World War II

George Post:  When the war broke out, was this a major calamity in the community? Do you remember a lot of young men joining up to the war effort?

Well, I was a graduate and working in the Operating Room at the time. My sister phoned me up, and said they’d dropped a bomb on Pearl Harbour.  I said “Oh,” I didn’t get the impact of it at the time.  I was quite grown up, and working in the Operating Room at the Vancouver General. When it first broke out, I just remember this now, we had to paint all the windows black in the operating theatres where we were, and we had to stay there the first night. It was absolute folly when I think of it. If they dropped a bomb, all those windows would have shattered us and cut us all to pieces. But we had to stay on duty and sleep there. People were in a bit of a panic. Everybody was on duty all night, for two nights we did that.

George Post: The outbreak of war with Japan then, had a lot more impact in Vancouver than did the outbreak of war in Europe?

Yes, excuse me, I thought you were referring to that. No, the outbreak of war in Europe didn’t have the same impact. I’m sorry, I misunderstood. No, when the war broke out we knew;  there were the reserves, and the people went marching off, and so on.  And my father as Reeve was very involved in raising money for the war effort, and so on. No, that was really quite different. It seemed quite remote at that time, didn’t it. Although people who had been in the Reserves, of course, became active and went over.   I joined up ’43, the war started in ’39, so it wasn’t until some time after that we got involved, of course.

George Post: Did you have brothers who had been in Cadets and were in the military?

Yes, my second eldest brother that was the lawyer. We used to play soldier, that was another one of the games we played, and I was a Red Cross nurse. Yes, I remember that now.  He signed up right away and he was in Vancouver at the Headquarters. He had a bright mind, a good organizer. He told me when I was going overseas, because it came through his desk. He kept on wanting to get overseas, so they sent him to Ottawa, and he never got overseas. And he never forgave me. He said, “You got overseas and I didn’t.” And of course he was good, at Headquarters. And I said, “That’s your problem.”  He was a Captain. He would have had hisMajor, I guess, if he had stayed longer.

George Post: Tell me about your own decision to join up. What brought that about?

Well, it was actually the supervisor in the Operating Room where I was working, she called me in one day.  Miss Jamieson, a great big imposing lady, she scared the bejeezus out of the doctors. She’s the only person that ever could do that. She really controlled that, that was her operating room. And she called me in one day and she said something about, “You must go down and sign up to go.” She said, “I didn’t sign up to go overseas during World War I, and I missed something. I want you to do it, and think about it.” And that was Miss Jamieson. And so I thought about it, and thought about it, and then I didn’t tell my parents or anybody, but I thought, “Gee it is exciting”.  Everybody is doing it, so I went down and signed up.

George Post:  All of your classmates volunteered?

Yes, I think. It was the Royal Canadian Medical Corps that we were in, and there were a number of them. Last night I was at the Defence Medical Officers that went overseas, we have this dinner thing, with their wives and so on, every so often. The nurse, Hallie Sloan, that was in my class, we’ve kind of stuck together, and she was there last night.   There was no shortage of volunteers, and the people that were disappointed were the ones that never got overseas.

It was a great experience, when I look back on it. The whole experience, from the time we signed up, and then we went to Victoria to be trained in how to salute. I have to laugh…

George Post: You were given some military training then?

Oh yes, not all the provinces or commands. But we were given,how to salute, how to march, and then we shipped from Victoria.  I was posted to Number 19, and left to Sussex New Brunswick. And we trained for eight hours a day, during an eight hour period, walking, marching, carrying full backpacks, 40 pounds on our back,

George Post: Would you be given rifle training?

We did rifle training in Victoria. We weren’t supposed to, but the Chief Medical Officer decided that we should know how to shoot.  So we had both rifle practice and pistol practice. Yes, I don’t know of any other commands, I must ask the nurses, that were given that training. And he told us that we had to remember that if our patients were in danger from an enemy we had to shoot, whoever it was that was threatening them. Obviously Germans.  And I just thought, and wondered if I could. I really often worried that I wouldn’t be able to shoot, and I kept saying, “I wish it would happen and then I’ll know what to do.” But that seemed to me like an awful thing to do, and I always forgot where the pistol was. They were always supposed to have one that was within range, and then we had to lock it up. It was kind of complicated, but it worked out.

George Post:  You mentioned early the train trip across Canada from Victoria to Halifax, or to Sussex first. Was that the first time you had been east from British Columbia?

Yes it was. Because I remember when we were on the train, our first stop was Jasper. It was lovely, we were in uniform, and this dear elderly couple sat with us at the breakfast table. Those were the days when they had the white table cloths, and we went to breakfast with all the silver and so on, and you were assigned. I don’t know if they do that now or not, but there was an elderly couple and they were assigned us, and after about the second day we became very good friends and we would talk together and so on.  I remember they always ordered a steak, and I thought, I guess they liked steak. And then when we got to Winnipeg, they said that there were photographers waiting out there.  So we got all our buttons polished, and we were just great, so we were allowed off first in Winnipeg for the stop.  And the cameras were still there. And when this dear couple got off the cameras flashed all over, and the reporters rushed up, and it was Pierre Monteux and his wife.  They were coming from San Francisco back to Philadelphia, and they wanted to come through Canada to see the Rockies and to eat some good food. They didn’t have steaks like we have back in the States apparently. So we didn’t know that. I remember them telling me, that the pips that you wear on your shoulders, “When the war is over you must make those into earrings.” They were lovely people. And we had some good conversations. I didn’t know who it was until we got to Montreal, or to Winnipeg rather, and it was too late. And they stopped in Winnipeg, I think they did something, had a concert or two there.

