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Ready, Aye Ready!

Some years ago, about 1965, the nurse in charge of the Grenfell Medical Mission Station at Nain, Labrador, told a story that could have come straight out of one of the more ribald of The Canterbury Tales.

A storm forced her to spend the night with the family she was visiting on an island off the coast. The house was a small, single-room structure of timber, the summer quarters of a fisherman and his family up from Newfoundland for the season. Its facilities were so primitive that she decided not to drink to avoid having to urinate during the night. The young woman huddled in her sleeping bag and lay awake listening to the sounds of the night, rain slashing down like broken glass and the throb of wind buffeting the walls. Though at first firmly resolved, she eventually became so uncomfortable that she had to appeal for help.

There was a whispered conversatioin between man and wife. The nurse’s host obligingly re-lit the oil lamp, opened a small trap door in one corner of the room and offered her the use of the indoor privy. By by now everyone was wide awake, watching her with unblinking eyes. ‘I was saved when the wind whistling through the trap door extinguished the lamp, she explained. ‘Only then I did I feel sufficiently fortified to withstand that arctic gale at my fanny.’

Why is it that succeeding generations of English nurses forsake the well-equipped hospitals of England for the crude and primitive life of Labrador? Why are they English (along with some American and locally-trained nurses) and not Canadian nurses? Is it masochism or some stronger pull that attracts them like iron filings to a magnet?

Many nurses are numbered among the dedicated band of people - doctors, secretaries and social workers, both men and women - who follow the path first trod by Sir Wilfred Grenfell more than 80 years ago. Dr Grenfell initially went to help the fishermen and isolated people of Northern Newfoundland and Labrador in 1892 and spent the next 40 years among them. The story of his crusade has been told many times and the International Grenfell Association (IGA), which carries on his work, has long had a world-wide reputation.

Conditions have changed since Grenfell’s day. Light aircraft have replaced the dog sleds and the hospitals are well-equipped. Communication with remote communities has also vastly improved but the bleak coastline is still there, the lonely nursing stations and the winters of seemingly interminable snow and ice.

The Grenfell Medical Mission, or simply GM as it is affectionately known, is largely funded by the Federal Government; the IGA offers additional and much-needed support through its Association chapters of friends in North American and the United Kingdom. The need for highly-qualified nurses is as great as ever.

Apart from any tradition which may have developed for employing English-trained nurses, it is the considerable lack of training in midwifery which makes Canadian nurses unsuitable for the work - a sad reflection on the rigidity of the medical profession in Canada.

Doctor Anthony (Tony) Paddon, Director of the GM’s Northern Medical Services, has expanded normal medical service to include the operation of a home in North West River for orphans and ‘battered’ women and is desperately trying to raise funds for a proper home.

To find out why nurses still go to Northern Newfoundland and Labrador, what attracts them and how conditions have changed over the years, we interviewed six generations of former and present IGA workers. We wanted to know how they came to hear of the Grenfell Mission, how they adjusted to the cultural change and what they found when they got there. With only the odd comment in parenthesis by way of explanation, here is what they had to say.

Ivy Durley, 60, with the Grenfell Mission from 1947 to 1957. Miss Durley lives in Fordingbridge, Hampshire, England.

I was at Flowers Cove under Dr. Curtis who, of course, was at St. Anthony. When I was young, everyone knew of the Grenfell Mission. I suppose we all have. It was as a little girl of eight, I think,

Winifred Burgess of Flowers Cove Nursing Station, Dr Charles Curtis, Superintendent of the Grenfell Association, and Ivy Durley, also a nurse of the Flowers Cove Nursing Station. Photo credit: Believed to have been published in 1949 by McGill University.
when I first heard of Dr. Grenfell, at Sunday School. I made up my mind to become a nurse and from then on did everything with a view to being a nurse on the Labrador. I planned everything from the beginning; I studied in a cottage hospital in Woodford Green, London, and, later, at Epping New Road, Salisbury. My midwifery training was done in London. I knew I had to know about fevers so I did fever training. Then there was health visitor’s training followed by infant welfare work. I worked it all out during the war (the Second World War) and did a health visitor’s scholarship in obstetrics in the home. We had to be good at obstetrics. During my time (with GM) we only lost one mother. She was brought in with a gravis-type toxemia of pregnancy, but we managed to get a live baby. Another time we had a baby in with one of the most awful…it had gastro enteritis (diarrhea), completely dehydrated. There was no intravenous (drip feeding through the blood stream). We lost it, poor thing.

Culture? Gracious no! We didn’t have much time for that. We often worked 18 hours a day, but the Grenfell Mission was a wonderful place to work for; they did everything to help us. We…Winifred Burgess did her training with me. She’s here now. We were in the GM together…at the same place. Isn’t that right Winifred? We shared some emergencies together, didn’t we? Some were rather funny (Laughter).

