Manitoba History: Diary of a Nurse
by Evelina Adams
It is my desire to tell the story of the three years (1918-1921) I spent in the training school for nurses in the Neepawa General Hospital.
I feel obliged to pay tribute to the original [hospital] building which, somewhat changed in appearance, was still proudly standing, serving the public, until early in the 1980s.
Back in the early 1900s the thriving community of Neepawa began to consider a proposal by the late J. A. Davidson to build a hospital. Not much headway was made until 1902, when the late J. J. Hamilton became very ill and was taken to a Winnipeg hospital. Upon his recovery and return home, he was fully persuaded that Neepawa needed a hospital. Through his efforts and donations of $100 also made by several of his friends, a building fund was established. Rosedale municipality donated $1750, Langford $1250, and Lansdowne $1000. With public support the fund soon reached $12000. A site was chosen on the north east corner upon a knoll overlooking the White Mud River. The Fusee & McFeetor construction company received the contract and the first sod was turned in July 1903. The original Act to incorporate the Neepawa General Hospital was granted by the Manitoba Legislature on 8 February 1904, and included a provision for it to become a training school for nurses. The first Matron was a Mrs. Snider, and the first class was composed of Miss Christina McConnell, Miss Bertha Rowland, and Miss Margaret Lamb.
The first patient, admitted on 24 May 1904, was a Mr. John Falloon of Birnie, with Dr. I. L. McInnis physician-in-charge. The four floor brick building provided accommodation for twenty patients. Public wards cost $1, and private wards $2 per day. The training school was discontinued in 1945, having graduated some one hundred nurses.
Improvements made throughout the years consist of the following. In August 1919, the Neepawa Victory Loan Committee, with the war over and some money on hand headed by Mr. J. A. Clare decided to build a home for the nurses. An architect from Winnipeg designed the building, and it was constructed by Mr. Wm. Clyde and crew, across from the hospital to the west. On 19 January 1920 the official opening was held. This fine building was demolished in 1981.
During 1926, a much needed west-wing was added, which served for fifty years. In 1951, the new District Memorial Hospital was built, thirty four beds, at an approximate cost of $170,000. At the opening the late Dr. J. S. Poole cut the ribbon. He was practicing in Neepawa when the first hospital was opened. Staff at this time were Superintendent Miss Olive Dennison, R.N., eight registered nurses, four licensed practical nurses and three student practical nurses. During the mid-1970s a major renovation of the building took place at a cost of some three quarters of a million dollars.
My knowledge of the Neepawa General Hospital dates back to my early childhood. My mother had been admitted to this hospital in the fall of 1904, with as was then diagnosed a chronic heart condition, and under the care of Dr. J. S. Poole. Again during the summer of 1906 she was re-admitted. Our house-keeper at that time was Miss Annie Palmer and she took me by train to Neepawa to visit my Mother. We stayed in the King Edward Hotel on Hamilton Street, close to where the present telephone building now stands. Across the street, south, there was a large livery stable, and Annie rented a horse and buggy to drive to the hospital. The horse was an old pacer. We had never seen or heard of an animal with such a strange gait and we feared the beast would fall over. However we arrived there and back safely. I remember the lovely white sunny ward, south west corner, my mother was in. All told, a great experience for a little girl. My mother recovered sufficiently to come home, but again in 1913 she was taken back to Neepawa hospital as her condition worsened. A student nurse, Miss McCallum, brought her home, where she died on 5 December.
On 4 February 1918, I arrived from my home at Rossburn by C.N.R., to report at the General Hospital, hopefully to begin training and eventually become a nurse. Mr. Fusee met me at the train and drove me to his home where I met Mrs. Fusee and three daughters. The elder daughter, Robeena, was teaching school near my home of Rossburn and we had become friends, hence the kindness of her family to me, which I did appreciate. That evening “Alex” and I attended a concert held on the third floor of the brick school situated almost across the street (west) from at that time the Methodist Church (now United).
