Remembering Lillian Cole Sewny on National Nurses Day

Note: National Nurses Week (May 6-12) in the United States and Canadaends on May 12, International Nurses Day. As a special salute, Wendy Elliott, daughter and aunt of nurses, remembers Lillian Cole Sewny, an extraordinary nurse who saved thousands of lives in the Near East in 1901-1938. Sadly, she was unable to save the one she loved the most.

Lillian Cole Sewny’s personnel records (Document: Amerikan Bord Heyeti (American Board), Istanbul, “Personnel records for Lillian Cole Sewny,” American Research Institute in Turkey, Istanbul Center Library, online in Digital Library for International Research Archive, Item #15568, http://www.dlir.org/archive/items/show/15568 (accessed May 4, 2018).)

Special to the Armenian Weekly

Lillian Cole, born in Tenafly, New Jersey in 1870, graduated from Mountainside Hospital Training School for Nurses in nearby Montclair in 1892. She nursed in the area for several years, but around her 30th birthday, she began to feel restless. At her “advanced age,” statistics predicted she would never marry. Surely, there was something more she could do to feel fulfilled.

When she heard that the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions was recruiting single women for mission work in the Ottoman Empire, she found her calling.

In 1901, Lillian was assigned to the small hospital in Talas in the middle of the Ottoman Empire. Given the limited facilities and her struggles to learn Turkish, she found the work challenging but very rewarding. Her patients were the Armenian, Greek, and Turkish residents of Talas and area. There, she formed close friendships with the American and Canadian teachers of the mission’s boys’ and girls’ schools. She liked her work there so much that in 1904, she applied for and was granted missionary status. This entitled her to do evangelical work with her patients.

It should have been a good time for Lillian, but her missionary appointment brought to a head a simmering conflict within the station between the medical staff and the teaching staff. Though William Dodd, the doctor in charge, praised her nursing skills, he found Lillian’s religious views (and those of the teachers) lacking—which really meant they differed from his. The conflict grew, ultimately tainting the mission’s environment so badly that by 1906, Lillian resigned. “I am unwilling to be under the sole control of Dr. Dodd acting independently of the Station,” she said. While the trustees and the teachers accepted her resignation with sadness, the medical missionaries were relieved to see her go. Her departure, however, did nothing to resolve the conflict. A few years later the medical staff left, too, and the hospital temporarily closed.

Lillian Cole Sewny’s 1916 passport photo (Photo courtesy of Wendy Elliot)

As Christians are fond of saying, when the Lord closes a door, He opens a window. After spending a year at home, Lillian accepted a new assignment in Sivas, 100 miles northeast of Talas. She quickly became one of its most valued workers. Within five years, she had helped build a hospital and medical clinic, and established a program to train local girls as nurses. She also defied the statistics by falling in love with the young, British-trained Armenian physician who was director of the Sivas hospital while the American doctor was on furlough.  In 1912, Lillian Cole and Levon Sewny married in a grand ceremony in the mission’s compound, much to the delight of their colleagues. They spent two happy years together before the start of the Great War.

In 1914 Dr. Sewny was conscripted into the Ottoman army, and was sent to the Russian front to care for wounded and sick soldiers. That winter a typhus epidemic swept through the region between Sivas and the front. The doctor at the Red Cross hospital in Erzurum asked the medical staff in Sivas for emergency aid. Five of them, including Lillian and her colleague Mary Graffam, set off immediately to help. The deep snow and bad roads made the normal 10-day journey stretch to 21. When they finally arrived, they found the city of Erzurum “one big hospital, every available building filled with sick and wounded.” However, before they could unpack, Lillian received news that Levon was desperately ill with typhus at a village near the war zone. It took her and Mary another nine hours to get to the village, listening to the “sound of the cannon most of the way.” Two days later Levon Sewny died. “The horror and sadness of his death cannot be described,” said Mary. “It took us two days to get the rudest kind of a box, which they finally managed by breaking up a door, and then we brought the body on a horse to Erzurum.”

But Lillian had no time to mourn. On the day of their return, two of the Red Cross doctors succumbed to typhus. Within days, two nurses and the hospital’s druggist also contracted the highly contagious disease. Lillian and Mary nursed them and hundreds of other patients around the clock. The hospital was overflowing. People died at a rate of 15 per day. By the spring of 1915, Lillian was exhausted and demoralized. When the cycle of deportations and death of Armenians started in Sivas and elsewhere, there was little she could do. She returned to the United States for a much-needed rest.