George Post: The travel during the war of course would have been an amazing opportunity, quite apart from the military service. But I suppose it was the first opportunity many young people had to leave their home towns, and a shame it was under such sad circumstances.

Yes, it was a real experience. I would never have gone. Of course they were so crowded too, until we got to Winnipeg we had to sleep two in a bunk, that was kind of hard, because in war time that was all they had. At Winnipeg some got off, so we had more room. But it was a wonderful opportunity for the kids that came from the little towns all over the country, went off to war, and they saw things that they never would have seen otherwise.

George Post: Have you retained lifelong friends who you met in military service?

I have, they were the ones from Vancouver, that’s where I joined up. Each May and in November we have reunions of the nursing sisters, and we also have them here (Ottawa) but all the ones that I went overseas are in Vancouver. In my own unit, I think there are about six or seven of us that are still able to get about, and some that came as reinforcements are also there, but the original ones we still have this Nursing Sisters dinner in May. We have it about the same time in Ottawa, so I have to rush from the one to the other, take them both in.

George Post: Varied career. I’d like to pursue this a little bit further.

Well, we went to Sussex New Brunswick and we were treated like ordinary soldiers. Our one unit was the hospital unit.  There were three other units, and we drilled for eight hours a day, standing at attention, saluting, marching, marching, saluting, standing at attention. And we lived in H-huts which were very primitive. There were 36 of us in each hut. We ate the rations with the other ranks, and they just said we were soldiers like the others. Well, no one was going to treat anybody any differently, we didn’t expect it, but it was pretty basic and pretty crude. And then one day, well the people in the village knew the shoemaker. We had to have double leather on our shoes doing all the marching. And the shoemaker said, “You are going to be going overseas on Monday.” And we said, he doesn’t know, but we went overseas, and we marched to the ships in Sussex New Brunswick. We were taken by train to Halifax, and we were left off on the siding in Halifax, and our ships were in the harbour.

Our Colonel made us march with our 40 pounds, it must have been about four or five miles, to the ship. And going past us, in trucks, were the infantry corps. All the men who were going on the same ships with us were put into trucks, and here he had us marching!

I remember my friend Sally, who still lives in Vancouver, she fell down beside me. It was rough gravel, and I bent to pick her up, and he said, “Stop it, as you were!” and I wasn’t allowed to touch her. People had to just walk around her body until the First Aid people came and picked her up, and on we marched. And then we were on the ship for five days and five nights. And there were 8000 troops on the ship. There were 80 women and the rest were men.

 Relaxing on the deck of the troop ship "The Empress of Scotland
Relaxing on the deck of the troop ship “The Empress of Scotland

It was the Empress of Scotland. It was only supposed to take, I don’t know how many.  We went without convoy because we went over in ’43. The earlier ships had convoys but they didn’t have enough ships for that, and they had determined, or they told us, that it’s better to go alone because you can zigzag all the way across. And we zigzagged all the way across.

But there was 17 of us in one little cabin that was for two people when the ship was in its glory. There were 17 of us. We were stacked up like this, and if I wanted to turn over, I’d have to poke the sister above me and say, “Turn over, Muggly!” and she’d turn over and we both turned over together. So we were really treated like troops. We only had breakfast and dinner, two meals a day, and if you lost your breakfast that was it for the day. And it was a good thing we were young in those days, we could take it quite well, we complained a lot.

Then we found out that some of the officers knew how to bribe the people in the kitchen, and they would take things off the table and sell it. We would put little rolls or muffins in our uniforms, and they would say, “Take that out, Sister!” They could see them, because it just bulged out. We wanted to save it for the rest of the day.

So we zigzagged. We were one day out when a German plane came down, you could see the crosses on the wing.  Swooped over, and they gave the whistle that we were to run down. We were sitting there, looking at this airplane thinking it was so nice; it was making all those loops, because that is the salute that we had when we went out.

It was a German plane. Oh, the OC troops was very, very cross with us. Sally had left her lifejacket below, and I didn’t have mine on. Oh, we disgraced the whole thing.  Because there were just 80 women and the men were able to move faster. But nothing happened, they didn’t strafe the ship. He said, “If they had opened their guns there would have been a hundred of you lying there dead.”

When we got to Liverpool, at the docks in Liverpool, they started to play ‘O Canada.” Oh, that was so emotional after five days at sea. And then the men, they were on our ship, the other ranks, were tossing chocolate bars out at the girls, with little notes on. And the girls somehow were getting messages back to them with their numbers. They were early at business, and then, this was written up in the book someplace, then suddenly there was this barrage of balloons and I said, “Whoo, we don’t even have balloons in Canada!” Well, the officer that was with me just grabbed me and took me round to the other side of the ship. They were condoms that were going up, and I didn’t know. I was a bit naïve. (Laughter) Guess they were all issued condoms and they had them all blown up, a great barrage of condoms.  Really! And to think that I didn’t know, we were much more naïve in those days, I’m sure.

And then we got onto the trains in Liverpool, just tiny little trains to the ones in Canada, and then we went to Marsden Green. We took over from one hospital that was going overseas to France, and we took over from them at Marsden Green. And that was a good experience.

George Post: Had you been given training in Canada about running a field hospital?

