Community honors Emory nurse who served in World War I 100 years after death

Last month, dozens came out to Atlanta’s Greenwood Cemetery for a remembrance ceremony in honor of Emory nurse Camille O’Brien, 100 years after her death.

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O’Brien, who hailed from Barnett, was a member of the Emory nursing unit during World War I and was the only Red Cross nurse from Atlanta to die in France during the war. 

According to an Emory news release, O’Brien graduated from the Saint Joseph’s Infirmary School of Nursing in 1916 and had only a couple years’ worth of nursing experience when she was sent to Base Hospital 43 in Blois, France, with her Emory Unit, where they would care for wounded and ill soldiers.

O’Brien often worked 14-hour shifts during her time at Base Hospital 43, and she, alongside a lead surgeon from Emory, treated more than 9,000 patients over six months.

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Local historian Michael Hitt, who attended the ceremony last month, told the Marietta Daily Journal that O’Brien would often come to work even when she was sick.

“I cannot rest while more men are being brought in than we can dress,” she once said, according to Hitt.

In January 1919, months after World War I had ended, O’Brien’s Emory Unit made its way back to the United States. But she and some others stayed behind to continue their service.

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O’Brien contracted spinal meningitis in April and died from infection on April 18, 1919. Her body was eventually brought back to Atlanta in a flag-draped coffin in 1921.

“You her people, may keenly feel hurt that she's buried among strangers, but the ravages of this war have created a bond that you cannot explain,” O'Brien's chief nurse wrote in a letter to O’Brien’s sister following her death. “You do not know what it's like for us to give her up.”

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The 2019 remembrance ceremony, held on Thursday, April 18, brought together local Red Cross volunteer nurses and members of O’Brien’s family, including great nephew William Cawthon. Together, they unveiled a new marker for O’Brien’s resting place and laid flowers trailing an American Red Cross ribbon on her grave.

The beloved nurse’s name can also be found on a plaque at Pershing Point Plaza. She is the only woman among WWI soldiers from Atlanta honored, according to MDJ.

Read more about O’Brien and last month’s ceremony at news.emory.edu.

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