I remember once we had a wireless operator from near where the lighthouse was; he had a shoulder dislocated. He came to us and we never let on we knew nothing (about dislocated limbs). We’d never had one before. I said (to Winifred), “We’ have to practice” so we had a rehearsal in the lounge with a reference book on orthopedics while he was on the operating table. Then we went back and set the shoulder in a jiffy, to our absolute amazement. The patient said, “The doctor did me before, Miss. He took half an hour last time.” We told him it was no trouble to us.

In time…the people were marvellous to live with. They met us when we came back (travelling to the coast) and looked after us like gold dust. They were nature’s gentlemen.

Once we had trouble with the generating machine. The mechanic couldn’t read so I read the manual for him, but he still couldn’t get it going. When I reported it, we got a wire back to say they were sending the complete man. He came by dog team the next day. I asked him “Are you the complete man?” and he said, “I think so, miss.” Later, I asked the doctor to explain. He said the wireless operator meant ‘competent’ but couldn’t find in the book so he thought ‘complete’ was the best word to use.

We used to travel by dog team in those days, visiting, you know. Most of the homes were extremely poor.

Nurse Ivy Durley (1912-1996)
Courtesy Karen Garrett
One winter we were sitting on a bench going all around the wall. It was very dark. I felt something peck at my leg and shrieked with fright - they had brought the chickens in for the winter and one was pecking at my leg.

Oh yes, there were more frightening things. I was with a girl of eight, dangerously ill, on a journey of fifteen hours in an open boat. It was very stormy; we went and took an awful risk. Dr Curtis wrote to the government and British Parliament (before confederation). The Queen Mother (Queen Elizabeth the present Queen Mother) answered and said she didn’t know what they would do without English nurses. She is very proud of her nurses.

The funniest incident I remember…was…well, you see, the beacon keeper’s wife was well pregnant and very nervous though she had had several babies. She went into labour one very stormy night and the only one who didn’t know was me. She had the lighthouse keeper’s wife there to help; she had eighteen children. Half way through the delivery the mother decided she wanted to be in another room because, she remembered, she had lost three babies in that one. So they took the bed down and moved her on to the floor. First they couldn’t get the bed together again in the next room so they put the mattress on the landing and moved her on to it. In all the confusion…because the baby was coming…they lost the scissors and butcher’s twine and ended using the kitchen carving knife to cut the umbilical cord and the clothes line to tie the severed ends. (Laughter).  But it was all right in the end. People survive you know.

Dorothy Plant, 72. Former Director of Handicrafts and, later, Secretary to the Grenfell Labrador Medical Mission 1949-1953). Trained accountant. Now living in Toronto, Ontario.

The thing was, I was the daughter of a clergyman and heard about it in Sunday School at the time I became interested. I was an accountant with a U.S. firm. I am not a ‘women’s libber’, but I didn’t like coping in a man’s world: I felt I wanted to get completely away from the business world. A friend said one day, “If I was fifteen years younger I would go to the Grenfell Mission - I think it would be excellent for you.” Well, I was fifteen years younger. So I asked for an application form and made an appointment to see the secretary (of the IGA) in May…1949 this was. The secretary said they needed someone in handicrafts but I wasn’t terrible interested…I didn’t know the first thing about handicrafts. The thing was, she said, “If you have what the organisation needs…” So I thought oh well, heck! I’ll take the job. The salary was $800 a year plus my keep and all the cod I could eat. I gave up a good job, took a month off to settle my affairs and sailed with the Nelly Cluett to St. Anthony. They really wanted a business manager; I had to learn all about it from rock bottom. The director then was away at the time and got engaged. Dr. Curtis, in charge of St. Anthony at that time, said would I take on the director’s job? I said no, it’s not my cup of tea. My heart wasn’t in it, but I took it on and liked it.

Dr. Curtis used to have a saying that female members of the staff come to the north to get or to forget, which may or may not be true, but I don’t think so. Some found they could not fit in but on the whole this was not so. I wanted to do something that I thought would be worthwhile; this is mainly why I went.

We had so much to fill our lives. One made one’s own entertainment in those days. I had been a professional church singer at one time. These people (the Newfoundlanders and ‘liveyeres’ meaning ‘those who live here’) had beautiful voices. I directed the choir and we enjoyed extremely good music. We met all sorts of interesting people at St. Anthony’s for there were many visitors, but most of all I loved the local people. When I visited the coves I stayed with the local people; they are so open and uncomplicated. I’ll tell you what I mean.

I remember my first experience of visiting the coves. It was necessary to go to the loo (lavatory) It is always a problem in the north. There was nothing in the house. The woman of the house took me upstairs and brought a chamber pot from behind a curtain, then sat down to watch me use it. I said, “Thank you very much, but I can manage!” It was very difficult.

