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

 

 

Post Graduate work and Career Reflections

George Post:  And you decided then to move right in to the University?

We had a choice, they called them Veteran’s Points.  You could have furniture for your house, or you could have land, or you could go to University. So I chose University, and I went to McGill to finish up. I had gone to the University of Washington before; I had some credits there, because it was close to Vancouver. Then I went to McGill, and came back to the Vancouver General to teach, because I was really on leave of absence.

And I taught for two years, then I decided I would like to have my Masters. One other nurse was talking about it. So anyway, down I went to Columbia, and I was the first Canadian down there, and I got through my Masters. Well then you have a taste of what you’d want, for your Doctorate. So I was the first nurse with an earned Doctoral degree, brag brag brag. There are many now, over 80, I’m not sure of the numbers.

Director, VGH School of Nursing, with instructor Ruth (Cochrane) Mann, photographed in the 1950s
Director, VGH School of Nursing, with instructor Ruth (Cochrane) Mann, in the 1950s (photo courtesy Sally Thorne, Ph.D., UBC School of Nursing)

George Post: That post war education program that the Canadian government mounted and offered to service people was an incredible thing. The number of people who came back and really launched quite different careers than they might have if they had not had that education available to them.

I think it was absolutely brilliant and outstanding. People would never have gone on for education. Many of the young boys went on, some of them in medical schools, and so on.  It was a wonderful program. Education is the answer. It’s certainly the opportunity. That’s so wonderful that they had that program.

George Post: Was McGill University quite crowded in those years when you came back there?

Yes, I can remember sitting on the steps. All universities were I think, but the only place where I could finish my degree and get credits for what I had was at McGill, and I was glad I went there. Oh yes, you were lucky if you got a chair in those days, and you sat on the steps, but that was ok.

McGill University.
McGill Graduate.

George Post: Well you’ve become a world traveller over the course of your life. Was it this original military service that gave you an interest in travel and exploration?

Well, I can’t say it was. I know that Lyle Creelman was the Chief Nurse in the World Health Organization, and there were many countries wanting expertise.  They wanted somebody desperately to carry out a survey of the Caribbean, the twelve Caribbean schools on the twelve islands, the same way as the one that was carried out in Canada. So I was sent down to do that, I got leave of absence with the CNA. And that led on to another one, then they wanted another one done in Europe, and then another one. The next was Africa, they wanted to set up a West African College of Nurses and get them together. So it all started through the World Health Organization. And the countries at that time would not accept a consultant that didn’t have a PhD or a doctorate, and that is why I got on all these ones. There were very few Canadians. I was the only one at the time. So I really was at the right place at the right time.

George Post: So it didn’t go back to some childhood experience of being keenly interested in geography, or loving maps, or something like that?

No. It was just that they wanted the survey done in the Caribbean the same as it was done (in Canada). And I said, “I don’t know if the CNA will let me go, what will happen”.  But they said yes, that I could go down, and I followed up for a couple of years, and that led on. I have done projects in 38 countries.  I have just listed them. They were not all surveys, some were different assignments. But there were 38 countries altogether that I visited and worked in. Mostly in nursing education that was my (specialty). Yes, it was great. I’ve been fortunate. Now there aren’t the opportunities, because there are so many more people who are well prepared to go. But then I was the only one that went popping around. And it had its difficulties too, you know, because I’d have the job in Ottawa and then I’d have to come back and pick up where I left off, you know what that’s like.

George Post: You clearly have enjoyed and made a great success of your career in nursing. Was there something that was particularly formative back at the Vancouver hospital, or your service in the military, that tipped you towards a determination to improve nursing, or improve nursing schools? Where did you get this sense of mission about the nursing profession?

Well, when I did this survey of schools of nursing across Canada, I got into that quite by accident too. But that started in 1957, to survey the 25 schools of nursing.  I didn’t want to do it, I was on the committee and I said, “No, no, no” I didn’t want to leave home, mother and dad weren’t well and so on…. Eventually you get worn down, and I said yes, I’d try. So that started in 1957, and it ended up in 1960 with the Pilot Project. It was the first survey that had been done of schools of nursing, and the hospitals where they got their training since the Weir Survey, the famous Weir Survey, in 1930. He was an educated scholar and he wrote this great report. I couldn’t do that kind of writing, but I just got to it and we did the survey, we had a committee. They sent me down to the United States to observe how the surveys of schools of nursing were done there, and that was key to my learning about it. I really would not have had the skills nor the vision of how to do it.


