There were two hospitals in Saskatoon when the 'flu epidemic' struck in 1919. Both City and St. Paul's were filled to capacity almost overnight.
Father was reading snatches from his paper to us as we cleared the breakfast table.
"Two more primary schools are to close today...and the movie house...You may as well forget about going to work, Mabel and Patty' your office has closed its doors until further notice... The University is converting Emmanuel College into an emergency hospital and they apparently need volunteers."
"Would Patty and I be able to help?" Mabel paused to ask, a pile of dishes in her hands.
"It says here that anyone who can take a temperature is needed."
As soon as the dishes were washed and put away, Mabel and I walked through the lovely morning sunshine to offer our services at Emmanuel. We were appalled to see countless choking patients lying in cots set up in each corridor of the College. We stopped to take in the scene. Men who had been orderlies overseas had volunteered in the emergency and hurried about capably. We saw some of our friends already busy assuming new roles as volunteers. Men hurried by with more cots requisitioned from school dormitories. Doctors, grey-faced from lack of sleep, kept going, bag in hand, from hospital to patients' homes and back to the hospital again and again.
A short stout Head Nurse hurried toward us. In a few seconds she had learned that we had taken a V.A.D. course and that we had no practical experience.
"We need more bedpans," a passing nurse interrupted us.
"Use any kind of pan you can find," our interviewer advised and the young nurse hurried off down the hall.
"This is going to be quite a siege," she said turning back to us again. "We have no regular hours. Can you stay right now?" "There are three entire families being brought in and we have no more beds." The worried statement came from a friend of ours who had offered her services the day before, and now hurried up to the Head Nurse for advice.
"I'll come directly," she said , then once again turned back to Mabel and me. "You girls come along with me now and I'll get you started immediately. We have many children whose parents can't speak English," she explained as we hurried along. "I've had a fair amount of experience in dealing with children," Mabel offered as we changed into overalls.
"Good! You can just start right there," and she pointed to a wild-eyed frantic-looking woman who had half risen from her bed. "The father was the only one who could speak any English at all, and now he's dead."
Mabel went over and placed a hand on the woman's shoulder. Some basic communication must have been established immediately because the woman beat her heavy breasts and uttered a torrent of words completely foreign to us. Mabel smiled suddenly. This was a nursing mother and it was long past the time to feed her baby. Where was the child? In a few moments both mother and baby were united. It was obvious where Mabel would be working! We left her there and I was ushered along to a small room where I was confronted with stacks of gauze, mustard and flour.
The only thing that does any good at all is mustard plasters front and back three times a day and hot drinks," said the supervisor to whom I was now handed over, as she gathered a pile of plasters together and prepared to leave. "Don't let them up until their temperature has been normal for two days and nights'. We are having many relapses, then they get pneumonia and die. We had twelve deaths last night. This is a real plague. You can smell it! Some turn black", she informed me over her shoulder and she was gone.
I began to make new plasters somewhat awkwardly, feeling more lonely by the minute in that tiny room Before my pile was very high I was hurried up to the top floor. A nurse explained that this was where the severe cases were kept.
"This man is from the country, and has been ill for a week," she told me. "He has double pneumonia and is going to die. You must sit with him and give him drinks. Hold him down if he gets delirious and tries to get up. I'll come up as often as I can. Keep him covered.
She fired the facts at me as we hurried up the stairs.
I don't think I'm strong enough to hold anyone down," I around the lump in my throat.
Terror enveloped me as I gazed down at the unshaven face tri ckles of sputum in the beard.
"Yes you are! I'll show you how," and her slight arms pinned the raving man's broad shoulders to the bed.
Then she too was gone and once more I was alone, this time with a dying man! I felt even more solitary than I had in the room downstairs. What if he should die? The nurse said he would. Oh God, I'm so frightened!
I tentatively mopped the feverish brow and dribbling mouth. How could his mouth be so dry and still dribble? The last nurse had showed me how to place a teaspoon of water in the corner of the lips and it insert my forefinger to pull the choking phlegm from the patient's throat. When he became violent and tried to get up I frant ically pushed his legs back under the covers and pushed with all my strength on the heaving shoulders. Twice during that endless night the nurse relieved me for a break. I dragged myself down to the kitchen for a meal which I certainly didn't want. That poor man! And just me to sit with him while he died! This burden was too much...
I pushed open the kitchen door. The laughter and bright lights stunned me. How could nurses and doctors joke when they were surrounded by tragedy and death? I toyed with my food and soon went back up to the top floor again. The long night continued to drag on interminably.
As Mabel and I walked home through that welcome clear air, bone-weary and weighted down by emotion, she said to me, "Patty, I want you to promise me something. If I am taken sick, please see that I get home somehow, and I'll do the same for you."
We had already learned that people were being struck with the virulent bug at a moment's notice. I was suddenly afraid of taking ill up at the College. Perhaps I would be lying in that bed on the top floor with some terrified volunteer beside me. I might even, die there as that man was going to...
