Medicine Hat General Hospital: the first regular hospital in "The Territories"

The first regularly equipped hospital in what was then known as The Territories was built in Medicine Hat in 1889 and four years later it opened the first school of nursing west of Winnipeg. One of the major rules for the new nurses was: "Every nurse will be expected to perform any duty assigned to her either as a nurse in the hospital, or when sent to private cases among the rich or poor, in any part of the Territories." "Any part of the Territories", covered the area from the forty-ninth parallel to the Arctic and from Winnipeg to the Rocky Mountains. The President of the hospital board pointed out that the nurses were doing a lot of the work that Lady Aberdeen was supporting with the new Victorian Order of Nurses.

The hospital building was of cut stone and was two full storeys. The mansard roof covered a third level that housed an isolation ward and the nurses. It opened in January of 1890, just in time for a flu epidemic. There were two nurses for the entire hospital--the Matron was Grace Louise Reynolds and her assistant was Mary Ellen Birtles.

Grace Reynolds was Alberta's direct nursing connection to Florence Nightingale. She had been trained in Britain by a Miss Gordon who had been a student of Florence Nightingale's.

Miss Birtles described the scene: "Miss Reynolds and I managed the work between us. She prepared the meals and looked after the downstairs work; I attended to the furnace and did the upstairs work, sweeping, dusting, etc. besides attending to the patients. When any surgical work was to be done, we had to arrange the work accordingly. Miss Reynolds gave the anaesthetic and I looked after the instruments and waited on the doctors. There was no sterilizer, so we had to resort to boiling the instruments in a large saucepan with a steamer on it for towels and dressings."

Typhoid hit hard in 1891 and every bed in the hospital had a typhoid patient in it. Mary Birtles came down with the disease herself, leaving Miss Reynolds to cope with her colleague's illness and all the patients in the hospital. Both Miss Reynolds and Miss Birtles survived the ordeal.

The stories of most early hospitals are inextricably linked with the stories of their nursing schools. The Medicine Hat school that was opened in 1895 provided a good deal of the nursing care that was actually given on the wards for many years. The young women tended to be thrown in at the deep end and left to sink or swim on their own. Sometimes they were "instructed" by other young women who had been in the same position only two or three months earlier, sometimes they were more fortunate and did a sort of apprenticeship with a more senior nurse. Keeping up with studies after a twelve hour shift (sometimes longer) was only one of their problems.