George Post: Had you already finished your courses at Columbia at this time? This was after your graduation in ’57?

Let’s see, in 62 I got my doctorate, and I did these things in between, I didn’t do it all at once. Yes.

George Post: It was coincident with your working on your doctorate.

Yes, right. What I was able to do for my doctorate, because it fits right in to that, is I was so interested in getting started. Once I had finished the survey of the schools of nursing in Canada in February, the meeting wasn’t until June and they had no money to pay me.  I didn’t want to go all the way home and have to come back, so I decided I’d go down to Columbia, because I’d been there before for my Master’s. Then I decided in 1960, when they accepted the report, that I’d go back and finish my doctorate. I didn’t have very much money, I knew how to make a choice between buying the book or a good meal, but you do it when you are young and it worked out quite well. So, the one survey then led on to all these other surveys, because people saw them and said, oh, that’s what we want in our country, and so on. It seems strange today in the year 2000, almost 2001, talking about it.  But we are now referring to the times when there was very little work going on, very few people that were prepared to do it, or people that had the skills to do it. We learned at University, of course, and at other places. I was just at the right place at the right time I guess.

George Post: But you must also have had a sense that there were changes to be made, or that the system did need to be upgraded and improved.and You’ve obviously absorbed, somewhere along your education and experience, some ability to be dissatisfied with poor standards.

Well, that’s interesting. Have you read that book that just came out called Critical Care by Andre Picard, who writes for the Globe and Mail? Well, he quoted me in there; I said “When I was writing the report of the survey of the schools of nursing across Canada, there were sparks coming out of my pen.” I had no idea that places that called themselves schools of nursing were just, well it was indentured labour, I’ve already used that. They just used the students to staff the hospital with. There was such little regard for their education, and they were housed in some of the poorest of circumstances. Not so in the west, but when you got to the Atlantic provinces and going into some little place in Quebec and so on, it was almost unbelievable. And no one could have done those surveys without being as, furious I guess is the word, as I was. That people would say they were educating nurses, and they were just tossing them on the ward to pick up the education they could. And a good Head Nurse was fined, and so on. Oh, it was very primitive, and I really did write with fire coming out of my pen. I couldn’t believe it. And that report really had an impact, because the documentation was all there, everything we saw was well documented, and we had teams of people in different places. And that did make a change. I always hate to admit it. But I wasn’t alone, it was all the people that worked on those surveys that made the change. And it was really quite dramatic when I look back at it, because we could still be struggling through these miserable hospital schools.

(Laughing) I was persecuted by the Hospital Association because they didn’t want to lose their schools. One, prestige, two, cheap labour. I went to one of their meetings, they’d always invite me to their meetings.  And at one meeting they talked about this woman that was going around preaching all this stuff about how terrible the hospital schools were, and she should be put in their place. And oh, they were going on. They didn’t even know I was sitting in the back. But they didn’t like me at all, the hospitals. Some of those administrators, for years after, never forgave me. It wasn’t just me, but I was a good target.

George Post: But that’s the sense of mission that is required for change to be brought about.

Oh, I almost could say I was passionate about it. It was so unbelievable what they were trying…   Now, some very good nurses came out of it, but that is because they were good intellectual people, or came from homes where there was a good intellectual atmosphere and so on. But certainly the educational system was poor by any standards and they got away with it. Until this project came up and revealed it all. And it was written in such a simple form; I look back on it now, I really couldn’t have made it simpler. I had my Master’s then, but I am really not a scholarly writer, I can write factually and I can do that reasonably well. But, well, the evidence was so clear. Anyone else could have done it but it just happened that I was selected and I was there. And one thing, I don’t have many strengths but if I have something to do, I put all my energy into getting it done, and then I rest back. Some people can take little rest pauses and so on, but I have to get it done.

At McGill University, in the late 1940’s, an active social life.