Several months ago, a former patient came to St. Louis Children’s Hospital looking to make a donation. It was her way of thanking someone she remembered from a long-ago stay in the hospital, a woman who had taken care of her in 1959. The patient had been two years old, sick with polio and quarantined away from her parents. She still remembered her caretaker, but could not find any record of her name.
The mystery was solved, though, when a hospital employee mentioned it to Velma Hunt, who works at Children’s as an emergency room liaison. When Hunt heard the story, she started to laugh.
“She said, ‘Oh, Velma, why are you laughing?’” Hunt recalled. “I said, ‘That was me.’”
Over the past 60 years at St. Louis Children’s Hospital, Velma Hunt has been a constant.
Hunt found her first job at Children’s Hospital in 1957, through a physician at the hospital, Dr. Park White. They met at Pilgrim Congregational Church, where Hunt had unwittingly become one of the first black parishioners after receiving a flyer in the mail. White had helped integrate Children’s, and eventually Hunt asked him if there were any job openings.
“I had an interview with one of the nurses who was feeding one of the babies,” Hunt recalled. “There were three questions she asked, and she said, ‘Today is your day off.’”
Hunt had experience with secretarial work, but the hospital didn’t have an opening for that; they asked her if she would mind working on the floors. She was skeptical at first, nervous about interacting with patients. After she was trained and began working with young patients, that nervousness quickly dissipated.
“When a position became available for a secretary, I really didn’t want it, because I was enjoying what I was doing,” Hunt said. “We had not lost any children at that time, so I was very comfortable working on the floors with the patients.”
Hunt still vividly recalls the first patient she did lose, an infant who was being treated for dehydration. The baby was black, and the nurse treating him had not noticed that he was not breathing from the color of his skin, as she would have with a white baby. Hunt was the one who did notice.
“That taught me how to deal with my own traumas later in life,” Hunt said.
Those traumas included the loss of her own son, Albert, when he was 12. Dr. White was among the representatives from her church who came to her door and informed her that Albert and two other boys had drowned on a Boy Scout camping trip.
Hunt’s husband identified their son’s body. Deeply shaken, she dreaded the thought of the funeral, not wanting to see her son’s body.
“When the folks picked me up to go to the funeral home and I put one foot on the ground, that feeling left,” Hunt said. “I walked in smiling, saying hello to people who were there to greet us. I looked at my son, and I was at peace.”
She credits that peace to Children’s Hospital.
“That was my first loss and tragedy in my family,” Hunt said. “If I had not been working here, I would not have been able to deal with it. They taught me how to deal with death.”
Over six decades, Children’s has relied on Hunt just as much. She was in such high demand that the supervisor of the emergency room spent years lobbying Hunt to move to that department before she agreed.
Now retired from full-time work, Hunt works part-time as the emergency room liaison, the first impression of the ER for many children and parents. As she walks through the waiting room, Hunt checks in on patients, directs parents to the right location, and helps keep everything running smoothly. She knows many of the visitors by name.
Hunt has learned to be prepared for anything, from confused families arriving at the wrong hospital to hostile parents attempting to leave before their child has been seen.
“So many parents have come back and said thank you, especially if they want to leave and I explain to them why not to leave,” Hunt said. “They say ‘I gotta go to work in the morning.’ I say, ‘I understand that, but how long did it take you to wait for that precious little bundle to show up? Nine months, and you can’t wait two hours to make sure that he’s in good health before you walk out?’ And then, ‘Oh, I hadn’t thought about it like that.’”
Hunt said for as long as she has been there, Children’s has been a counterexample to the common narratives of medical disparities that leave behind patients who are black or poor. Even in the 1950s, she said, the hospital would accept and treat patients without insurance.
“I have seen how we have taken care of the children,” Hunt said. “I have seen patients come in with no money. I have seen the doctors do all they can and walk away and say, ‘Let me try one more thing to bring that kid back, ’and the parents will never know that.”
In Hunt’s early days at the hospital, many patients would leave the wrong billing address because they could not afford to pay. When those unpaid bills flooded back in, the hospital simply accepted them.
During her long career at Children’s, Hunt has helped keep that spirit of equity alive.
“Many, many years ago I was working at the desk, and I came in on duty and somebody had put a sign: Medicaid patients, Illinoisan patients and cash patients,” Hunt said. “I was very upset. That was not hospital policy, and so I tore them down. You were segregating people by who could pay and who couldn’t pay, and that was nobody’s business. So that was taken care of right away, without any fanfare, and I was so proud of our administrator at that time.”
Although Hunt said Children’s policies have always been progressive, that does not mean she avoided witnessing discrimination. Once, she recalled, parents from Southern Missouri demanded their child be moved to a different room away from a black patient.
Student nurses who did not know the hospital’s procedure complied with the request, but as soon as Hunt reported the incident, the administration made it clear that staff should not comply with requests to segregate patients.
“That’s why I’m here,” Hunt said. “We see the dedication and the honesty of people that have worked here and how they have improved health care in the city of St. Louis for all.”
The other reason she loves her job, Hunt said, is because of patients like the woman who was treated for polio in 1959, who are deeply impacted by her work and remember her throughout their lives. Hunt met up with that former patient recently; they had lunch together.
“She thanked me, and she said, ‘You were my mother,’ because their parents couldn’t visit,” Hunt said. “And I said, ‘Then you’re my daughter.’”