The vision of Mary Donnelly
It’s easy to imagine what a monumental adventure it must have felt like when Mary D came to Block Island in the late 1950s. After all, that island was not the Block Island of today. The population during that period had dipped to about 500, less than half the number of year-round residents today. The ferry ran twice a day, six days a week. Although the island did have an established tourist economy, the season was short, and many islanders subsisted on farming and fishing. Mary had been assigned by the state as the Block Island community visiting nurse, a position that came with more questions than answers. Perhaps most notably, Block Island did not have a regular doctor, which meant Mary became the primary source of all medical care.
As the island’s visiting nurse, Mary D was in people’s homes and often working out of her car or her own house. She became intimately familiar with the island’s medical needs, and she realized that the medical infrastructure, in which the island’s doctor (when they had one) lived and worked out of the Captain Noah Dodge House, was no longer meeting the community’s needs. Patient volume and the number of medical visits had increased, and there was concern about attracting qualified physicians to the island. Mary D and a group of determined islanders, which included Nancy Greenaway, Jack Gray, and many others, set out to determine the best next steps to make a medical facility a reality.
Now that our Medical Center has been a part of our community for over 30 years, it’s easy to forget that initially the success
of that project was not a foregone conclusion. In fact, at times this undertaking must have seemed impossible. The project required buy-in and partnership from the community and town government. It required the town to take on a sizeable amount of debt, which was an intimidating proposition to many residents. Many felt that the proposed project may have been unnecessary and that perhaps the community would be just fine as things were. Mary D became the soul of the Medical Center project. Her time on the island in service to its residents uniquely positioned her to not only speak for their needs, but to use the trust she had earned to convince so many that this could work. Block Islanders rallied around that spirit, putting aside political disagreements to work long, unpaid hours in an unheated house to make the Medical Center happen. Mary believed
that much could be accomplished by “showing up,” which probably translated into attending many impromptu work sessions and countless meetings.
There are many admirable aspects to Mary D’s legacy, from her decades of service to islanders in their homes, to the establishment of the ever-present Mary D Fund. Her role in establishing the Medical Center cannot be overstated; without Mary D, it’s very possible the Medical Center would not exist as it does today. Mary D taught this community that Block Islanders deserve excellent medical care. She inspired a community to work together to achieve more sustainable access to care.
This is the legacy that is still the foundation of the Medical Center today. We are inspired to remember the community-wide effort that makes it feel like “ours.” We are
honored to continue this mission because today, Block Island deserves quality health care as much as ever.