History file: A public health nurse recalls a posting to Slave Lake

Leader staff

Something new has come to light in the historical line. It’s a memoir of a public health nurse, telling of her experiences in the Lesser Slave Lake area in 1929. Called ‘Three Months One Summer’ by Dora E. Chaffin Lloyd, it recently came into the possession of the archives at the Rotary Club of Slave Lake Library.

“I really enjoyed reading this,” says Lyndsey Carmichael. “I just wish there was more.”

There isn’t more, but what there is makes good reading, especially if you are interested in the way things used to be. For example:

“I stepped off the passenger train into a sea of mud. Two men were at the station to take me to the Nurses’ Residence. Two miles to Slave Lake town.”

That was in May of 1929 and it had been raining quite a lot (and continued to). Slave Lake was then on the river, two miles from the railway tracks as noted.

“A wooden plank led me to Gagne’s lumber wagon. Its wheels sank deeply as we moved slowly onward to the rhythm of the horse’s hooves being suctioned from the mud…”

She had arrived at midnight, so didn’t see much until the next day.

“In the morning I got a first-hand picture of the place. The Forestry Branch was the big employer here with its three look-outs at Sawridge, Marten Mountain and Swan Hills. The highway was being upgraded. Detours around mudholes, washed out corduroy road. And overflowing ditches. A necrosis for sure.”

Necrosis? Rather a harsh term, but that was what the soggy landscape made her think of.

Things looked better at the end of her first day. After visiting the Decoine family’s “snug log house tucked among the spruce,” she walked down to the beach and saw the lake for the first time.

“Beautiful fine sand, bracing air and in the distance the sky and water meet,” she wrote.

Another early call was from Wagner. She got there with the help of the railway section foreman, who said, “We’ll be working up there anyway.” The patient was crippled with arthritis. He’d been sent home from Edmonton with instructions to “take Aspirin for the pain.” The home remedy was to eat dandelion greens. “And goodness knows, there were plenty around in June.”

Another request came in from Faust. An employee of the Menzies Commercial Fisheries was under the weather with ‘summer disorders,’ which included “a high fever and all that.” Getting there was an adventure, with one car stalling after another. “It seemed most cars carried a grabbing hook, chains, axe and shovel.”

Mrs. Menzies took them to the wharf to see the fishing boats come in and unload their catch. She chose a fish right off the boat for supper, took it to the fish house where she gutted and filleted it among the workers doing similar duties, all dressed up in gum boots and slickers.

While picking up the mail one morning, Leo Perrin told her about a sick child. He offered to drive Dora there after work, “otherwise you’ll never find the place. It’s a mile off the highway through the muskeg.”

When they got there, squelching through the black spruce, they found nobody home. It turned out to be because the family had moved to a new homestead on the other side of the lake.

Dora had finished her nursing studies just three months before at Edmonton’s Royal Alexandra Hospital. Things were picking up and opportunities were plentiful. She heard nurses from overseas talking about the position in Slave Lake and didn’t like what she heard.

“It seemed that Slave Lake was the last place any nurse in her right mind would go.”

So she decided to apply.

“I filled it out and promptly dismissed the whole business from my mind, knowing they’d never employ an inexperienced young nurse.”

Guess again.

The pay was good. Accommodations were provided. All she had to pay for was food and clothing. She was expected to charge a nominal 50 cents for visits, something she viewed as “obnoxious to ask for, knowing full well there wasn’t that much cash in the house. I never did ask anyone for that 50 cents.”

As a raw rookie, never having done anything unsupervised, she says, “most of the time I felt scared and nervous.”

More next week

Dora Chaffin, in what appears to be her graduation photo from nursing school.
Lesser Slave Lake in 1927
Photos courtesy Rotary Club of Slave Lake Library archives.

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