For the young nursing students that once filled Begbie Hall, life was governed by rules both on and off duty.
It wasn’t everyone’s cup of tea.
Some of the girls used to sneak out, said Jean Stephenson who graduated from the Royal Jubilee Hospital’s School of Nursing in 1949.
“They’d stuff the bed with pillows … and get their best pal to remove all this in the mornings,” she said, laughing at the memory.
Students from that era were only allowed to wear pants to go to Willows Beach. No men could enter the dorms and the women couldn’t marry during their three-year training. Every night the house mother watched them dismount from the street car at 10 p.m., to ensure they met their curfew.
For their work, nursing students were given a $4-per-month stipend, which rose to $8 by year three.
“I remember going to Ian’s (coffee shop across the street) and washing his dishes for a free cup of coffee because I didn’t have any money,” she recalled.
Only 35 of the 52 women from the class graduated; the others were kicked out or quit because they couldn’t handle the house rules.
But Stephenson didn’t mind: “I was used to having discipline,” she said.
The octogenarian now volunteers every Tuesday in the school’s archives.
Last Tuesday wasn’t a typical shift.
In the hospital’s chapel basement, the archive room buzzed with the energy of a dozen volunteers. On Saturday, more than 700 alumni from all over the world will arrive for the school’s 120th anniversary.
In preparation for the reunion, dubbed Bacteria, Bedpans and Backaches: a celebration of our school, volunteers selected old newspaper articles for mounting. Others prepared a clothing display of nursing uniforms; the only pair of lace-up boots from 1905 will make a one-day-only appearance on Saturday.
The reunion will likely be the last, explains Sharron Higgins, president of the school’s Alumnae, and 1963 graduate.
“We’re getting older and nobody is coming up behind us,” she said.
The nursing school opened in 1891 and closed in 1982, when training changed from an apprentice-based model in hospital to a college model overseen by the Ministry of Education.
The reunion has been two years in the planning – during which time the Alumnae have completed a two-year restoration project of the chapel and surrounding gardens, launched a collection of oral histories from the school’s early graduates, and last week unveiled a display case highlighting the school’s history in RJH’s new Patient Care Centre.
“For people who haven’t been back (to the hospital since they graduated), they are just going to be amazed,” said Lee Drummond, on the reunion’s organizing committee.
Innovations have changed the experience for both patients and staff so much, added the 1970 graduate.
Stephenson has seen a lot of changes in the field.
Penicillin was introduced in her second year of training.
“It gave us more work,” she said. Every three hours she administered trays of syringes.
“All of our patients spent more time in bed before antibiotics,” she said.
“We were trained to give an admission bath to each patient … so that you could observe their colour, their speech, mobility, their skin.”
Nurses rubbed patients’ backs three times a day, and waited on them, Stephenson explained.
“There was lots of bedside care.”
Did you know?
Over the school’s 120 year history, 3,247 nurses graduated from the program, of which 350 are still living on Vancouver Island.