My dog team driver was a man name Tom, a Scotsman. You had to ask him to stop and of course you couldn’t go off the road when there was no road and no trees. When I first started travelling with him I’d ask him to stop every couple of miles and let me off while he took the dogs on. Then he’d wait and come back for me. In the end he said, “You’re just like the old man” - meaning Dr. Curtis - “You have to stop and make water. Och! you must have a weak bladder.” I don’t know but it was all right after that. I suppose I was nervous.

Tom came with me to Labrador, to drive the dogs when we were visiting. He knew the south but not further north…no, he wasn’t sure of the north. Once we were quite lost, no landmarks at all. A strong wind was blowing it was very frightening for both of us. We were in what they call a ‘white out’ - so Tom let the dogs have their lead and they brought us out of it by instinct. Things are not the same anymore; some machines (snow mobiles) have no instinct.

I loved the speech of the locals when I learned to understand them. Once my cook said the mayonnaise was ‘fouled’. When I asked her why she said “’Tis foolish but I put the heggs and the boil on hice.” I always loved them and went back (visiting) for five years.

I know about Arctic madness but I don’t know what causes it. Dr Curtis knew about it. He used to say at the end of a long winter, “If we can get them through March we’ll be lucky.”

I enjoyed working for the GM. I have so much to be grateful for.’

Shirley Yates, 42, Secretary (1959-1961) Now Secretary of the International Grenfell Association, London, England.

It’s much larger now than in the old days (referring to the Grenfell Mission). I don’t think they advertised (for recruits) then. Some of our families are in their third generation. A good many people who have gone to work there have stayed; it has a very strong pull. It’s the people who make Labrador. Their way of life is so different from ours. The thing is they’re so poor…there are very poor areas…some of the worst. Their outlook is entirely different…almost philosophical one would say. One woman came into see us because she was going to have a baby. She wouldn’t stay in the hospital…wouldn’t take one of our beds. She’d had a number of miscarriages but we thought she had a chance with this one. She went home, some distance away, and had the baby, then died eight days later from severe hemorrhaging. The nurse was very upset at the news and went to see the mother. The woman said, “Oh, miss! But she made a wonderful corpse.”

I worked as a secretary. The hospital had accommodation for 60 patients. At one time we had no cook or housekeeper; we got up at 4 o’clock in the morning to see the plane off…there was so much to do. I’ve never worked so hard in my life.

I suppose one could say I have a middle class background and also one, I think, could say the same about most people who worked for the GM in my time. One had records and books for intellectual stimulation but one had to adopt to their culture out of necessity. In many ways they live in a dream world. It is difficult to explain they live in tight-knit communities but like most impoverished people they are always ready to help one another.

There was a forest fire six miles inland from North West River one year and all the men from the village went to help put it out. They didn’t have to; the village was not in danger, but they went to help all the same.

No, we didn’t travel through the country very much. We used to visit Happy Valley (now a thriving town near Goose Bay) where there were some shops. We didn’t visit it often. One could live a very full life in North West River.

I enjoyed working for the IGA. I still do.

Susan Ambrose, 29, Nurse. (1975-   ) Presently employed by the Grenfell Medical Mission at North West River, Labrador.

I’ve been here since August of last year. I think…yes, I saw the ad in the Nursing Times. It was just that very few people go to Labrador and I thought it would be interesting to go there. I did my junior training at the Middlesex Hospital, London, and later at Cambridge. The money is now double what we are getting in England. In England I was running a car. A lot of it (the reason for employing English nurses) is that they get people with training in midwifery.

Coming here of course does require one to make an adjustment. I like it and there are interesting places to visit all around. I find it, you know…well, not quite so much to do. Winter is the best time of the year. The country is absolutely super, so primeval you know. A friend and I went to Montreal for a weekend and were quite glad to bet back.

You pick up the delightful expressions, the local people use, as though you’ve always used them yourself…such as ”Some good, Aye, b’y?” and “I hasn’t flid yet” (from the verb to ‘fly’). The local Eskimos and Indian people: It’s lovely working with them. The Eskimos seem so happy and friendly and the Indians not quite so. The Indians are the Nascaupi I think (of the Cree Nation)… I’m not quite sure. They are rather strange towards you at first. Once you have been here for a while they are very friendly and easy to get along with.

I find I read here a lot more than I did in England, but I brought very few (books) with me. We got English newspapers and magazines when I first came but they seem to have stopped coming. It’s the cost of postage I think. We get a little news here from the radio and I tend to listen more during the day than in the evening, to the CBC. For other recreation I have a pair of cross-country skis and there’s a good downhill ski run 20 miles along the road. Then there’s skating and ice fishing - and one can visit Happy Valley.

