Born: Jan. 7, 1915, Prince Rupert BC
Died: Nov.9, 2012, Ottawa Ontario
Dedicated nurse, educator, reformer, hostess with the mostess, globe trotter, beloved sister and aunt, Helen Mussallem lived her long life to the fullest, working hard to better the lives of Canadians and people around the world, and having a good time doing it.
Helen was the fourth child of an immigrant Lebanese family, growing up in the small town of Haney, outside Vancouver. When Helen was young her father, Solomon Mussallem, struggled to make the family car business successful. The children (there would eventually be six) helped their father from the time they were old enough to push a broom. Mussallem Motors eventually became extremely successful, and Solomon went on to become the town’s mayor. Helen had learned a work ethic that would serve her well in life.
Helen enjoyed hiking with her family in the Golden Ears mountains just a few kilometers from Haney. In those days, since pants weren’t “for girls,” she and her sisters had to wear a pair of their brothers’ trousers for the hikes. And, in a small act that was an early indication of Helen’s generous nature, she offered to play piano for the local dance studio, in exchange for her younger sister Lily receiving free dance lessons.
After high school, Helen studied nursing and then worked for several years at Vancouver General Hospital. During the Second World War, she served as an operating room nurse in battlefield hospitals in England, France and The Netherlands.
After the war, Helen returned to university and obtained a master’s degree at McGill University. She continued to work at Vancouver General and later became the director of the hospital’s school of nursing.
Helen made major contributions to nursing and nursing education in Canada and around the world. One of her earliest accomplishments was a report commissioned by the Canadian Nurses Association (CNA) on the education of nurses in Canada. She spent years researching the report, criss-crossing the country many times and interviewing hundreds of nurses. When “Spotlight on Nursing Education” was published in 1960, it highlighted critical flaws in nursing education in Canada. The report sparked major reforms and was instrumental in helping Helen realize her dream of establishing the Canadian Nurses Foundation in 1962.
Helen completed her doctorate in education at Columbia University, the first Canadian nurse to earn a doctoral degree. She became executive director of CNA in 1963, a position she would hold until she retired. While at CNA, Helen (or “Dr.M”, as she was fondly known) continued to push for health-care reform.
Eventually, Helen moved to Ottawa. She missed her family but kept in touch by writing and often phoning them long distance. When she called her sister Lily, instead of saying “Hello,” Helen would break into one song or another and Lil would join in: a long distance phone duet, ending in gales of laughter. When she returned home for one of her regular visits, she made up for time away from family, visiting her siblings and their families and talking for hours on end.
She enjoyed the social life in Ottawa, becoming well known as an elegant hostess of many large dinner and cocktail parties, with everyone from friends and neighbours to ambassadors and federal politicians attending. And Helen made everyone feel at ease: “Welcome, welcome, come in!” was one of her favourite phrases.
Helen never married and rarely discussed her relationships. The exception was the great love of her life, Dr. Wendell McLeod. A pioneer in social medicine and medical education, he and Helen were together for many years and remained good friends even after they separated.
“Retirement” was not a word in Helen’s vocabulary: after turning 65 she spent many years as a consultant, traveling to dozens of countries to advise them on nursing education and health-care reform. One of those countries was Lebanon, where an article in a local paper about her work resulted in a crowd of cousins that she had never met showing up at her hotel, where they insisted that she visit her ancestral home of Qaraoun. She began to slow down as she reached her 90s, but maintained her positive outlook, generous nature and vibrant health.
Her hard work resulted in many honours. Helen was made a Companion of the Order of Canada, a Dame of Justice in the Order of St. John, and was awarded the Florence Nightingale Medal and CNA’s highest honour, the Jeanne Mance Award. She also received seven honourary doctorate degrees and many other honours.
Even in her final days, Helen’s spirit was undiminished. When she has hospitalized and her doctor told her it was time to call her relatives, her response was, “No, not yet. We’ll just wait and see what happens.”
Matt Mussallem is Helen Mussallem’s nephew.
(This is an unpublished draft for the Ottawa Citizen Life Story column, revised and published April 4 2013. )