No, not really any more than we had.  There were always the people were there ahead of you, and you learned from them. There was always somebody.  I actually learned a lot from the Sergeant Majors and the other ranks, they were usually there, and as officers we would move on. The greatest difficulty, I remember, was getting enough sterile supplies. When we were in Marsden Green in England we could autoclave them, then sometimes you would run out when you were in the field. It was a good experience, but it was a sad experience. To see these young men coming back all broken up. It really was sad. These bright young men.

George Post: Was Marsden Green a large hospital?

There was the Oval, and about forty tents… About 400, 500, 600, I think we were considered medium sized. There was a whole oval, and all the huts came off around the side.  I was in charge of the operating room there. Well, I was told when we were on the ship, the matron called me and said, “You will be in charge of the Operating Room when we land in England.” And I said, “Matron, no… I’ve know operating room work well in Canada, but not to be in charge.” You just simply go and do these things and the greatest problem as I said was with supplies. It wasn’t with the teams that were doing operating rooms. The men, the other ranks, do the scrubbing, and the sisters did the waiting on them. And they would come in wave after wave. We were only there about three days when the first convoy came in, And they said there would be first the walking wounded, then the wounded, then the seriously wounded, whatever it was. But I didn’t know what they were all talking about. The sergeant shouted this stuff at us. So they just brought them in on stretchers, and the seriously wounded ones would come into the operating room.

George Post: You would have whole shifts of surgeons that would come in around the clock?

Well they did, but sometimes there was so much to do that they would keep working for 16, 18 hours to get it cleaned up, and then they would rest off.  We were supposed to work 12 hours on and 12 hours off. But I was in charge of the operating room, and I didn’t want to leave when the operating was going on. It sounds like you’re being sacrificial, but you weren’t. You were all there together, you were there with friends, and you are working hard. It wasn’t something that we were being very brave about, it was just the work was there to be done. Just as you would here in Ottawa if there is a job to be done, you get on with it and do it.

George Post: And how long did you stay at that hospital in England?

Well, I was there for 18 months. No, I wasn’t there for 18 months, I was there for 10 months, and then the other part, was when I was overseas. But they have this story that they had written up too in the same little book, that was about the man who was in Marsden Green. Every once in a while the chief of the whole surgical division overseas would come and inspect the hospitals.  Brigadier MacFarland, I remember, was the Brigadier that came to watch our surgeons operating and to give them what help he could, and advice. And there was one man, they wanted to amputate his leg, he was in the corridor ready to go in.  He said, “Sister, sister don’t let them operate, don’t let them take off my leg, I’ll die, I can’t face my wife without my leg.” I said, “Well I can’t promise anything, we’ll just see what is going to happen.” He said, “Please tell them!” and I said, “Well, they’ll do what’s best.”  I couldn’t promise him anything.  When they took him at the operating room, and scrubbed him up, the other ranks would do this, and expose his leg, and Brigadier MacFarland said, “Oh”, just looked at it. I said, “Brigadier MacFarland, this boy told me that if you took off his leg he’d die.” And he said, “What, what did you say Sister?” He was very gruff. I said “He told me that if you took off his leg he would die, he couldn’t go back to Canada and face his wife.” And Brigadier MacFarland listened to me, first time a Brigadier listened to me, he was a surgeon of course, one of the highest surgeons in that whole area.  He said, “Put a pad on it, put him in a plaster cast, send him priority to Canada.” And when I got back, I didn’t think he knew my name or anything. When we landed on the way back, we were going to the Far East, and we got off the ship in Halifax. Then we went to Montreal and then we had to change in Montreal and I heard this man in this dark night station in Montreal saying, “Sister, sister,” and nobody knew so finally he shouted louder and louder and this man came on crutches over, and he said “I made it back to Canada.” Now I don’t know how he knew my name, how he knew what ship I was on, or what train I was on, and I said “You made it back.” And he said “Yes, and with two legs.” I don’t know if they were ever saved. But wasn’t that amazing? I didn’t have the sense to ask him how he knew my name, and how he was there. But they have quite a network, don’t they.

George Post: Did you ever go to France? Serve in France?

Yes, we went overseas to France, we went all the way up to Nijmegen in Germany, and then we were sent to the Far East forces. I got up to Nijmegen.

George Post: In Nijmegen you would be right at the front with the field hospital at Nijmegen?

Yes, that was the furthest I got.  That was the last one, that was all the way up, the furthest east that the Canadian troops, in Oldenburg. And then I was sent back with the Far East Forces. But we got to Vancouver and they dropped the atomic bomb, so that was the end of that. And then I was sent to Prince Rupert – where I was born!

George Post: So you came back from Europe just shortly after the European war ended?

That’s right.

George Post:  And did you come back with a shipload of injured people?

No, we came back, I keep forgetting, you know, now we would fly back.  No, we came back on trains. There were injured people there, but that was not our assignment on our train. We just went back.

George Post: That must have been very, very hard work, the work in field hospitals.

Well, it was very emotional you know, overseas. I think in some ways it was just as hard when we were in England. The first time we were there we were sent on a course to London. How they ever sent us, I could never figure it out. And we were going along to Sunday morning, we were going with some officers, we were the two Canadians, and the church was bombed, just at that minute, yards from us.  And the whole side of the walls of the church collapsed. And of course then you are not allowed to stand and stare if you were a civilian, you had to move on. They just moved so quickly, just bringing bodies out, just like cords of wood. And there was a friend of mine, Kate Freek, that was in London at the time, she was British. She remembered that well, it was one of the great tragedies. Whole families were wiped out. And I couldn’t believe it, here they were picking up people just like cords of wood. I guess there would be 4 or 5 hundred people in that church, and every one was killed except the Minister. He had the canopy above him, and so he was saved. So you see, there was death all over, wasn’t there. Terrible.

