He was about 6 or 7 when Allen first met him while working as a nurse on the children’s tuberculosis ward at Sea View Hospital from 1947 to 1957. Though he was in a full-body cast to correct spinal tuberculosis, Willy was always smiling, always laughing and always mischievous -- often deliberately dropping things to get the attention of the medical staff.
And, he rarely complained, even during excruciating baths to keep his delicate skin clean.
“If he saw you walking by or anywhere near him, he would call you just to stop and talk,” said Allen, 90, one of the 300 Black nurses who worked at Sea View, which was the largest global hospital for TB patients from 1928 to 1961.
They came to be called the Black Angels by their patients because they performed the work white nurses refused.
“The reason why Black nurses were able to be hired is because there was a walk-out of white nurses in the early years of Sea View, therefore it gave us an opportunity,” Allen said. “The nurses were recruited from far and wide. By working at Sea View, they were sacrificing their lives because anyone of them could have been contaminated with TB.”
A Depression-era baby, Virginia Allen was born on Aug. 15, 1931, in Pittsburgh. Her parents moved to Detroit when she was 5 to look for work. Her aunt, Edna Sutton-Ballard, frequently visited from Staten Island and shared her stories of nursing with young Virginia, inspiring her to pursue the same career path.
Allen moved to Staten Island in 1947 to live with her aunt who was already working at Sea View Hospital. At only 16, she joined the staff of the Children’s Hospital at Sea View as a nurse's aide, caring for tuberculosis patients ranging in age from newborns to 18-year-olds. She became a Licensed Practical Nurse in 1956.
“Sea View was like a little community, it was like a little village,” Allen said. “The children were like any children you would come in contact with outside, but they were confined to wards, so they made their community right here. We were taking care of very sick patients, so we tried to do our best to make it comfortable for them.”
Today, she sees a little bit of herself in the medical staff who have been caring for COVID-19 patients. When Sea View Hospital opened in 1913, tuberculosis was the city’s deadliest disease.
“It’s a mirror, it’s a reflection of what we did,” she said, though she noted there was no cure, no vaccine -- and very few, if any, discharges of patients.
“Most of them died here or stayed here until they aged out at 18 and were moved to the adult pavilion or other facilities,” she said.
A cure would ultimately be discovered at Sea View in 1951. Doctors were working on finding a cure for years when Sea View’s Dr. Edward Robitzek and his team began giving a new drug to patients who weren’t responding to other treatments -- and they worked. One woman told The New York Times that she considered the drug ''the most wonderful thing in the world." The last patient with tuberculosis was discharged in 1961.
Allen stayed at Sea View until 1957 -- Willy was still a patient there and she never did learn his fate. She worked as a private duty nurse and became a powerful advocate for the rights of healthcare workers with Local 1199, the largest union of healthcare workers in New York. She also worked for Local 144, another union for healthcare workers, among other jobs.
Allen retired on June 30, 1995, after 15 years working with the “wonderful surgeons” in the operating room at Staten Island University Hospital.
Throughout her life, Allen has shown as much dedication to her community as she did to her patients. A 2005 Staten Island Advance Woman of Achievement, she holds leadership positions in numerous organizations, including the National Council of Negro Women, the Staten Island Urban League, the Staten Island Chapter of the Lambda Kappa Mu Sorority, the New York State Women, the Harriett Tubman Purple Hat Society, the Staten Island Ballet, the Board of Directors at Frederick Douglas Memorial Park, the Sandy Ground Historical Society and the Friends of the College of Staten Island.
In January, Allen attended the unveiling of three panels of murals at Sea View Hospital Rehabilitation Center and Home, which depict its history dating back to when it was founded in 1829 as part of the New York City Farm Colony. The second panel in the series highlights the work of the Black Angels. In June, she was awarded an Honorary Doctorate of Humane Letters from the College of Staten Island.
Allen’s daughter followed in her footsteps by becoming a registered nurse. She has two grandchildren and three great-grandchildren.
Her life came full circle in 2008 when she moved into a one-bedroom apartment at Park Lane at Sea View, a senior housing complex that was the nurses’ residence where she once lived. From a window, the building that housed the Children’s Hospital is still visible, now home to an FDNY training facility.
“It brings back a lot of wonderful memories,” Allen said. “I didn’t consider myself a Black Angel. I was just a worker, a person who was there to do my job and I came to love my job. I am happy to still be alive as the last living Black Angel to tell the story of the sacrifices the Black nurses made during the pandemic. I am keeping their legacy alive."