The next morning Mr. Fusee drove me to the hospital where I was interviewed by the Matron Miss Sarah Sirett. She was a tall dark haired lady. She was kind but made it very clear that I would obey the rules and regulations, and strictly observe nursing ethicsstand when she approached and always when a Doctor was present. In fact after all these years I still have to restrain myself from rising when my Dr. enters the examining room. My little trunk and I were taken to our room, the large north east corner room on the third floor. It contained four single beds, a small table and chair each, and an allotment of pegs to hang up our clothing. Four girls were to be accepted, Miss Hazel Fallis, Miss Florence Swainson (Swany), Miss Elizabeth McNab (Mac) and Evelina Sinclair (Sine), which has stuck with me over all these years. Those stairs, three flights down to the basement where the kitchen, dining room, laundry, furnace room, store room and caretaker’s bedroom, bring the caretaker to mind. He was John Groves, an elderly English seaman, whom we addressed as “Father.” He was blessed with one gaitslow. He could be quite vocal if annoyed and if he should not choose to hear you, better to do the job yourself. He owned a lovely big cat, “Chummy,” who slept all day and kept watch over the night nurse at night.
As probationers we did have a rough time, really nothing unusual and I expect we handed out the same treatment, but I am sure not quite so miserable. Not long after we arrived I was requested to stand in and observe the delivery of a baby. This sounds strange in this day and age when sex, pregnancy, etc., etc. are common subjects of discussion, for me to admit that I had no idea how a baby could possibly be born. True. When my periods started, I was sure I was about to die. Well back to the case. At this time the delivery room was simply a private ward, and the patient was a grey haired lady, whom I imagined was too old to be having a baby. The delivery was very difficultI was horrified and this remained vividly in my mind for a long, long time. To add to my state of shock I was given the job of washing out the bloody mess from the case, with a senior nurse dropping in to check my progress, to my utter disgust. The next shock later was to clean up my first slippery newly born babe, Edith Crabbe. She survived, and is married now with grandchildren of her own.
The two months of probation ended and we were officially accepted, and allowed to wear our caps. We wore medium dark blue dresses, with a white bib and full white apron and stiff white collar and cuffs. Black stockings and shoes. Lectures started in earnest by the three Doctors, Poole, McInnis and Martin. It was not an easy task trying to study with four girls in one room. However, we managed. Day shift we worked from 7 A.M. - 7 P.M. If possible two hours off during the day for study, rest, etc. and one half day off each week. If out, in by ten o’clock and one late leave each month until midnight. Night duty, one month, 7 P.M. - 7 A.M., except Sunday when you came to work at 6:30 P.M. so that the day shift girls could attend church of their choice. The hospital Board paid us the sum of eight dollars monthly.
I knew very well that all prospective nurses encounter embarrassing moments. We had been lectured and had observed the proper procedure to administer a simple soap suds enema (S.S.E.). One fine morning I was ordered to give one to, horrors, a male patient who was the town policeman, with whom we were acquainted. I made the usual preparations but when the moment came to insert that rectal nozzle I just could not do so, and decided the gentleman could do this for me, to which he consented. So carefully under cover I handed him the well lubricated nozzle. “Ready?” “Yes!” I released the clamp on the rubber tube and watched the water disappearing nicelywhen suddenly I heard water dripping and discovered I had emptied over half an enema can of water into the bed. The chuckles of the two men patients behind the curtain along with a complete change of bedding and the preparation for a second enema, given under the watchful eyes of a senior nurse really taught me a lesson. Never did I ever ask a male or female patient to insert anything anywhere again. The policeman, well I could cheerfully have slain him. He has long since gone to his reward.
During that first summer of 1918 we had little time for extracurricular activities. One thing for sure was that we were always hungry, hungry. At that time there was a nice garden just east of the hospital, and we decided we could certainly use anything edible that could be obtained. Just how? Well from our bedroom window, on the north side of the third floor, a narrow iron ladder (fire escape) attached to the wall and extended to ground. Being the smallest I was elected to go down during the late evening equipped with a school bag, and bring back some garden produce. The location of the plants had been carefully noted before hand. We managed this once or twice each week, especially when the cucumbers and tomatoes were ready. Someone else always managed to have some bread or what have you available. Years later as I lay ill in the new hospital just opposite, looking at the distance down and remembering that narrow ladder, long since discarded, I wondered how I had ever done such a thing!
One item from that garden that we never did swipe was a lemon.