"We'll see that each other gets home," I promised.
It soon became a pattern for us to change out of our uniform overalls In the shed outside the house after our long hours at the College. We did the reverse going back on duty. M y patient from the country died, but not while I was on duty, for which I was profoundly thankful for both our sakes. Mabel and I were smitten with fear for ourselves from time to time, but were usually too busy when on duty to worry. Our fears emerged into words as we walked to and from the College.
Mother wanted to go and volunteer too, but Father, Mabel and I persuaded her that her place was at home running the house so we would have somewhere to return after the daily ordeal. The contrast between sickroom and noisy, chatter-filled kitchen continued to bother me until I realized quite suddenly one day that the commonplace normalcy of that brightly lighted room was the saving grace for all of us. It was our release from the tension of the sickroom and the constant tragedy of bereavement. Soon I looked forward to sharing in the teasing of our buxom matron who was being courted with a daily pint of cream by the owner of the dairy who had taken over the deliveries because all his men were ill. She would dash down to the kitchen to meet him briefly and blushingly accept his daily gift of the rich cream she so dearly loved. We composed light-hearted poems to her which she took in her usual good-hearted way.
Mabel's good friend, a beautiful girl and that family's only child, died with Mabel beside her. My sister was heartbroken. I was sharing her grief that day while busy with my own duties when Mabel suddenly appeared at my elbow.
"Patty, I have a temperature of 103 so I'm going home."
"You can't walk all that way alone, Mabel! It's much too far. We'll find someone making a delivery in Nautana, and I'll take you."
I nursed Mabel with mustard plasters and hot drinks for three days at home before I too came down with the dread bug. Neither of us had too severe a dose, possibly having acquired some immunity from being exposed for several weeks at Emmanuel. Mother complimented us both on being wonderful patients, but the truth was that we were too frightened not to be! We had seen too often at first hand what happened when patients tried to get up too soon. Both our parents waited on us. Mother took over the day-shift and Father carried on after his day in the city. We were given homemade broths and jellies and Mother's favourite remedy - beef tea - In which she had implicit faith for all sicknesses. Neither of our parents nor young Bernard succumbed to the 'flu' and Mabel and I returned to Emmanuel as soon as ye were well again.
There were welcome changes back at the College. Supplies of every kind were more plentiful. There ware more doctors, nurses and volunteers. Although many new cases ware still being admitted dally there were definite indications that the epidemic was past its peak.
One handsome young man in his early twenties was about to leave Saskatoon where he had been buying supplies. He was loading his wagon for the twenty-five mile ride home when he became violently ill. He was admitted to Emmanuel with a temperature of 104 and became one of my patients.
Once his fever broke he said, "I feel fine now. I'll just go down to the livery stable and get my rig and I'll be off home."
"You can't leave the hospital until your temperature has remained normal for forty-eight hours," I stated firmly.
"Who the hell do you think you are?" he demanded. "I'm all better and I'm going home NOW!"
He was furious. I was adamant. He shouted and swore at me and said he would give me a good poke in the face . Angry and frightened, I beat a hasty retreat from his room, gathering up his trousers as I went. By this time he was out of bed and coming after me. The language following me down the hall made everyone within earshot pause and gape. Fearing I might have overstepped my role, I sought Matron. Reaction had set in by this time, and I began to weep, which made me even more upset! Accorded full approval for my action by a twinkle-eyed Matron. I hid the trousers in a safe place and tried to keep out of the young maniac's way as much as possible. By afternoon, I was again called to his room.
"I feel so sick," moaned the same young man who had been chasing me down the corridor a few short hours ago.
His temperature was up to 104 again and we had to start once more from the beginning with the routine of mustard plasters and hot drinks. We fought all that night and all the following day to prevent pneumonia. At last the fever broke for good, but his convalescence was long.
"You know, nurse, I think you saved my life by not letting me leave when I tried," he admitted one day. "I never would have made the twenty-five miles home."
Even if he had tried to stop at a hotel on the way they would certainly have been too frightened to accept a sick man.
"If there is anything in my pants' pockets you would like, you take it," he offered.
It was with a grin from each of us that those trousers were eventually handed over!
Once the emergency had passed, Mabel and I went in to say 'good bye' to Matron. She thanked us warmly for our help, then singled me out.
"I can still see you sitting up there with that dying man when you first came," she said. "You were a real source of strength with those steady grey eyes of yours. Why don't you consider going in for nursing?"
"Well, I teach ordinarily," I confessed, pleased at the compliment. "Right now I'm engaged to be married. If it weren't for that I might well consider becoming a nurse."
In spite of the heartbreak in seeing so many die - particularly young children - it had been a learning and maturing experience for everyone - patients, professional staff and volunteers alike...
Father was reading newsy items from the paper to his family once again.
"Here's one for you girls," he announced. "The City Fathers have had a meeting to discuss whether the volunteers should be paid for their services during the emergency. One has come out openly to state that all the volunteers are wealthy and don't need the money...."
