Labrador History - 1.1 INTRODUCTION

Chapter 1

The Spring of May 1954 was normal on the coast of Labrador, but the time of year was bad for travel. There were no roads at the time and there was not enough Snow for dog teams. The ice was too thin to support planes and at the same time too thick for boats to push through. Then there was the fog! That famous Labrador fog!
In a crisis the effects of the weather are multiplied, and at the Grenfefl Mission Nursing Station at Forteau we had an emergency on our hands. A five year old boy needed to be airlifted to a hospital over in Newfoundland and we were essentially “socked in.” This went on for five days. Five long days! A little boy’s life hanging in the balance, while nothing was moving along the Labrador coast, and we waited, and waited, and waited.
It began when a little boy was brought to me at the nursing station by his mother towards the end of May. Georgie, five years old and the eldest of three, was in pain and his tummy hurt.
“What’s wrong?” I asked.
“Georgie has a pain in his stomach,” his mother said. “And he’s been vomiting.”
“Does he have any diarrhea?”
When I examined him, his abdomen was not tender and his temperature was normal. I told her to watch him and give nothing except clear fluids to drink.

Nursing Station Labrador
“Bring him back if his pain continues or he gets worse.” I said.
The following day they were back.
“How are you, Georgie?” I asked.
“My belly hurts,” he replied.
His mother told me his pain seemed to have got worse and he had continued to vomit. Also, he seemed tender on the right side of his belly. Now I was concerned. I examined Georgie and found he was indeed tender on the right side of his abdomen, and he had a slight fever.
“I think we’d better keep Georgie in the nursing station, and I’ll contact the doctor in St. Anthony,” I said.
Georgie was not very happy about this but his mother calmed him by promising to come and visit him. As she and her fisherman husband had two other children at home, a little girl of three and a baby about a year old, this was not going to be easy.

I suspected he had acute appendicitis, and decided to get him into hospital. In this case that meant a trip across the Strait of Belle Isle to St. Anthony, at the tip of the Northern Peninsula of western Newfoundland. In good weather this was not a problem, but in the spring?
When Georgie was safely tucked in bed, I called the hospital in St. Anthony over the radio-telephone (the R/T) to speak to a doctor. This had to be done discreetly because people listening to radios at home could pick up messages and, for obvious reasons, this made it difficult to talk freely. To avoid unnecessary anxiety for families we used codes for specific medical conditions when on the R,T.
“This is CJZ33, calling CJZ3O,” I called.
“Go ahead ‘33,” replied St. Anthony.
“Could I speak to the doctor, please?”
“Go ahead.”
“Dr. Westen,” I said, “I have a little five year old boy with acute abdominal pain for the past two days. He has also been vomiting.”
“Does he have any tenderness or guarding on the right side?” the doctor asked.
“Yes, he does. He has a slight fever too. His pulse is 120.”
“We’ll try and get a plane to pick him up,” the doctor said. “Meantime, give him antibiotics, watch his symptoms, and give him fluids only. Let me know how he does.” (In all this conversation I had used coded words to describe some of his symptoms and the tentative diagnosis.)
Getting a plane wasn’t that easy. Georgie’s aunt was the postmistress in Forteau and was able to radio telephone the pilots who flew the mail planes of Eastern Provincial Airlines. This way she was able to keep me informed of their whereabouts, and was valuable to us because we transported patients on mail planes if they had room. Alas, nothing could be done. At that time of year planes were unable to land on the ponds, because the ice was melting and was not strong enough to bear weight. The bay in front of the nursing station was full of ice pans, so the planes could not land there either and, to make matters worse, the fog had come down!
At times of emergency, tension rises and all share the load and feel the stress. In a small community everybody knows about and shares in a crisis and, in a way, it is like one big family. People along the coast are aware of and care for each other.
We were five days like this, waiting, praying that the fog would lift. We took courage in the fact that the little lad’s condition was stable and his pain had subsided somewhat, but we knew this only gave us a little time. He was a very good patient, though, and his parents came to visit him when they could. Naturally, they were very anxious. And so was everybody else.
The final option was to contact the Royal Canadian Air Force. Maybe they could do something. They said they would try, suggesting the use of a float plane that could put down on open water, our responsibility being to get the patient that far. If we could do that they would pick up the boy and his father, who was going to accompany him, and take them to hospital.
And so it was that on the fifth day the Air Force sent in a plane, conditions having improved somewhat. Three or four miles away, on the far side of the bay at L’Anse Amour, a little cove near the lighthouse had open water. This is where they putdown and waited for us. The ice was packed in along the shore in Forteau, doubling the problem by making it difficult to get across.