The cook preserved citron and it was served to us so often we all hated it. In all these years I have never eaten or even grown a citron. Another item on the menu was Elk meat. The game wardens and police were forever catching some men who had gone hunting illegally. They would confiscate the carcass and always donate part to the hospital, which became a regular part of our diet. I have never been able to look an elk or a moose, dead or alive, in the face since. I do not believe that the hospital ever bought liquor which was occasionally prescribed for patients. Again it was confiscated by the police and donated to the hospital where it was securely locked away.
Weekly it was the duty of one nurse to be in the kitchen for all three meals and see that the trays were properly set up, check special diets, and send the trays up. This is where I must explain about the dumb waiter. A wooden box affair, open front was fitted with two shelves to carry three trays. This box fitted into a well that reached from the kitchen to the third floor and was drawn up and down by a heavy rope on a pulley arrangement. Trays carefully placed and ready, the nurse rattled the rope and the nurse above pulled up the lift, removed the trays, rattled the rope and the kitchen staff (could be the nurse) pulled it down again. This was repeated when sending the trays back after the meal. That dumb waiter was heavy and that rope hard on the hands. During busy periods the caretaker would occasionally help pull. While on the kitchen I must tell about the milk supply. Milk was delivered by a Mr. Roche Bailey who lived north of Neepawa. This was plain raw milk, hand milked from plain barn stabled cows. Being a farm girl with some experience milking cows, I was worried and hoped the milker was a dry stripper-not wet. Explanationwith the thumb and first finger of both hands you proceeded to remove the last vestige of milk from the cows udder. This was much easier if the teats were moistened, usually with milk. My father was very strict about this and we were forbidden to ever use this method. The reason became obvious, hence my anxiety. Enough, let us leave the kitchen. During any spare time on day or night duty, nurses made dressings, swabs, etc. cut to the proper size by the operating room nurse. Even patients when able, were invited to assist in this never ending project.
During my first year I received a lesson in discipline I remember well. On duty at a particularly sad maternity case, I found myself near tears. Doctor Poole glanced at me in disgust and said, “Miss Sinclair if you cannot control your emotions, leave this room.” A dash of cold water could not have been more effective. I did not leave.
Nurses with families living on farms in this district were very kind to us, often driving in to take us out for the evening, especially during the winter months when farm folk are not so busy. Miss McNab’s sister and husband, the Bert David-on’s and her McNab grandparents and family, were the first to offer their hospitality. Later Miss Gladys Donaldson, who came to train soon after we girls, often invited us to visit her parents, Mr. & Mrs. Wm. Donaldson and family. Also their close neighbors Mr. & Mrs. R. M. Buchanan and family. We spent many happy evenings at their homes.
On the first of July I began my first night duty stint, a long busy hot month. It was such a comfort to know that the girls were upstairs and anyone of them would come down if you needed help or was just lonely. I will always remember four young men who used to arrive down in the valley below the hospital, late at night and sing songs, harmonizing so beautifully. Songs such as “On Moonlight Bay,” “Memories,” “Theresa Long Long Trail” and “I’m Forever Blowing Bubbles.” With the windows and doors wide open, we got the full benefit from their music. Later we learned their names, Rux Guinn, Harry Holmes, Pudge Hamilton and Cecil Murray.
World War One was still raging, and I remember taking a message up to Miss Sirett, that Dr. Murray Clare, a friend and school mate of hers had been declared missing and presumed dead (really taken prisoner). He eventually came home and practiced in Neepawa for several years. I was back from night duty and asleep, 11 November, 11 A.M. when I heard the fire siren, bells ringing, car horns honking, all to celebrate the signing of the armistice to end the war. There was no more sleep that day. One of our senior nurses, Miss Florence Reilly, who had just returned to staff from sick leave, following a bout with typhoid fever had lost two brothers during the war, and was very sad.
Miss Sirett left us shortly after to be married to Mr. George L. Forrester, who had sold his hardware business to Mr. Clarence Ralph. They left immediately for Vancouver to make their home. She died in June 1971internment in the Sirett family plot at Riverside Cemetery Neepawa.
