Teaching nurses in the 1950s and 60s: the Medicine Hat School of Nursing

The plans for the new hospital to be built in 1954 at one point included busing the student nurses from the old residence to the new hospital location. Since the old residence was overcrowded anyway, it was decided to seek approval to raise funds for a new one.

The new building was a spread-out ranch style with bedrooms in the end wings and classrooms and lounges in the centre core. When those winter winds whipped across the prairies, the young students must have really appreciated the fact that it was connected to the hospital by a tunnel. Actual moving-in day with all its chaos was January 22nd. 1958.

The girls were kept strictly in their own groups. Probationers, affectionately known as probies, and juniors, intermediates and seniors were often housed in different areas of the residence and ate at different tables, depending on where they were in the hierarchy.

One special person in the students' lives had to be the housemother, who sat at the front desk, noting comings and goings (especially those after curfew), sorting mail and delivering messages to the girls, and keeping track of any visitors. She might have been seen as a jailer, but usually became more of a grandmother, overlooking the occasional slip-up on the part of her girls.

Room and board were provided free of charge to the nursing students, laundry was looked after and, other than making their own beds and keeping their rooms tidy, the girls were not responsible for general cleaning. In spite of their long days in the wards, it probably was quite a bonus to some of the girls from farm backgrounds, who would have worked extremely hard at the never-ending chores at home.

Curfews and late leave regulations didn't change much over the years until the more relaxed years of the 1960s came along. The students, after their initial six months of training, could stay out as late and as often as they liked--as long as they noted their time of return on a sign-in card. They could even stay out overnight if they filled out a card with the address of where they were staying.

Since the students really were an important part of the actual staff of the hospital, arrangements for Christmas and other holidays had to be made. As many patients as were able to go were sent home, but, even with that reduction in numbers, most of the students were required to work at least part of the holiday. The hospital board provided a turkey dinner and other organizations brought decorations and entertainment. Very often the nurses formed their own choir and sang Christmas carols throughout the hospital for those patients who couldn't manage to go home. For many of the students it would have been their first Christmas away from home.

As standards changed over the years, many assessments had pointed to inadequate teaching facilities and insufficient numbers of qualified teaching staff. The move to the new nurses' residence in 1958 addressed the facilities problem to a certain extent, but in 1963 a special committee from the University of Alberta ranked the school "last" in the twelve schools throughout the province. It was thought that closure was imminent, but a reprieve was organized. To allow time to bring things up to date, it was decided that there would be no intake class that fall (1963). Upsetting as this was to all concerned, most particularly to the young women who had applied and been accepted for that year, the decision was firm.

The next few years under a newly appointed Director of Nursing Education (for the first time a separate position from that of Director of Nursing) worked well. The vacant instructional positions were filled and new classes of students were taken in the following years. But changes were occurring outside the control of the Medicine Hat School of Nursing--a trend towards two-year diploma courses at other educational institutions was the major one. The hospital Board decided to talk with the equivalent institution in Medicine Hat, the Medicine Hat Junior College. Finding that plans were already afoot to begin a similar two-year diploma course, the hospital agreed to provide the practical training that would be part of the course.

There was, of course, lots of opposition to closing the school, not the least of which came from the existing students. They were well taken care of--the seniors and intermediates would finish their years at Medicine Hat School of Nursing, graduating in October of 1970 and 1971, and the juniors would be transferred to the Galt School of Nursing in Lethbridge. The juniors and seniors finished out those years at Medicine Hat School of Nursing, rattling around in the "new" residence that had been designed for a hundred and five students--they even had their housemother.
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