Comparing nursing here with elsewhere, the hospital is more like, say, a resident out-patient (establishment) so a lot of the work is clerical…basically clerical. You can’t cope. North West River staff is about eleven people; we work a three-shift system. At Nain there are three nurses and one public health nurse. A friend of mine was up there and I’m going myself shortly. I’m really looking forward to it. They say it’s a super place with 2,000-foot high cliffs, straight up from the sea.

The only thing that sticks in my mind, talking about local cures, is the practice of jumping on injured limbs to heal them. There have been two such cases since I’ve been here. Someone came in with a sprained wrist. He had been made to lay his arm on the floor and someone else stood on it, actually jumped on it rather. The second case was more serious. The patient had a broken arm and his friend jumped on it so when he came to us the arm was badly bruised as well as broken, but he survived. It’s quite funny really, the way their minds work.

Sarah Kutas, 22, Secretary from Northampton, England. Presently Secretary to Dr. Anthony Paddon, North West River, Labrador.

I read the advertisement in The Times. I had decided I had to work abroad for a while and Labrador seemed exciting. Not too many people come here. I haven’t made up my mind yet, but I think I may stay for a second year. I’ve been here four and a half months. No, I have been anywhere else since I came here except to Cartwright. That is on the coast, you know. I went by helicopter. You see, it’s very difficult…I mean during the freeze-up and break-up when they’re changing from skis to floats and back again so nowadays we use a helicopter.

I think the people of Labrador are super. There’s one thing I don’t miss, seeing the television here. It wouldn’t suit most people. The local people come to visit us and there are all sorts of handicrafts to interest you, stone polishing with Labradorite (a bright blue quartz peculiar to Labrador) and that sort of thing. I’m keen to have a bash at that.

There’s cross-country skiing and ice fishing, a super life if you like that sort of thing. So, or course, I know don’t what it’s like here in the summer but they say it gets quite hot. What I’m sure I’ll not like are the black flies and mosquitoes. I suppose one has to use ‘Scram’ or ‘Buzz-off’ or something like that. I can always bash them with a cricket bat.

'I like it here; it’s different!'

Louise Greenfield, 51, nurse, (1957-1867). Now nursing in London. Shares accommodation with another ex-Labrador nurse, Sheila Cree (1950-1972).

I obtained the Labrador post through the pages of the nursing journals - which one I can’t recall, but everyone knows about the GM. Most church-going children know Labrador. They told us something about it in my church group and…when you see an advertisement you feel you want to go. You feel you are needed. I got on a mail boat at Liverpool for St John’s (Newfoundland) and from there I was told to go off and staff the nursing station at Forteau because the nurse there was sick. On my way (by boat) I got my first introduction to nursing with the GM by a delivery on board the ship.

Our hospital was not as big as a cottage hospital - we could take fifteen about. The area we covered was fifty miles inland and a hundred miles south (of the station). We travelled by dog team with a dog team driver - all in the winter of course.

How did we cope with the home cures? Well, the people were pretty good at some things. They used to scrape resin from the tree and make it into a poultice, which was very effective I must say, and they had the sense to keep wounds clean. But in some things they went to extremes.

We once had a radio call “Stand by quick. Bleeding nose badly.” We prepared for a desperate emergency. The emergency arrived and he did look washed out. He was holding a wad of green wool to his nose and his escort said, “Oh yes, miss. We managed to find some emerald green wool.” They were from an Irish community. I inspected the wound, it was a very small one. I said, “You surely don’t believe that…” (putting green wool to the wound, I meant) and he said, “Well, it stopped the bleeding, didn’t it?”

They also used cork (as a medicinal remedy) for some things and copper bands to prevent ‘weather pups’. These are blisters fishermen get on the wrists and I really do think the bands help by keeping the wrists free of hairs which might irritate and infect sores.

Some years earlier, apparently, one of the GM nurses had told the local people about sterilized dressing and shown them how to sterilize. But they didn’t see the sense of getting them soaked with steam; they sterilized by baking them in the oven in a tin until they were brown.

I was for some time in Cartwright (at the mouth of Lake Melville on the Labrador coast) which at that time had a population of 700 people. There was a thriving social life; we belonged to the club and we had Sunday School. The people are charming and quite fatalistic.

I remember a 91 year old who was a patient of ours for nine months. He was a bright and cheerful and in very good health. Then he asked to see use all - children, grandchildren, friends and nurses. He spoke to us all quite happily, shook hands, said goodbye and then laid down and died.

The people of Labrador have great respect for one another. The men still call their daughters “little maids” and children call fathers “Sir”.

The first delivery, on the way to St. Anthony, was a difficult one. The mother was bleeding and couldn’t push the baby out so I had to use forceps. I pulled out a ten pound baby. The mother was relieved and she said, “You saved my life, miss”, then she had twins.

I shall never forget working for the GM. There is a very strong bond.

Published 1973 in North/Nord Magazine

With thanks to Mrs Karen Garrett for recovering a copy this article from the papers of her great-aunt, Miss Ivy Durley.