Sometimes I say I feel a greater impact, when I talk about it at this period in time, than when you were there. Because when you are there you are working, you are doing something, you have a goal. When you reflect on it you realize how serious it is sometimes.

George Post: Were the nursing sisters in danger themselves? Were some of these hospitals struck with shells or bombs?

Oh yes, some were. I think there were only six or ten Canadian nurses that were killed in the Second World War, and there were some more in the First World War. Some of them due to illness. I think there were two nurses on one of the ships that were torpedoed just off of Newfoundland, and they died. I think there was six or eight.

But they were in the same danger as all the others.  Except not the combat soldiers that were at the front lines. The nurses were always behind the front lines. Or of course on a ship, everybody was there together.

George Post:  Well we all think, from having seen the television series MASH, that we know about field hospitals, but I’m sure that the Second World War was a lot different than that.

Well, there were many similarities. Of course that was all glamorized with people coming in. But it was the same, people being brought in, in convoys. We didn’t have helicopters wherever I was, but they were brought in, in convoys.  I didn’t watch it a lot, because it brought back too many memories.  But the people there were all trained to look after the people, they dramatized it very well, all the ones I saw.

I don’t know whether you saw, there was a recent one (TV program) that Halley Sloan was in that talked about it, and then Angels of Mercy, the one that I was in. Have you seen that one? Oh, I have a tape if you ever want to see it. We talked then about our experiences, and they were both well done.

We were so fortunate that so many people asked us to recount our experiences and especially the war ones now, I think I have done two or three of them. And the Angels of Mercy, I would say that the best one was at the end, Leonard Cohen sang ‘Angels of Mercy’ and I like his voice very much.

George Post:  You were saying that you would come back to Canada expecting to go to the Far East and then ended up in Prince Rupert. Were you still in the service in Prince Rupert?

Yes, I was sent. I was in the hospital, which was so interesting because I was born there. Half the hospital was military, the other half was civilian, and I only had about two or three patients there, I remember it was so easy. It was not a difficult assignment.  I guess I was there for four or five months, I can’t remember how long. But oh, it does rain in Prince Rupert, and it was such a hard life to adjust to after the excitement and the movements of being overseas. And then comes the little Prince Rupert with a civilian hospital, with only two or three patients. It was a big adjustment you know, and as I say now they’d have counsellors all around, But not many mental breakdowns I know of in the sisterhood, but there were some. I remember they passed through our unit, but not many. But it is a big adjustment to make.

George Post: And when did you leave the service?

I left the service, I went to McGill. The war ended in ’45, and I was back home on leave when the war ended, and I thought “Oh darn, I’m not going to Japan.” Isn’t that awful. So I left the service. We were all demobilized, I think in the period of probably six months. I went to Prince Rupert, and I think that’s probably all. It’s a great process, of being demobilized. I might be wrong on the length of time, it is a little hard to always remember exactly.

Commonwealth Nurses Federation – West Africa, 1981

Freetown & Sierra Leone – Written by Helen Mussallem.  

Until 1981, Sierra Leone was, to me, just a name on the map of West Africa. I had met the country’s senior nursing officer and her assistant in nursing education many times at ICN Congresses. The latter person was afflicted with sickle cell anaemia –the first case I had ever encountered. I soon learned that this hereditary condition was common in many families in West Africa.

My hotel at Manny Lo was luxurious but far out of Freetown. I should note here that Freetown is reached by a ferry which runs on an erratic schedule from the airport. While travelling on the ferry and enjoying the warm sea breeze, I was delighted to note that the matron and the two accompanying nurses were in full uniform. Despite the winds and surf, they somehow managed to stay starchily stiff.

The hospital and the school of nursing were unlike those of other developing countries. The school was rather bare, with a minimum of teaching tools. Likewise, the hospital was barely furnished –but clean. Wards consisted of rows of beds in a large, open room and the “utility rooms” and equipment was in rather poor shape. I could sense from conversations with the Matron and her assistant, however, that the “caring” for patients was paramount even though the curriculum was disease oriented. In essence, it followed the U.K. pattern for the preparation of nurses.

As planned, I delivered three speeches on “primary health care” to the nursing staff, to the entire hospital staff and one which was open to the “general public”. Everyone listened politely, laughed at the appropriate times and applauded enthusiastically. I shall never know if my enthusiasm for the WHO goal of “Health for all by the year 2000” was understood by any member of the audience. I often heard those words repeated but I was never sure if they really understood the concept and how it might be implemented in their own country. Would the students see the vision of this new approach to health care and internalize it? Not likely if the rigid curriculum, as I viewed it, was followed.

The chief nurse recognized my enthusiasm for primary health care and arranged for me to see a primary health setting several kilometres inland. We set out on a hot, hot day. I was in the front of the car with the driver and the matron and her assistant –again in full uniform –sat in the back. About one hour out of Freetown, we heard and saw a loud explosion of steam from the radiator. The car stopped suddenly. For a while, the driver just sat but eventually, he opened the hood –still spurting steam. Having driven a car since the age of 10 and having been loaned a second hand car during my student days, I had some, scant knowledge of auto mechanics. I had even had a similar experience with a burst radiator hose in a huge Essex. This seemed similar but, unwilling to interfere, I sat quietly with my companions until the driver announced we were stuck as he had absolutely no equipment for repairs. Ready for action, I got out of the car and asked to see the problem –a broken radiator hose alright and all the water was gone.

