Early Nursing Education

George Post: Your parents obviously approved?

Yes, and they wanted me to go to the combined course with the University of B.C. and the Vancouver General Hospital. But all my friends were going to the Vancouver General Hospital so I went there. What was this degree business? I wasn’t going to be bothered. They were a bit snobbish too, the degree people. So I went into Vancouver General Hospital, and then subsequently went on for my degree work, to McGill and what-not.

George Post: What are your strongest recollections about doing that RN course at Vancouver General?

Well, a lot of things. I think that could take an hour or more, at minimum. There were so many things that as a very young girl at 19, when we went in training, I had never seen anyone die. That was quite traumatic. We didn’t have counselling and so on like they have now. People coming into Emergency in Vancouver, the General took them all in. They were all badly dismembered or cut up or so on. And all these things were really, they’re still traumatic. But you know we were not told about, well, we were told there’d be accidents, and you did this to wounds, and so on, but there was no counselling. Like now, if somebody sees a terrible situation, they counsel them a bit. We somehow survived all that.

Helen dressed to go into the VGH Operating room.

Helen dressed to go into the VGH Operating room.

But there were a number of things. I was just listening to the radio this morning, when you saw doctors doing things that were not ethical or not correct.  And I remember at that time there was an anaesthetist that everybody said to watch him, we weren’t allowed in the room. And he would always put the mask on his face first, and have a little whiff of the gas. He was really hazardous, now I look back at it. But nobody reported him, people sort of closed ranks.

But there were a number of things when you are a student nurse, you see so many things. I had never seen anybody born of course; I fainted the first time. (laughing) I wouldn’t have except that the lady that supervised said, “If you are going to faint, faint quietly.”  I just crumpled up against the wall.

There were all sorts of tales that one could tell about training, how we helped each other along. They used to have the Infectious Disease Ward…  The Infectious Disease Ward was one thing, and of course I was a patient there because I got scarlet fever. But they had the Venereal Disease Wards for really very hush-hush…  You see at that time they didn’t have the same medications, and they were all put down in rooms below ground at the Vancouver General. Well, they wanted to keep them out of sight I guess, for one thing, and secondly, I guess there was underneath it all there was sort of an ethic that they had ‘done wrong’ so we were going to put them in these beds. And a lot of gonorrhea with the women, I can remember that so well. And tuberculosis of course was quite prevalent in my training. And two of my classmates died of tuberculosis.

George Post: But they contacted you at the hospital?

Oh yes, yes, oh yes, at the hospital. And everybody had to take these man 2 tests and you could tell whether you were exposed to TB or not. And mine was never positive. Everybody else in the class except me. And I don’t know why, I guess it is the reaction. But tuberculosis was really a hazard. There were a number of hazards that students in training would have.

I have gotten off the track of what you were asking about.

We weren’t coddled but we were watched, and the people there, they had a really ‘way out’ idea that we should be educated rather than trained. Because in other hospitals even today, although it’s not the same system, they were using the students, they were indentured labour. But not at the Vancouver General. It was really well thought out, by and large. When I look back I couldn’t believe it because I didn’t know anything else, except that we thought we were better than St. Paul’s. But that was rivalry in the city.

George Post: Did you ever consider going to medical school rather than to nursing?

It never really appealed to me, I must say. I don’t know why. I think I was always in admiration of what doctors did, and working with the doctors was always a very positive experience. But I never thought of becoming a doctor. I never thought I was really clever enough, to be quite honest.  I never thought I could do it. Because some of the courses and so on, at that time, required a pretty high intelligence. And I was, I have to admit, a rather shy, timid person in many ways, although I didn’t like to show it. And I just thought I just couldn’t do it. Maybe I could have, I don’t know.  Whatever I did I have enjoyed it all and I have never looked back.

George Post: You told me that one of your sisters was also a nurse.

Yes, but after me. She was older than me and when I would come home with these great tales, she wanted to be a nurse then. And I said, “Oh Mary.” Yes, she did. “You sound like you were having a lot of fun.” “Oh,” I said, “it’s hard work too.” But she went in after me.

George Post: To the same hospital?

The same hospital, yes. But I had finished by the time she came in. She had some special permission, because you had to be 19 or 20. If you were 21 you were a bit old, I think she was probably 21, 22. Yes, we both graduated from the same hospital.

George Post: Now your brothers, who went on to school and university,y did that in Vancouver?

Yes, my both brothers went to UBC. My oldest brother didn’t, but they both went to UBC. It was, well, it was the only one; the next one would have been in Edmonton. There weren’t as many colleges or schools, no college system at that time, as we know it today. It was Normal School, but no Junior College system.

Working for the Victorian Order of Nurses

Mowat, ? , Helen Mussallem about to go their rounds for the V.O.N.

Miss King and the School Nurse, VGH

 

 

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