Nursing Station Labrador 1950's

Nursing Station Labrador 1950's

We carried the boy by stretcher to Buckle’s Point, a small settlement of three or four families, about a mile away at the mouth of the flyer, The terrain was a mess and walking was difficult enough, without the added burden of a stretcher, but the local men were up to it and the objective was achieved.
There remained the problem of the ice, for the plane was a little distance offshore, not daring to come closer. At Buckle’s Point we got a boat. Seasoned fishermen, their abilities honed by a lifetime on the dangerous ocean, skilfully threaded their way in and out of the ice pans, pushing the ice out of the,y with a gaff. Long poles with hooks on their ends, these were made for sealing operations and used to pull seal carcasses over the ice to waiting boats. Now one was used to clear a path to save a life. Their weariness overcome by the thought that the life of a boy depended on them, they struggled to reach open water and reach the waiting plane.
Finally they got clear of the ice and approached the waiting aircraft that rocked gently, yet purposefully in the waves. In contrast to the determined men manoeuvring the boat, the aircrew, not having suffered the tension of the last five days with the rest of us but being ever sensitive to the drama of the occasion, were hanging out of the plane taking photographs of the proceedings! And well they might.
There was no shortage of hands to hoist Georgie’s stretcher onto the plane and get him strapped down. The roar of the plane as it rose off the bay and flew off to the east was music to those of us who had carried this load for so long - at last Georgie was going to get the operation he needed. At last he was going to get a chance to live. Once more I sighed with relief as another burden was lifted.
Problems didn’t end there, however, as we found out later. The fog across the straits at St. Anthony was as bad as ours was in Forteau, so the plane diverted to Corner Brook, a city two hundred miles to the southwest on the coast of Newfoundland. On arrival the child was found to have an appendix abscess, which was probably why his symptoms had subsided. After surgery, he stayed in hospital for a month and recovered well, so our efforts were not in vain.
In the meantime, however, Georgie’s father was having an ordeal in his own right. Travel on the Labrador and Newfoundland coasts in the 1950’s was a luxury and, for someone who probably never had been off the “coast” before and with the added burden of a sick child, this was a remarkable experience. However, Western Newfoundland and the Labrador Coast was a large place but a small community and the father had a cousin in Corner Brook. This fortunate circumstance took care of accommodation problems until Georgie was ready for discharge. But the all critical fishing season was drawing near and with it the opportunity to make a living and provide for his family, and the father still had to make his way home - and at his own expense! Again the community rallied around and he was able to work on the wharf at Corner Brook, earning sixty dollars, enough for the fare home on the coastal boat. He got home to his waiting wife and children in time for the fishing season.
All ended well THIS time and, for the trip home on the boat, the cousin gave Georgie a new green peaked cap and a long raglan. The doctor, in turn, sent me a nice letter telling me the diagnosis and treatment that had been given. It was reassuring.
That May afternoon, however, watching the plane take off from that remote cove, a burden was lifted from me in more ways than one and I reflected a little. I had been a nurse on the Labrador Coast for less than a year. How different and varied was medical practice in this remote situation. How little time it seemed since I had arrived and yet I felt I had been here forever. So much had happened since that September afternoon in 1953 when I first set foot on The Labrador.