Looking around, I spotted a small stream way down in a gully and asked the driver to fetch some water. He refused saying he had no container. We did have our water rations for the day but how was I to fix the burst hose with no tape of any kind. I had an idea. While the matron kept the driver from following me, I went to the back of the car and removed my pantyhose. Triumphantly, I returned to the front where the hood stood open and instructed the driver on how he was to repair the burst hose. His eyes got bigger and bigger. He simply could not understand what I was talking about but, together, we wrapped the burst hose with the pantyhose. I then used all our precious water –about three to four litres –for the radiator. Thankfully, the car started and we managed to drive the five or six miles to the next village. There, a temporary patch was applied and my handiwork discussed to the amusement of the villagers.

Prior to reaching our destination, we stopped to pick up the public health nurse for the region. When we finally arrived, I emerged from the car to the sound of many women singing around large pots. The pots, to my amusement, reminded me of the ones in Sunday school books that showed the natives boiling the missionaries. The public health nurse explained that these women were midwives whom she was teaching to sterilize the blades, knives and cord, etc. used for deliveries. I asked what they were singing and was told that it was a song of thanks “to my mother for having brought this wonderful woman into the world” (me). I was especially touched as it was 14 March (1981) –my mother’s birthday.

Glancing to one corner of the clearing, I saw the elders seated around a rustic table discussing plans for health care. Nearby a group of young men was being taught by a “trained health teacher”. He was teaching them how to carry vaccines, packed in dry ice, and administer them to villagers in the remote areas of the country. The teacher asked me to address the group and he would translate. I started off by telling them about the WHO goal of health for all and noted that my home was far away and that it was covered with snow and ice. The translator stopped and, when I asked if there was a problem, answered, “Yes, we don’t have words for ice and snow”. Ever inventive, I suggested he tell them that the temperature in my country was cold like the dry ice in their vaccination kits. They all laughed hysterically. I was then asked to come and see their new project — a compost heap with boards on four sides! This was a new and exciting venture in this part of Sierra Leone.

“Could I go out to the little huts I could see from the compound,” I asked. They discouraged me as there were “biting snakes” in the area and I would have to wear high leather boots. I went! Along the path, mothers held their children out in front of them. When they saw me, they pinched their children’s cheeks and said something — always the same-sounding phrase. Curious, I asked for a translation but my guides were reluctant to interpret saying it was a bad word. “What bad word,” I asked. “White woman, white woman”. That was a bad word! That was me!

At work in Africa


Arrival at the airport in Ghana was almost as spectacular as arriving in Nigeria. After the strenuous lectureship in Nigeria, covering cities and villages, I returned to the Government House residence for VIPs with a serious flu-like condition with fever and a hacking cough. The “government nurse”, who came at my request, confirmed that I was ill and should not travel the next day. I had to travel, however, so tight was the schedule for visits to the seven countries –Nigeria, Ghana, Liberia (not Commonwealth but squeezed in by the Secretariat), Sierra Leone, The Gambia, Malta and Cyprus.

I was transported to the airport in great style but the trip took hours through the city’s congested traffic –possibly the world’s worst. Peddlers approached our car continuously hawking all types of wares. The most amusing were young girls with radio/stereo/recorders on their heads –the music going full blast. I coughed continuously. At the airport, I left the first class lounge and boarded the Royal Dutch Airlines jet, again first class. I leaned back ready to soak in the calm of this luxurious style of travel. The aircraft was cool and clean and special gifts of Dutch chocolates and mementos were offered. En route, we stopped only at Abuja(?). It was an all too short hour of luxury.

When we landed I peered from the plane and saw dozens of immaculately dressed nurses in starched aprons, bibs and frill caps. The other first class passengers were asking the hostess what was going on but I said nothing. As I disembarked, the 30-nurse guard of honour stood with military precision. What a thrill! Then I was presented with the customary bouquet. I felt like royalty! Unfortunately, my beautiful bouquet was full of ants which crawled all over my front as I posed for pictures.

The route to my lodgings was interesting. We passed through many guarded gates and finally reached my luxurious quarters –built for use by President Nkrumah. He was a large man so the bed was double, double size. At night when I coughed constantly the whole, massive bed shook.

After completing my lectures on “Continuing Education, An Essential to Nursing Strategy and Networks in Primary Health Care” in Lagon, I was scheduled for appearances in various cities and villages in Ghana. To my delight, I found I was to travel by private, government plane with Capt. Reynolds as pilot and accompanied by the chief nursing officer. For each trip, my companion and I boarded the plane and were settled into our special seats. Only then were the other Ghanaian passengers allowed on with all their goods and chattels. Before takeoff, Capt. Reynolds would come back to ensure that we were comfortable and to give us instructions about seat belts, etc. I was very impressed with his decorum and his concern for us.

At one stop in Northern Ghana, I gave my lecture in a large school packed with students, villagers, etc. I had difficulty being heard as the large yard was filled with innumerable guinea hens, which made such a loud racket that I had to shout to be heard. I was told the hens came only once a year and brought good luck. After shouting for about 30 minutes, I thought I would lose my voice. I did take time out for coughing.

