Labrador History - 2.1 ALONE

Mary TaylorChapter 2

I was alone! But not alone, for I was very conscious of support. There was the wonderful human support from Bertha, the nurse’s aide, and from Winnie, our wonderful cook. Winnie always made sure that I went out with adequate clothing and had a hot meal waiting when I returned from my rounds, or from an urgent call. Despite this backing, so much responsibility rested on me t1at often I would say, “Winnie, I am not a doctor,” as I was made aware of my own inadequacy. She was always a tower of strength on these occasions. There was, of course, much more than this and during those early months of adjustment to new and often frightening experiences, I was ever conscious of a Presence with me, leading and guiding in decisions which had to be made.
I had my first emergency admission at the end of September, soon after Leslie left. This was an eighteen-month old girl with acute bronchiolitis, a respiratory disease affecting small children, which can be very alarming at times for both parents and medical staff. We had no croupette or oxygen and the little girl was having trouble with her breathing, so I had to think of something to relieve her symptoms. Forming a shelter with sheets over the sides and top of a crib, I setup a steam tent by positioning a kettle of boiling water on an electric ring beside it, with the spout directed towards a hole in the shelter.
It worked! Bertha and I took turns watching the little one; making sure that she did not get hold of the kettle and, the nurse being responsible for night care, this was the first of many nights of broken rest that were to follow over the years. Fortunately the little one soon recovered, and we were able to take down the tent when her breathing improved. She was a dear little girl and we became firm friends.
She was from Forteau and her parents lived fairly close to the nursing station, so she was fortunate they were able to come and see her. Some children came from a distance and parental visits were not always possible, causing problems because children never like being parted from their parents. I admitted a little boy shortly after this who set up a cry which was to last intermittently for the entire time of his stay with us.
“Tell Mommy and Daddy to come and get me in the big boat,” he wailed and great sobs followed.
It was fortunate that he did not have to stay with us for very long, and that he was from nearby English Point, a small settlement across the bay. Nowadays parents are encouraged to stay with their children as much as possible while they are in hospital, but in those early days many folk on the coast had big families so this alternative was not practical for them.
We had several antenatal patients booked for delivery in early October and I could hardly wait for the first one to be admitted. Being a midwife was one of the aspects of nursing I dearly enjoyed, and delivering babies is a love that has never left me. In Canada nurses are not encouraged to deliver babies themselves but at that time in Labrador and Newfoundland, because of the isolated conditions, we were expected to do so.
I worked in delivery in British Columbia, when I first came to Canada. and gained quite a lot of experience along this line because nurses took care of the women when they were in labour, only calling the doctor for the actual delivery. We were taught to give ether or chloroform briefly during the actual delivery, knowledge that came in useful during my early years in Labrador. In addition, we were expected to care for the new-born infant, resuscitating where necessary. All this prepared me for the years ahead.
Expectant mothers who lived out of town used to come and stay in Forteau if they were able to find a boarding house. If not, frequently they stayed at the nursing station if there was room. We were like one big, happy family.
The first one to be admitted in labour was a woman from Red Bay, the settlement I visited on my first trip in the district, and she
bad quite a large family already. A woman from L’Anse-au-Loup, expecting her third, followed her shortly afterwards. We had two deliveries that afternoon, a boy at 2:00 p.m. and a girl at 5:00 p.m. Fortunately, they did not always arrive in such close proximity! I loved caring for the little ones, bathing them each day and dressing them in the pretty clothes that were donated to us. I even took them up to bed with me, so the mothers could get a good night’s sleep, a practice I had to give up later or I would never have got any sleep myself!
The last summer I worked in Labrador, 1984, I was privileged to attend the wedding of my first baby boy, now a grown man, and have since received a photo of his little son. The baby girl became a nurse and now has three children of her own.
I was rather lonely when Leslie left, but work soon filled the gap and Leslie had left me a companion, her beautiful Newfoundland dog, Brutus. When she was leaving she gave me strict instructions not to let the husky dogs near him, as they could be vicious. These dogs were kept in pens along the seashore during the summer, but during the winter they were chained near the houses. I enjoyed taking the big Newfoundland for walks, but was always afraid of meeting any dogs and the resultant scrap over dominance. Nevertheless, it happened.
One winter day, looking through the clinic window, I was horrified to see a group of dogs outside the station, with Brutus standing in the middle. The dogs were all snapping and snarling aI him. He just stood there and ignored them. Even as I watched, however, one of them got a bit too bold and attacked. He grabbed the dog by the throat and pushed him down, as if to say, “See! Who’s master here? This is MY territory!” None of the other dogs bothered him after that. He was master.
The station staff were hard working and loyal. In addition to Bertha and Winnie, there was Stewart, our handyman, who did an excellent job of keeping things running smoothly. Mechanically, there was much to go wrong; the pump, electrical generator and the radio-telephone, to name just a few. He talked so fast that frequently I could not understand a word he said, but he always had a joke and a smile as he made arrangements for my dog team treks and boat trips. One of his jobs was to bring in and put away freight from the Nellie A. Cluett, the Grenfell supply boat that came each fall bringing our winter supply of fresh fruit and vegetables. A man of all trades was our Stewart.
I remember one memorable occasion when I asked him to get me some turpentine for a poultice. He was gone a long time and I began to get a bit impatient when he finally turned up with some pieces of hard, gum like material.
“What have you got there?” I asked.
“You wanted me to get some turpentine,” he replied. I must admit that I had never seen turpentine in a solid form before! I had meant him to buy a bottle at the store.
As the months moved towards Christmas, the weather got colder and we began to get “frozen in” for the winter. Coastal boats were still running but the water was becoming increasingly “heavy”, and each morning a thick vapour would rise from the sea as it started to freeze. Frequently it rained and then became colder, so the ground would freeze and become very slippery, making it difficult to get around. I heard people say, “You need your Creapers on,” and was not quite sure what they meant. “Creapers”, it turned out, were tin cans, hammered flat and punctured to make them rough, which were laced over boots. Some had rubber with a rough surface.
Going out to the steamer, either to see patients off for home or to greet them on arrival, became more difficult. One year I had to board an even bigger boat, a freighter, to see a patient who had had a heart attack, as I recall. Climbing over the ice-covered side of the boat in the middle of the night was quite a hazardous undertaking. I helped the patient, and then one of the crew took me to the dining area and gave me a cup of tea, which helped ME!
Isolation increased as we became “iced in”, a condition when ice is too thick to sail through but too thin to land on. Sometimes families and friends pitched in and improvisations were many! Early in December, just as these conditions were developing, an old lady from Forteau was brought in after she fell downstairs and twisted her ankle very badly. It sounded like a fracture dislocation. Her son noticed that her foot was crooked and, with great presence of mind, pulled on it hard. He hears a click as the bones slipped back into place, reducing the dislocation! It was a good thing that he did, as we could not get her to St. Anthony at that time and she might have been crippled.
When I examined her, I found the ankle was bruised and swollen. We admitted “Aunt Lou” to the nursing station and put her to bed, elevated her leg on pillows and applied cold compresses to reduce the swelling. The next day we made plaster splints, padding them carefully to avoid further damage, and bandaged them to her leg. We had no X-ray facilities and, because of icy conditions, no plane could get in to pick her up.
When the swelling subsided I applied a walking cast and she was able to go home, much to her delight. She had this cast on for about three months and, when I took it off, she seemed none the worse for her fall, thanks to the original thoughtfulness of her son. Her son, incidentally, later became my dog team driver. We found out we were all on the medical team when we were iced in!
I was not as alone as I thought I was!