A public health nurse recalls a posting to Slave Lake

Leader staff

Part II
(Excerpted from ‘Three Months One Summer’ (1929) by Dora E. Chaffin Lloyd)

Dora wasn’t, as it turned out, the only nurse in town. Two former district nurses lived in Slave Lake, both married to forestry men. One of them was not well; the other, a Mrs. Buck, “was too well for such an alibi, and always willing to help. Above all, Slave Lake believed in her.”

Lice were prevalent.

“While out walking I came upon a woman sitting on a stool sunning herself, a newspaper spread on her lap, her head bent forward and fine-combing her hair with coal oil. ‘I’ve got them under control,’ she said.”

Chaffin Lloyd’s description of the town starts with the Forestry Branch office, two general stores – one with the post office and the other with a pool hall and barber shop. There were also two garages, a telegraph office, a hotel with a restaurant and beer parlour, a school, a church and a nursing station. No bank, though.

Two miles away was the railway station. The lands around were populated by homesteaders, “while around were hunters and trappers and communities of Metis and their families. I have a snapshot of the old Northwest Mounted Police barracks where Victor Ferguson lived, and the Donald Sinclairs who lived in the old log hotel.”

Dora devotes a couple of paragraphs to the Hall family, who had come as homesteaders to Sawridge in 1912. She knew Lizzie, who had taken over the household when her mother died. Rennie Hall (Lizzie’s brother) she doesn’t mention.

She mentions being well-received by the locals. She was “alone but not lonely,” and whenever she went out, it seemed, someone would stop to talk to her. One of these was a schoolboy named Gabriel Gladue, who asked her for a cure for psoriasis.

“The best I could do was tao ointment,” she wrote.

Gabriel was a good hand at predicting the weather. He told her a change was coming because he had seen a frog jumping away from a building, “or was it the other way round?”

Gabriel and Jimmy Bellerose were her water carriers, bringing it from the river to fill her water tank. She liked the boys and paid them more than they asked for. This didn’t go over well. She was advised, “Pay no more than the quarter or you spoil it for the rest of us.”

Nurse Dora’s baking was perhaps not as good as her cures. One time she baked a pie and gave it to a Mrs. Dawson, who was spending the summer in a cottage by the lake.

“The next time I saw her she said to give her the ingredients and she’d make the pie. I wonder why.”

In June, “things started happening in a hurry.” One of them was a fellow named John, who’d been to Edmonton for a cystoscopy, and came home with the plumbing not working. His wife came to the nurse and said, “My man hasn’t pissed since yesterday and it hurts.”

Sticking a catheter up a man’s you-know-what is something Nurse Dora had never had to try in three years of training. “Try as I might,” she wrote, “I could not insert that catheter.”

After a few fumbling attempts, the patient called it off and asked her to come back in the daylight. But as she was crawling through the log fence on the way out, the lady came out with the good news: “He’s peed! He’s peed!”

A call came from Widewater: “’My son has a bleeding nose since morning! Come by freight train.’ I had a vision of a wash tub full of red corpuscles. Wouldn’t you know it, the bleeding stopped before I got there.”

Speaking of trains, it was a much more reliable way of getting anywhere than driving. The road never really dried up, she says. Locals knew how and when to navigate this, but others didn’t. The result was a lot of vehicles in the ditch or stuck in the road, mud caked thick, “like plaster of Paris, with no vital signs.”

Sometimes a traveller had to wait for replacement parts to come in “and there was little to do but fish.”

The lake was a great attraction. “That mighty expanse of water humbled me,” she writes. “I’d never seen anything like it.”

Old town Slave Lake – not exactly in the era of the story, but it would have looked similar.
Dora Chaffin, not long before she spent a summer nursing in Slave Lake.
Photo courtesy Rotary Club of Slave Lake Library

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