When we returned to the airport, we could see that here was a problem. A young man had taken photos with his camera and immediately the military police pounced on him and seized his camera. Neither the young man, nor we two, had realized that we were in a restricted zone. The young man pleaded for his camera –without success. We boarded the plane and I asked my companion to seek Captain Reynolds’ help. When she refused, I boldly walked up to Captain Reynolds when he boarded the plane and relayed the whole story. He sprinted from the plane, talked with the military police and returned with the camera, giving it to the young man. Only the film was removed. My reward was the boy’s most appreciative ear-to-ear grin.

The day after our return to Lagon was a national holiday and we, and other dignitaries, had special seats for the festivities. I was fascinated by the huge umbrellas carried by aides and used to shield the tribal chiefs from the hot sun. The parade started and who was the smart, slim, air force officer leading the entire parade? Our Captain Reynolds.

Later, after my return to Canada, I heard that he had been elected President, an office which he has held to the present day.

Qualities of Leadership

George Post: Where did you get these amazing qualities, Helen? From your Dad, from your Mom, is it genertic, is it learned?Which qualities?George Post: The quality of being able to write clearly, the determination to work hard, get the job done…

Well, I think some of them are selfish objectives. I like to play, so I know if you work hard, you can get your job done and then you play later. My mother always said to us, “You work hard, and you do your job, and you play later.” But I never got around to play later very much. She was wrong on that account, because if you worked hard it all went on to something else. So I would say, probably many of these things you learn, when you really analyze it, it’s the atmosphere in the home that you grew up in, and some people that inspired you. But it’s interesting that you should ask who really was a role model who inspired me. I couldn’t really think of anybody special, I guess it was a number of people.

Solomon smoking the pipe of peace in front of the municipal hall.
Solomon smoking the pipe of peace in front of the municipal hall.

George Post: Would you regard your mother as a very determined person? Was she a major support to your father in his business, and his success?

Oh yes. She was tremendous, but she was very quiet about it. You wouldn’t say that she was a very aggressive person, far from it.  But she quietly went around, and she quietly got things done, and she quietly told people what they were to do and so on. And you know in my generation people were strapped and spanked, but we never were. We were always told very clearly if anything was wrong. And she was a real model of a person that could bring up six children, all of whom were reasonably successful.

George Post: What do you know about her family, her dad and mother, and her ancestors?

Well, she, as I said, was born in Kfar Mishki. She came over when she was three years old, with her mother. Her father had died. And she lived at her uncle’s home, Kalil.  He was a very well-to-do businessman, I think making suits or something was his business, and so she grew up there. But she didn’t know the luxuries. From what she said they made her work very hard, because she was there living off them. Well, her brother was very good, Kalil, but his wife made her work very hard, from what she said. So it wasn’t a very happy upbringing and that was why, when she had an opportunity to elope with my father I think she wanted to get out of it.

George Post: Would she have gone through high school?

No, no she didn’t. I don’t think she finished grade school. No.

George Post: And was brought up with the expectation that she would be a housewife.

That’s right. And that was not uncommon. There was no compulsory education. And it’s too bad. But she was so determined to learn, and she really was self taught, what she knew of her reading and writing skills and so on.

George Post: And clearly wanted her girls to have an education and a professional training. You mother wouldn’t have resisted the idea of you going into nursing school.

No, and it was my father as well, because he felt that we all had the opportunity. And in his will, I am jumping a bit but he had, “share and share alike.” And you know, many of the Arab men brought up would have the boys would have two thirds and so on. But, he put the same emphasis, we had the same opportunities as our brothers did. There was no distinction. And that was very good for somebody who was brought up in his culture, although he was just 16 or 17 when he escaped. But he learned quickly, he had a bright mind. I didn’t think he was so bright when I was small, but I look back now and I realize that he was very bright.

George Post: And I don’t know whether I asked you if he had finished high school or not?

No, no he hadn’t. I don’t know how much.  Oh, in Lebanon, he left at 16 but he apparently had gone into a religious school and had learned to read and write Arabic, and also he had learned some of the basics of English. So very often when we asked him something that he couldn’t answer right away, because he translated from Arabic to English in his head, you could almost watch him doing this, it was something that required thought. Because I remember when the Fraser Valley flooded over, the Great Flood, and we came home. We were talking, and I remember saying to him, “When was the last flood for the Fraser River?” and he paused for a minute, you could almost see it going on, he added it in Arabic and then he translated it into English for us. And Arabic is a rather difficult language. I can write my name, that’s about all, and I can speak a very little bit, but the writing is difficult. It is all symbols going from left to right.

George Post: Would you describe your father and mother as literate people? Was there a lot of literature, books, magazines, newspapers in your home when you were young?

There were, of course, because my father was in politics, and he got all the newspapers. He always had a set, just one set of Arabic books, that’s all. He enjoyed reading although he didn’t do a lot, but he was an action person.  In their later years of course there was television, they really liked that. But I would say that they were not highly literate, although they could have been if they were given the opportunity.

George Post: And your mother, did she read and write quite easily in English?

Yes, not too easily. She could read easily, but writing was more difficult for her, I don’t know why that would be. But you know, both my father and mother, when they wrote they wrote their English in sort of the script of the Arabic. I meant to ask the Ambassador when I saw him, we have a new Ambassador to Lebanon, to ask him why that was. He would probably know. Because their English letters seemed to take the shape of Arabic letters, which is rather interesting.

George Post: It probably has something to do with the patterns that are laid down in the brain very early on.