As he read on, my anger grew. It smouldered all that day. What did he know, that City Father, who said we didn't deserve some recognition for the long hours and menial tasks, the heartbreak and personal sacrifices which we had all offered for nothing and for which nurses received a regular salary! We had done the same work as registered nurses; now we were told that we didn't need to be paid because we were all from wealthy families. Wealthy! That certainly didn't apply to us! Father's job as Recruiting Officer had ceased with the Armistice. Our family income was at a standstill except for the board which Mabel and I paid when we worked. And we had given up even that to work at Emmanuel as volunteers! I raged to Mabel who took life more philosophically than I.
"Let it alone, Patty. What can you do anyway?"
"I haven't decided yet, but I'm going to do something!" I vowed.
By the next morning my course of action was clear. Dressed in my best, I presented myself at City Hall, demanding entrance to the day's session. A kindly Scotsman on duty heard my demands and referred me to a secretary. I was sent from one secretary to another. They tried everything they could think of to get me to leave. By now my voice was raised in a combination of anger, frustration and a high state of nervous tension. Finally one secretary realized that I would not be put off, so I was ushered into the Council Chamber. En route we passed the friendly Scot.
He looked up from his desk, winked at me deliberately and said, "Atta girl!" in his soft burr.
There they sat, the men who were debating the justice of paying volunteers!
"Well, you've been making quite a sensation out there. What do you want?" one asked, as all eyes turned to stare at little Patricia Sutton who was, like Alice in Wonderland, growing suddenly smaller by the minute.
I began to speak. At first my words trembled and they came out hesitantly. Then I launched into a description of my first night as a volunteer with a delirious and dying man. I told of the many menial tasks we had performed.
Experiences of other volunteers as well as mine, came pouring out in a torrent of words.
"That's all very fine and very dramatic," observed one when my tirade had ceased, "but remember, you volunteered!"
"I am not asking for anything. As volunteers we answered a call for help, and most certainly do not regret having done so. But the question of remuneration has come up in your Chambers, and I wanted you to know that we really did something to deserve it!"
"You were a lot of society girls who went up there for kicks," boomed one voice over the murmur.
Feeling like the Pied Piper of Hamelin minus his flute, I turned on my heel with all the dignity I could muster and walked out without another word, insulted.
"We'll let you know what we decide," one member called after me as I neared the door.
There was a small announcement in the paper next morning stating that the Council had decided to pay each volunteer $75.00 as a token amount for services rendered during the emergency...
Plans for my wedding were postponed into the indefinite future because Bernard was in the East looking for a job. Time lay heavily upon me now that autumn had come again. Family finances were at an all-time low and I needed an immediate goal to occupy my time and to pay me an income. I felt recurring bouts of nostalgia for the schoolroom, but because I lacked my Senior Certificate I was not qualified to teach in the city. Walking homeward one day I noticed several young children of kindergarten age playing aimlessly on the street. Suddenly I had an idea.
From the $75.00 I had received as a volunteer I rented a front room in a home on Saskatchewan Crescent, placed a few rented small tables and chairs In It, put up colourful pictures on the walls, collected story books from anywhere and everywhere, and placed a notice in the paper announcing that a kindergarten was open and pupils were invited to attend. Soon ten eager faces confronted me each day. Convinced that youngsters of four and five are ripe for knowledge of all kinds, their minds eager to absorb, we began a programme of mind exploration through songs, games, stories and vocabulary investigation. It was a wonderful experience for pupils and teacher alike! Proof of success was evident in the eagerness with which the little ones arrived dally clutching some article or picture which would support the previous day's adventures.
By December I had problems. Word had spread that I had no special certificate to teach kindergarten, and one by one my young charges were removed. One mother came to the classroom to remove her child.
"Where are the cut-out paper animals and pictures that children in other schools bring home?" she demanded accusingly.
"We are concentrating on mind development and stirring creative imagination," I tried to explain.
"I don't see any scissors or outlined pictures like the other schools have," she countered, looking around the little room which all of a sudden seemed bare and drab, the sunshine having suddenly left. "So my child won't be coming back!"
Even if I had believed in filling in outlined pictures, my meager pittance would not permit these special purchases. I tried to point out my experience as the sole teacher in three schools of eight grades. To no avail. I was shamed and humiliated. I had failed as a teacher! And I was angry. Angry and frustrated by the lack of vision of parents who insisted on measuring knowledge by the accumulation of outlined pictures which some teacher had drawn and the children had been made to fill in with coloured crayons!
My young students seemed as upset as I.
"Oh, Miss Sutton," one little boy ran up to me on the street, "when are you going to teach me some more?"
"There is no school any more, dear," I tried to explain.
"You could come to my house and teach me there, couldn't you?"
Poor little fellow! How could I tell him that his mother was one of the more adamant believers In outlined animal pictures and a teacher's framed certificate, preferring to let her child play- aimlessly on the street rather than attend a kindergarten where he had been one of the brightest shining lights, his imagination soaring to fascinating heights for the first time in his life?
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