It is no secret that folks around here in the Mississippi backwoods are scrambling to get Covid vaccines. The current limited availability and the supposed ‘prioritizing’ of vaccines for those who need them most harkens memory back to the ridiculous disappearance and rationing of bleach, hand sanitizers, and (for some crazy reason) toilet paper, back in the spring of 2020.

 Psychologically, I suppose that when there is a perceived potential shortage of something, it soon becomes highly sought after. People are racing for the all-too-few vaccination appointments available.  We heard on the news a few days ago that Gov. Reeves released 30,000 vaccines and they were all spoken for in less than two hours. This all reminds me of the panic mode to try and get a life jacket on the Titanic.  Many of the people who most need them (elderly, impoverished, chronically ill, rural folks with no internet access, etc.) were totally unaware this ‘lottery’ was taking place, I’m sure. Distribution thus far has been a dicey business. Every day that those at risk go unvaccinated becomes a crapshoot with the Grim Reaper.

This sense of urgency to get vaccinated is then a good thing, the sooner we get the shot, the quicker we can return to at least some semblance of sanity. President Biden’s goal of “100 million shots in 100 days” is doable if they will simply get the vaccine in healthcare workers’ hands.

In the past month, I have heard many of my patients make a comment that “If we only had Flora Belle Coombs manning this vaccine campaign, we could stamp out the Covid scourge here in no time flat. You would get the life-saving jab whether you wanted it or not!”

Flora Belle: Recalling Her Early Years 

The iconic Miss Coombs was born Sept. 6, 1908, in the Shady Grove community of western Tippah County.  Her parents were James E. and Lillie Irene Godwin Coombs.  She received her degree in nursing at the Methodist Hospital School of Nursing in Memphis, Tennessee in the early 1930s.  Returning home to work during the height of the Great Depression, this young nurse took on the daunting job of primary assistant to one of the busiest physicians in the area, Dr. John Edgar Tate.

Tales of their medical escapades are largely lost to the almost 90 years that have passed since their intimate working partnership began. One source relayed that Flora Belle went on every call that Dr. Tate made, many of which involved overnight watches in the home of women in giving birth as well as vigils in the homes of the seriously ill and dying.

With no hospital facility available, home visits were the order of the day. Many times the dirt road to the patient’s house would simply “play out” or the creek would be out over its banks. This meant that the last leg of the journey would be on foot. If the road was washed out, then Dr. Tate would hoist Flora Belle on his back and they would ford the stream to care for the waiting patient, usually a woman in labor. They would spend the night in the home until the stork arrived.

I must tell a story told by my cousin Van Malone who related his grandmother’s memory of the September midnight of 1942 when he was born at home with this intrepid pair in attendance. His mother’s labor was long and difficult and when he finally emerged, his head was very misshapen…. ‘whop-sided’ in her words.  His grandmother said Flora Belle instructed her to ‘put down clean quilts on the floor’ and she kneaded and rolled my head around until she got it rounded back up into shape! (It remains so to this day.)

With the advent of World War II, Flora Belle joined the Army Nurse Corps; most of that tour of duty was spent at the Veterans Hospital in Biloxi. (See photo.) Little is known of this period of her life in military service.

After the war in 1947, Flora Belle worked for the Mississippi State Board of Health.  Initially, she was the Public Health nurse for Benton County, and she later transferred to the Tippah County assignment.

That Room at the Top of Those Stairs

The first Health Department Office here was upstairs on the south side of the courthouse square. Office space was at that time shared with Dr. W.E.  Johnson’s dental practice. Many horrific remembrances are recalled by those children upon whom reaching the top of those stairs retains a nightmarish quality.  A constant quote that I heard upon inquiry was thus…  “When you got about halfway up those steps your feet began to feel as heavy as lead. Your mother would be shoving you upwards and that awful antiseptic smell was enough to scald your sinuses. I can still smell it! There was no good option at the top. The dreaded dentist was to the left and straight ahead was none other than that wall-eyed Flora Belle Coombs … armed with that damned old dull vaccinating needle of hers!  You could hear the sobs of other crying victims up ahead and you knew you were doomed with either option.”

If your mama didn’t take you up those stairs in a timely manner, the Health Nurse came to get you lined up and ‘popped’ at school. Back in the day, there was no parental consent form required. Vaccinations were then a mandatory and unquestioned method of protecting our populous from deadly and crippling diseases… Diphtheria, Tetanus, Pertussis (whooping cough), Polio and Smallpox shots were de rigueur in those days. 