Yes, because one goes from right to left and the other is left to right.

George Post: And your grandmother who lived with you, did she read and write in English,  or just in Arabic?

She could speak English, but she didn’t to my knowledge write in English or read English. And she wore one of these scarves that the ladies of the Middle East wore. Mother and Dad kept trying to get her to take it off. And every time she took it off she got a cold. I think she did it on purpose. It really looked quite elegant I thought. I will show you the pictures of the family that are up on the wall in the other room, so you can place them.

George Post: It certainly sounds like a most interesting and dynamic family, because when you think of the change that both your father and mother would have gone through from their own earliest childhood, which was quite traditional, to creating a successful family in the new land. Quite amazing.

Yes, and you see there was nobody to talk with, they were the only family out there (in Maple Ridge) that I know. For example if you came here (Ottawa) from Lebanon, there’s a little Lebanese community, but they had no one out there, which I suppose in a way was good because they had to be integrated into the culture. But they had no close friends. Now, occasionally, relatives would come from the east.

George Post: Everybody has mentors and role models, it would be interesting to know who the people were, who would have influenced your father as a young man, to do the various things he did.

Well, he speaks in his book of a Mr. Haddad, that he said helped them a great deal, but I don’t know any more than what I have read in his books, what he wrote. He was amazing, well it was the Deputy Superintendent for Education that wrote his life.  I still feel that he didn’t capture as much of Dad as he could have, it was very bland what he wrote down. One can be critical, I don’t think I could have done any better.

George Post: Was he a bland man, your father? Or was he an emotional man?

Oh no, just the opposite. He spoke with great authority and he was just the opposite of bland. He even walked straight. When he gave speeches, whether it was at a convention or a political gathering or whatever, he spoke with great determination. He always prepared himself well though, I must say. He would always go to his room at night, and now I realize what he was doing, making little notes. But he often wrote them in Arabic, you know. We found all these little notes after. Somebody has thrown them all away. It is too bad the things that are thrown away.

George Post: Was music an important part of your family? Were there any of your parents or siblings who played instruments?

Mother decided that Mary, my sister, and I should have a piano, and have piano lessons. She told Dad one day when he had a little too much to drink, she told me. She made him promise. I would never see him in that state. She sent him to the bedroom or downstairs. And he promised, and so we got a piano, and my sister and I both took lessons. Neither of us were really talented, but my younger sister Lil is really very accomplished, and she has got a musical ear. And we would be practicing our scales, one after the other, and then this little sister would come along. And she would pick up a tune like O Canada or God Save the King, or whatever it was that came in those days, she would just play it. She had this musical ear. And I don’t. I just have to work hard at it. I appreciate music and love concerts and going to them, and I think we are so lucky in Ottawa with what we have, so close at hand.

George Post: Your father, was he musically inclined?

He used to sing, when he felt like singing. Usually, as I said, he was in a state when he’d had a glass or two of wine, that’s when he loosened up. And he had a very good voice, and he could also dance some of these traditional Arabic dances. He used to show us, and he wanted to teach me, and mother saw him teach me and she said, “Don’t you teach her those dances.”  She thought we mustn’t do anything of the old land.  Since then I can see now why she was so, she just had this goal of bringing us up as Canadians, as my father did too, and really passionate about it.

Younger generations of the family

George Post: What has happened to the younger generation. I‘m sure that there are nieces and nephews; do they share these passionate interests in education and community improvement?

Well, I don’t know. My oldest brother has two sons and a daughter, and the one son as taken over the business, Mussallem Motors, so that’s where he’s put his energy. My brother Nick had a son, the one who was a judge, a brilliant mind, too brilliant to stay at anything. He was one of the Company of Young Canadians. And that really put him off. And he is so bright that he is always getting into trouble, even to this day. He is bright, bright, bright, bright.

Mary’s boys are very down to earth, one of them is an inspector of water or something in Vancouver, and of course Lil, my sister. I brought up Lyn (her daughter) and she is very special. And she is four months from completing her doctorate. She’s got through all this time, and she’s very good, she’s a wonderful personality.

George Post: In what field, Helen?

Well, what she is doing her doctoral work on is participatory evaluation. But then she is also one of Vancouver’s best belly dancers. Someone said ballet and I said “No, belly.” She decided when she was a youngster she wanted to do the belly dancing, and she has become quite well known for it. I think that’s quite an accomplishment.

George Post: Your mother might not approve?

She might not, I don’t know. But she was awfully good with children. I remember when I used to take Lyn home every weekend, when I was off Saturday and Sunday, and we’d stay overnight. And Lil loved it because she had a rest her. She was just full of mischief, and I spoiled her and I loved it.

George Post: But her doctorate is in political science? Psychology?

Psychology is the area that she is in, yes. And I keep trying to remember, when people ask me what she is doing it in, I have to think. I guess many of the ideas, they have to think of something new now, don’t they, the youngsters with their doctoral work. And she’s been at it for four years, and four months to go. I whizzed through in a year and a half. Well, altogether over the period, but well, they take their time, it’s more scholarly.  I said “Well what are you going to do, Lynn, when you are all finished this?” and she said, “I think I’ll go to Europe and see what’s going on over there.”

And she’s married, but they’re not having any children. They decided not to. But she’s a great gal. She’s been one of the greatest influences on my life. I had brought her up, you know, and watching her grow, I never lost contact with her. And as mother said, “That poor child, she doesn’t know which one is her mother.” We were very close, and still are very close. She’s a great gal.

