Diaries through the decades: Florence Martinez injects world with love, joy

If you combined Jane from Tarzan and Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman, you would begin to understand where Florence Martinez is coming from.

Martinez grew up in Castile, N.Y. and attended nurse training 10 miles away in Warsaw. She said she was looking forward to helping with the World War II effort, but it ended before she had the chance. Her opportunities for excitement, though, had not run out.

One of Martinez's neighbors worked for United Fruit Company and, knowing her desire for travel and adventure, suggested Martinez join as a nurse. She was sent to Panama, near the Costa Rican border. There, Martinez was a nurse in a compound surrounded by jungle, serving the casualties of the banana fields.

"They would bring their patients in at night, on a railroad track," she said. "We'd have to admit up to 100 patients." Malaria and respiratory illness was common among the laborers, who worked through the day to support their families, said Martinez. Her responsibilities as a jungle nurse were greater than those often associated with the field. She even delivered babies without the presence of doctors, which Martinez said she found exciting.

The hospital was in a village where threats from the wilderness were common. Martinez's house was raised on stilts to protect it from floodwaters. One day, she said she climbed up to discover 14 feet of boa constrictor coiled around her rafters, and certainly did not appreciate its presence.

"A native boy who worked across the road came over with his machete and took care of him," she said. Other wildlife was abundant: Stingrays could regularly be heard slapping the surface of the nearby river, and Martinez's husband often fished for sharks.

Martinez said she met her husband, José, in the village club, the sole form of entertainment for the nurses. There were drinks, dancing and a movie once a week - Martinez remembers seeing the 1939 film Gone With the Wind for the first time in the club, when she met José. She said she remembers them going on dates, he with a Spanish-English dictionary in his pocket. Eventually, they married and had two children. It was impossible for them to attend school in Panama, so the family said goodbye to the rainforest and moved back to Rochester.

Back in the states, the couple had two more children. José held work steadily for approximately 30 years at Kodak, while Martinez filled positions at hospitals and nursing homes across the Rochester area, and also took on private cases. Martinez said she loves to help others and she did so as a nurse for approximately 50 years. She is now 84 years old and a resident of the Morgan Estates Assisted Living Facility in Geneseo.

Martinez said she urges students to take advantage of their youth. "Grab the donkey by the tail," she said. "Don't be afraid to try new things … How are you going to know whether you like it or not?"