When the children saw her 1952 Chevrolet pulling in at school the boys would try to run off and hide. Lorenzo Medford recalled that he and several others at the Peoples School would climb up nearby pine trees to escape. When Flora Belle would finally catch up with the hapless victims, she very often would have to pin them down on the floor to administer the shot. She was ruthless in this endeavor.

If Flora Belle and the other Public Health nurse Mrs. Bea Phillips missed nailing the student at school, they would literally track you down at home to administer the vaccines. My, my… haven’t times changed?

The ‘Wicked Witch of the South’ Pays Us a Call

I remember being in line for immunizations at the old Ripley Elementary School and also Mother taking me to the ‘new’ Health Department next to the Tippah Hospital for required shots. And I had heard that Flora Belle made house calls, too.

Early one Sunday morning when perhaps I was around six years old, a child’s worse nightmare began to unfold.  A car pulled up in our driveway, and I had a meltdown when I saw Flora Belle extract her tall thin frame from the driver’s side.  As she headed to our front door, I just knew she was gunning for me. I think every child was afraid of Flora Belle Coombs, not only for her reputation for inflicting pain on children but because she bore such a strong physical resemblance to that hideous Wizard of Oz character, Elmira Gulch (Margaret Hamilton).  I half expected flying monkeys to come out the car door behind her.

I screamed and ran and hid under my bed, I am now ashamed to say. I waited until I heard her crank up and leave before coming out of hiding. Mother made fun of me and said that Flora Belle had simply come to get my plumber Daddy to come work on her broken commode. I told her that I wasn’t taking any chances with that witch in our house.

Rethinking the Undeserved Reputation of a Pioneering Nurse

The fear of needles is a universal phenomenon and not confined to children. Although over the years my own nurses and I have been slugged by pint-sized holy terrors and kicked by rotten little boys in cowboy boots while administering a shot, we have witnessed far more grown men faint from being jabbed than kiddos.  During those days over 50 plus years ago, many of the vaccine serums simply were more painful to receive. People who received a Typhoid shot remember the dreadfully sore arms it inflicted.

After pondering this subject and speaking with my former colleague in practice, Dr. Tommy Simpson, I was reminded that during Flora Belle’s era, injections ‘hurt like hell’ for the simple reason that the hypodermics of the day were more primitive, syringes were frightfully big glass and stainless steel jobs, and the needles were a larger gauge and NOT DISPOSABLE. The needles got sharpened on a whetstone when they became dull, then sterilized and reused time and again. (See photo.)

For purposes of giving rapid fire shots to large groups of children, nurses used ten cc syringes of vaccine and gave ten injections to ten ‘victims’ in succession. If you were the unfortunate tenth and last dose, you most certainly were on the receiving end of a dull needle. We cringe to think of it now, but this was apparently just the way it was done back then.

The smallpox shot was administered quite differently with several small pricks in a round circle. This was the first successful vaccine ever to be developed. Smallpox WAS one of the deadliest diseases ever known and was a worldwide pandemic between 1870 and 1874. Smallpox had a 35 percent mortality rate, thus one person in three who contracted it died a horrible death. Smallpox is the only epidemic human disease to have been totally eradicated by the availability of vaccines. The routine vaccination for smallpox ended in 1972 after the disease had been declared finally conquered … with no small thanks to Public Health nurse heroines who relentlessly, tirelessly, and often thanklessly worked to get their job done.

If you are old enough to have received a smallpox shot, you will bear a strange circular pock-marked scar on your left arm, a residual of the large ‘scab’ it caused when it did its work.  I proudly refer to mine as my ‘Flora Belle tattoo.’

The Flora Belle Coombs that people remember today would never have won any popularity or beauty contests, nor did she care to. I think she may even have truly relished her tough reputation.  She never married and she shared a home in the Shady Grove community with her also locally famous sister, Mabel Allison.  Flora Belle died in 1987 at age 78 and is buried in the cemetery near her beloved Shady Grove Methodist Church.

I hope now when you think of her you might consider her life’s legacy a bit differently, contemplate how many children she helped bring into the world, and how many lives she probably saved by giving thousands of vaccinations with ‘those damned old dull needles.’

The literal translation of the name Flora Belle is “Beautiful Flower.” Henceforth, and for all that she has contributed to the health of our community, this is how I now choose to remember our most legendary Public Health nurse, Miss Flora Belle Coombs.

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