One comfort to me as a night nurse, was the C.P.R. passenger trains just north of us, coming in every night with their long whistle. The one going west about twelve was called the “MidNight.” Mr. Sam Herd who owned a sort of coach, drawn by horses, met this train faithfully. The east bound passenger went through about 4:00 A.M. Mr. Wm. Munford met this train taking the outgoing mail. You knew that by then you had better get on with the charting and odd jobs, to be ready for the patients A.M. care.
During night duty, especially in the heat of summer, we found it difficult to sleep. I became acquainted with Winnie and Fred Clarke and two children, Lyle and Mary, who lived just west of the hospital. Mrs. Clarke had kindly offered me a bed to sleep in when things became unbearable at the hospital, which I occasionally did. One morning, dead tired, I walked over to their house. Fred opened the door, and I informed him I had come to sleep if you please. He invited me in and went on to explain that his wife and children had gone to Winnipeg. Shocked, I backed out hurriedly, explaining that I could not possibly stay with Winnie away, and beat a hasty retreat back to the hospital. Mr. Clark made quite a story out of it all. I didn’t hear the end of it for some time. A wonderful family and so kind to me!
On 1 December, Miss Ethel Wood arrived from Ontario following Miss Sirett’s retirement. She was rather shocked to find such a small hospital and I fear really primitive compared to the large hospital she had come from. My first experience with Miss Wood was indeed very embarrassing. Our first morning at breakfast, all standing waiting for the lady to be seated, when she looked sternly at me and said “Miss Sinclair you will kindly say Grace.” I, who had never said a Grace in my lifeI have no idea what I said, but the girls assured me it sufficed. Believe me I learned a Grace that evening, which I have never forgotten to this day.
Early in November the first cases of Spanish Influenza began to appear. An Isolation Hospital was opened in a fairly large two storey building, owned by Mr. James Dempsey, situated on the north corner across from the Hamilton Hotel. I do not know who was in-charge when it opened. The place was closed for awhile and re-opened early in December. Dr. McGinnis,the health officer, asked for a nurse from the hospital to take charge and I was chosen. Two Neepawa girls volunteered to help. They were Robeena Fusee, a teacher (see above) whose school was closed at Vista, Manitoba and Kathleen McGinnis, the Doctor’s daughter. We were considered to be under quarantine with no one allowed in. We were busy, mostly routine cases. One shattering experience was a man brought in from a work camp up north, very ill and delirious. After a terrible day and night he died. This was our only death, fortunately. Two patients, the McConachy twins, Bill and Don, were admitted following the death of a brother at home. While ill they were quite manageable, but during their recovery one never could be sure of what caper they would be up to. We were very relieved once they were discharged. Christmas day loomed, we were not very busy so the girls were allowed to clean up and go home. Christmas eve, my first away from home, lonely and scared as well. A livery stable was right back door, and everyone drove horses and sleighs in those days. The hotel, with a beer parlour, was across the street with so many men celebrating. When they started for home, the noise and language left me rigid. The girls from the hospital brought a parcel to the door from my home Christmas Day and the Mayor of Neepawa, Mr. McKay himself, brought me a fine Christmas dinner. The “Flu House” closed early in January and I arrived safely back in the hospital dead tired. Miss Wood had me put to bed in a single room, and I slept all one night and the next day.
Reading through a December 1918 issue of the Neepawa Press recently, I noticed a couple of advertisements which amused me. This one “Oak Hall Mens Wear. Proprietor J. S. Card. Get an overcoat, much nicer than the Flu.” This, “Neepawa Harness Co. Don’t get the flu, get a foot warmer.” Can you imagine this, while people were dying with influenza?
During this period the hospital staff had been having a busy time, other nurses had been sent out to families in desperate need. Miss Swainson to T. K. Johnstone’s home, Miss Smithson to Wm. Clyde’s and Miss Millar to a James family in the country, where two young people died. The kitchen and laundry staff had suffered losses and many men and women volunteered to help out. Doctor Roy Martin’s brother Horase, who had an appendectomy performed, three days following was down in the kitchen washing dishes. He absolutely refused to remain in bed, and survived nicely. Everyone worked early and late until the necessary jobs were completed.
By the end of January the flu had subsided, only to break out again in April 1919. Again Dr. McGinnis asked that a nurse be sent out to the Arthur Murray farm, where the hired man and seven children were in bed with flu, and one boy fourteen years of age with pneumonia. I was chosen to go out. A neighbor, Bill Adams, came with his horse and buggy and drove me out over a very muddy road.