In 1916 Lillian heard of a relief camp being set up by the Red Cross Committee for War Relief and the American Committee for Armenian and Syrian Relief in Port Said, Egypt. Nurses were desperately needed. She was among the first to sign up. From the day she landed in October until she left in 1918, her sleeves were rolled up and she never stopped working. In addition to providing care and medicine, she was also in charge of the camp’s kitchen to ensure the hundreds of thousands of refugees were fed nutritiously.

The only reason she left Port Said was because she had been asked to organize an orphanage in Jerusalem for the Syrian and Palestine Relief Committee. On April 20, 1918, she reported, “I have 84 boys at present. We can take 105-106. There are 50 waiting, but our dormitory space is limited. The boys are from seven to 14, both Muslim and Christian—about half and half, I think. Nice little fellows. Some of them look pretty thin and miserable, and a good number have malaria, but they respond very quickly to treatment. I have a sick-room with six beds—only three boys in it at present. I have a clinic every morning and treat trachoma and scabies (we have a good deal of the latter disease) and sores of different kinds.”

She was also the visiting nurse at the “Shelter,” where all the new orphans were sent and kept several weeks to see if they have any contagious diseases. “I spend two or three hours there each day,” she explained. “At present there are 150, the majority miserable little creatures, and I have a good many disagreeable dressings to do, but I am so glad I can do this work and I am enjoying it very much and am so happy to be using my nurse’s training. Most of the children in the ‘Shelter’ are Moslems. A great many were found on the streets. You can’t imagine how dreadful some of them look—just like little skeletons. The boys in the orphanage are Armenian, Syrian, Arab and Greek.”

Within months, the dreadful war had ended, though it took until the spring of 1919 for Turkey to be safe enough for relief workers to be allowed by the Allies into the country. Brigands roamed around, robbing and killing at will. When Lillian finally returned to Sivas, it was like working a relief camp all over again, with thousands of civilians of all ethnicities in destitute situations. She continued nursing, but added “innkeeper” to her résumé. “I really run a hotel,” she said of the relief operation in Sivas. “Often 18 or 20 trucks will reach here late at night [with humanitarian supplies] and the men will have to have supper. Last week it was three in the morning before the last ones arrived.” The work was tiring, and after five years without a break, she took a much needed furlough in the U.S. to build up her strength once more.

In 1921, she was back, but this time she was assigned to her old stomping grounds—the Talas hospital. Her friends there had been busy for the past two and a half years arranging the care of 10,000 Armenian, Greek and Turkish orphans, and were so glad to see her again. The hospital had been upgraded, and though there was a small staff, they were skilled medical personnel. In the Dec. 1921 alone, Lillian and the medical personnel performed 953 surgeries, 750 procedures, and 1,205 eye treatments.

A map of the different areas in which Lillian Cole Sewny served (Map courtesy of Wendy Elliot)

The situation changed drastically in Nov. 1922 when the Nationalist government “gave permission” for all Christians to leave Turkey. Fearing another massacre, the Talas team scrambled to arrange safe transport to Beirut and Athens for the remaining 3,000 Armenian and Greek orphans. Lillian accompanied the first convoy to Greece herself.

She continued working as a relief nurse in various parts of Greece and Lebanon for the next few years, but in Sept. 1927, she accepted a permanent post as Matron of Anatolia College, which had been relocated to Salonica. She continued in this position until 1938, when she moved to Claremont, Calif. She spent the last 17 years at Pilgrim Place, a retirement community for those “who have dedicated their lives (locally and globally) as advocates for social change.” When Lillian died in 1955 at the advanced age of 86, her obituary stated: “Her life was full of tragedies, but through faith she made it one of triumph and victory.” She certainly did.

Thank you, Lillian Cole Sewny, Nurse Extraordinaire.

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Wendy Elliott

Wendy Elliott has an MEd and a special interest in history. She is the author of the young adult novel, "The Dark Triumph of Daniel Sarkisyan," a novel full of suspense, mystery and intrigue, set in the first Republic of Armenia (1918-1920). Her next book “Grit and Grace in a World Gone Mad: Humanitarianism in Talas, Turkey 1908-1923” about the missionaries and relief workers in Talas and Cesarea, is set to be published in Oct. 2018. Follow her blog: http://wendyelliott.ca/blog-gg/

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