946 nobody knew much about working with leprosy patients, who were not allowed to live in the villages.

The superintendent of the hospital was a pastor from Walton's mission, but he had no medical training, so he wanted a nurse to come and help.

'None of us knew a thing about leprosy, but we were willing to go for six months at a time,' she said.

Walton was sent to language school, while some of her fellow nurses worked at the hospital, and when there was an opening, she said she was 'delighted to go to the leprosy hospital.'

The superintendent sent her to Calcutta to a class on leprosy, where she was the only woman in attendance. She went to classes and discovered that the doctors did not agree on treatment of leprosy, but she took her textbook back to the hospital, where she 'became the one in authority.'

There were no trained workers at the hospital, and Walton came to rely on the patients who had some experience.

She learned 'bit by bit' how to help her patients, and ended up staying at the hospital for more than 30 years.

She especially loved going into the villages, where she said she 'met all kinds of people.'

Faith kept her going

Walton encountered poverty in India, but said her own upbringing in North Dakota during the Depression and Dust Bowl years helped her cope with her surroundings.

'There were lots of things I could do for people [in India],' she noted.

Once a young mother died and her baby was starving, so Walton recommended feeding the infant goat's milk.

'[The Indian women] said 'We do not give goat's milk to babies,' and I told them I had just saved a boy from starvation with goat's milk - maybe we should try it,' she said.

She gave the infant some goat's milk and the child pulled through - so the women were happy to take advice on child rearing.

'I just gave them general health principles. If you can do something about it, it's not defeating,' she said.

'There were many rewards, but it was not easy. Things are so different now - but it can be very rewarding if you feel you are doing what you are supposed to be doing,' Walton said, adding that her 'faith in Christ' kept her going.

Visits to Gladstone

During her stay in India, Walton came home for one year out of every five, and she traveled around and visited churches.

'I visited the First Baptist Church in Gladstone every time I came on furlough. A pastor [there] and his wife had a tremendous influence on my life, and one time when I came back he had passed away and his wife was at Rose Villa retirement community.

'When I saw how happy she was here I said that's the place for me. I still go to the First Baptist Church - I feel at home there,' Walton said.

And now her brother, who is one year older, has also come to the retirement community and lives next door to her.

She still hears from people in India, by letter and by e-mail, and she said she struggles to keep up with her paperwork.

Walton added, 'Some days I feel overwhelmed, but this is the day which the Lord has made, and I will rejoice in it.'