The boy was very ill, and in those days we did not have antibiotics to fight this condition. The Doctor and I did our best but after two days and one terrible night he died. How Mr. & Mrs. Murray and sister-in-law Mrs. Ed Murray managed to care for that sick family and survive I shall never know. Bill Adams again drove me back to hospital. He had driven to town the day before for medicine, a case of neighbor helping neighbor. This was my first introduction to the Glendale district and to the young man I saw fairly often that summer. “A nice sort of kid” as I described him to the girls. That Flu scare ended shortly after and life settled again into a more or less normal state.
Then Miss Wood left us, she missed her friends and the city. A fine wonderful lady and excellent nurse, we missed her very much. She had moved her room from the top floor to the ward east of the main door and set up a little office across the hall. This gave a better view of the traffic in and out and up and down. Once we met Miss Murray we were very thankful for the move off the top floor where we were stationed.
Miss Grace Murray arrived from Doaktown, New Brunswick and settled into Miss Wood’s room. She was a small person, older, with very thick glasses and a rather whiny voiceexactly opposite to Miss Wood. Miss Murray made herself rather unpopular with us all by her instant dislike for our cat “Chummy.” One night he failed to appear, and was found dead the next day. We suspected foul play, but of course there was no proof. So we had “Father” dig a grave at the south end of the garden, and after the day staff came off duty, we dressed our Scotch cook (a Mrs. Murray) in a gown and she conducted a funeral service for our cat which we all attended. There was no comment from our matron. However training continued, with lectures and studies. Doctor Coad from out of town, who had just returned from overseas, offered to help our Doctors and took over a couple of subjects which rather broke the monotony for us. Also we were given our first holidays since our arrival. Toward the end of 1919 the rash of war babies began to arrive and we were more busy than usual in that department.
During that summer of 1919 Edward, Prince of Wales toured Canada and was to make a whistle stop in Neepawa at 11 P.M., at the C.P.R. station. Only one nurse was allowed late leave that evening, but we were determined to get a glimpse of the Prince. So after 10 P.M. everyone except the night nurse went down the fire escape and off to the station where we did get, and a glimpse it was, of the Prince. There was no comment, when at breakfast next morning Miss Murray remarked, “that it was too bad we had not known about the Prince passing through, or we all might have gone to see him.” That fire escape on the west side of the building extending from the ground to the third floor many times served nurses well. One thing remembered by our girls was this, if a draw sheet was hanging on the rail at the second platform, stay away until it disappeared.
Christmas 1919 of my second year was a distinct improvement over my first in 1918, and now 1920 our third year loomed ahead. 19 January 1920, the Board of Directors held the official opening of the new Nurses Home. We moved in immediately after. Such a blessing after two years on the third floor with patients close by and always the noise. Nice bedrooms for two with closets for our clothing and new beds. A sitting room with fire place, rugs and comfy chairs with a sun room across the south end. A small kitchen was added several years later. The nurses took turns weekly sleeping at the hospital in the west corner room as nurse-on-call. Our duties now held increased responsibility and study, study. The basics by now were firmly ingrained in our minds, never to be forgotten. Sterilization, I shall never forget that large, round, shining sterilizer, steam powered, and I was always afraid it would blow upbut it never did. The operating room I really loved and enjoyed working there. It was toward the end of my stint as O.R. nurse that a Caesarean section operation was slated, the first to be performed in our hospital. Doctor Thorlakson, a well known Winnipeg surgeon, came up to operate, with Doctor Poole assisting and Doctor Martin as anaesthetist. Miss Murray was there to observe, Miss Swainson circulating nurse and I, scrub nurse. Nervous, yes, but Doctor Thorlakson was so soft spoken and kind that any fear I had vanished and the operation went off perfectly. This was a wonderful experience for us, and our Doctors did express their satisfaction which was not a usual procedure. Incidentally the mother and baby came through really well.
In July Miss Murray went home to New Brunswick for a month’s holiday, and I was appointed to take charge. What a busy, busy monthbelieve me I did learn a lot that month and came out of it with a healthy respect and a lot of sympathy for our Lady Superintendent.