George Post: Have you kept close touch with a lot of the students and younger nurses that you have yourself been a mentor to? Would you count yourself as having a large following of disciples or students?

(Laughing) Well, I communicate by letter and the gatherings and so on. You would know Ken Dye, the Auditor General, it’s just come to mind, his wife was one of my students. And there’s a whole group in Ottawa, and there are whole groups all over, and at Christmastime I hear from all over the world from students, they still keep in touch. Or they read something in the paper, or see something, and write to me. Soit’s not a planned program, but I do keep in touch with a lot of them. And especially in Vancouver, because that’s where most of them were when I was teaching, and most of my students have grown up, but there’s the odd one like the Dyes and so on that are here. Well, we have a VGA, Vancouver General Alumni, in Ottawa, and the last time there were about twenty that came. Oh, and I walked into the room and they all stood up. Gee it was funny. I just walked in. And they all stood up. (Laughing) That’s what they did in the old days, when anybody came in, and I guess they thought we were still back then. But they still get together, they are quite active here.

George Post: And you feel that you have inspired some of these women to continue the notion of change and improvement and dedication, that you’ve obviously felt in your life?

Well, that’s a hard one, because how do you know, George, if you’ve inspired anybody?

George Post: I guess they tell you.

Well, people tell me wonderful things, you’d think I was the greatest thing since sliced bread. But it’s not true. I get far too much credit for what other people have done too, because all the things that I have done have always been projects where other people were involved. Oh yes, I get far too much credit for the things that other people participated in.

George Post: I am coming to the end of the tape here, and I want to thank you for being so frank, and sharing so many stories here. It’s clear that you came from an amazing family.

Well, that’s very kind, George. I’ve enjoyed it too.

University of British Columbia Honorary Doctorate 1994

In 1994 Dr. H. K. Mussallem received an honorary doctorate from the University of British Columbia. She addressed a congregation of students from the Health Sciences.Honorary Doctorate, University of B.C., 1994

Honorary Doctorate, University of B.C., 1994

With family following Convocation, University of BC, 1994

Many members of Helen’s family attended the evening reception. Front row left to right: Her elder brother George Mussallem, Helen, and younger sister Lily Harper. Back row left to right: George’s wife Grace, Kevin Potvin (Janis’s partner), nieces Janis Harper and Lyn Harper, and brother Peter Mussallem.

Family gathering to celebrate Convocation, University of B.C., 1994

2005 Visit to the UBC School of Nursing

These photos are from the February 2005 visit Helen made to the UBC School of Nursing. She had coffee with the faculty and then met with a group of four undergraduate students who were heading to Ghana, and interested in international nursing.


In the hallway of the School, there is a large poster display of the history of the association between UBC and VGH Schools of Nursing. Helen is standing in front of the picture of her in her Directorial role in that poster.


McGill University 7th Honorary Doctorate

Bruce Finlayson:  On the 29th of May 2006, my wife Lyn, her Aunt Helen and I were in Montreal to attend the graduation ceremony at McGill University, where Helen was to receive her seventh honorary doctorate. Aunt Helen was very excited because she received her bachelor degree in nursing from McGill. We drove from Ottawa on a sunny spring day and arrived at the Sofitel in Montreal. We had adjoining rooms, one for Helen and one for Lyn and I.  The hotel was the height of luxury and only a few blocks from McGill. Lyn and I spent the afternoon looking for the perfect evening bag, for Helen to use at the McGill Club formal dinner for all the recipients of Honorary Doctorates.

A little help from friends.
A little help from friends.

The next day we were picked up at the hotel by a taxicab which took us to the university. Once we worked our way through security we were escorted into the building where the robing took place. Here we were met by a whole group of nursing faculty. From attending other events like this I was not surprised by how much these women clearly admired Helen. They gave us seats and refreshments while we waited for the others university officials to show up. The room was filled with racks of colourful robes and various dignitaries and administrators of the university.


Time came for Helen to get ready, and a number of her colleagues from the university helped her into her robes and hat. Then we all walked out into the foyer. Helen signed in the big book, under the watchful eye of the Chancellor, and then it was photo time. A number of pictures were taken of Helen and the other recipient (who it turned out was the head of the Human Genome project), accompanied by various Deans and dignitaries of McGill University. Soon it was nearly time for the ceremony itself to begin. Those of us who were Helen’s guests left the building to walk down the road to the field where an enormous white tent had been erected for the ceremony. As we went down the stairs we saw a piper preparing to march the graduates into the tent.

Helen with McGill Chancellor, President, and Deans
Helen with McGill Chancellor, President, and Deans 
Helen with niece Lyn and Bruce
Helen with niece Lyn and Bruce 

Once we arrived at the tent and showed our tickets to the attendant, we were ushered to the very front row of the audience. After a short time we could hear the pipes in the distance, and it wasn’t long before the dignitaries came marching into the tent led by the piper. Once they had all climbed up onto the stage and taken their seats the ceremony began. The Dean of Nursing of McGill University gave a glowing introduction and summation of Helen’s career and her contribution to nursing. The Chancellor of the university escorted Helen to the podium where he presented her with her honorary Doctorate.

Once all the pomp and ceremony was over we walk back up to the robing building, where we visited with Helen’s other guests and the nursing faculty members before participating in another photo opportunity.

With family and friends after the ceremony.
With family and friends after the ceremony.
With the McGill deans of health faculty and other recipients
With the McGill Chancellor, Deans, and the other recipient