That fall our graduation exercises were held in the Odd Fellows Hall. Again I was on night duty. Miss Belle Stewart, a nurse, relieved for me. My young sister Florence, who was attending business college in Winnipeg, came out to be with me. She sang very well and was invited to sing at the exercises. Accompanied by Miss Olive Hall, she sang the popular Hawaiian song “Beautiful Isle of Somewhere.” I have a record of that song which I often play.
We were dressed in white, even white stockings and shoes (our first) and our two black bands on our caps, the ultimate attainment I believe of all nurses. We were presented with the school medal and would receive our certificates when we finished our remaining time. Our flowers were one dozen red roses. We had our photos taken during the afternoon. A dance followed the exercises which we did enjoy. The next day, back to work.
The beer escapade. An elderly English lady patient decided that we needed a tonic and had a case of “stout” (similar to “bitters” in England) for us at Christmas. We opened a couple of bottles, one squirted all over the wall. Anyhow we did not fancy the stuff at all, packed it up and stuffed it in our clothes closet and promptly forgot about it. One morning Miss Murray, called us to the office and stated she had heard that her girls were drinking beer (unheard of in those days)! No comment from us!! She warned us that she intended to get to the bottom of this and dismissed us. Scared, most definitely, so we got in touch, discreetly, with our good and asked her to go to our room while we were at dinner and take the case out and hide it in the bushes. Then “Father” Groves would pick it up later in his little wagon and get rid of it. He just carted it to the laundry door and to his room where he enjoyed the stout at his leisure. We never did hear another word from Miss Murray, but “Father” found out that the hotel staff had phoned the lady and asked her to return the empties. Long after, I figured out that we did exactly what that cunning lady expected us to do, and thus save any further unpleasantness. It was not funny at the time. We had visions of being OUT! When really all we had to do was to tell the truth. Of course the old adage applies here, that hindsight is always better than foresight.
I must pay tribute to a woman who exerted a great influence upon my nursing career, Nursing Sister Olive Coad. She joined the Canadian Forces at the beginning of World War I. She was sent to England, later to France and back to England with the wounded. She came home early in 1919 to Eden, Manitoba. She then began specialing patients in our hospital. A fine capable nurse, who smiled easily and no one ever saw her register the slightest annoyance at any time. Her patients loved her and I worshiped her. My one ambition was to be like her. This I never did attain but in later years when I was special nursing, I often thought of Olive Coad and tried to do as she would have done.
Halloween, 31 October 1920, Bill Adams and I became engaged. That night he and his friend John Batters left to spend the winter in Colorado.
In November Doctor Rose from Gladstone called and begged the Board to send a nurse to Mr. Dave Patterson’s home at Keys, where he had a very ill maternity patient with septicemia. I never did learn what ever went wrong or the name of the woman whom I replaced. Doctor Rose drove out every day, he was very concerned and I know it was by the grace of God that we were able to save that fine lady from death. This experience in home nursing while still in training was indeed a privilege, even with a very ill patient, a four day old babe, and one very agile two year old girl. The food and laundry were managed by the combined efforts of Mr. Patterson and myself. One morning I had made a chocolate pudding for noon meal. I left it on the table expecting Mr. Patterson to keep an eye on it. I came down to find the wee girl sitting on the floor literally covered with chocolate pudding. I can see her yet. I was able to leave after ten days, when a sister came to help out. The Pattersons gave me a lovely little sapphire and pearl broach when I left. Their home was lovely. In their bedroom was a full length mirror, the first I had ever seen and I made up my mind to have one if nothing else when I had a home. I often wondered what the hospital board charged those people. I never did see Doctor Rose again.
The last few weeks went by so quickly, and as I was the first of the 1918 class to be enrolled I was the first to leave. I knew full well that I would miss those girls so very much. Living together through good and often not so good times, but always together and true to each other no matter what the problem was. My roommate during the last year, Florence Swainson (Swany), faithful Anglican, and Elizabeth McNab (Mac) and I who attended the Presbyterian Church in accordance with our Scotch upbringing. I know our donations to the collection plate were small as we all had a problem with our lack of money during those years. Farewells over, I packed up and off as I had come on the Canadian Northern Railway to Rossburn and home to begin work on my own.
Page revised: 10 June 2013