Paid with a pig: Nursing in the 1930s

Evelyn Douglas graduated from Weyburn General Hospital in 1936 and, after her family was raised, worked there for many years.

A few years before she passed away a thoughtful relative recorded some of her reminiscences about being a student nurse, and nursing, in the 1930s.

Question: And what was the system in those days for people who were training for the RN program?

Evelyn: You had to train for three years. It was a no pay job.

Q: The Weyburn General hospital was accredited as a teaching hospital for RN programs?

E: Yes. I believe the first nurses were trained more or less by the hospital. It wasn’t yet under the provincial government in Saskatchewan. I believe around 1912 most of the nurses were midwives or young people that had been trained by doctors, but in 1924 they gave the first diplomas for nurses trained in Saskatchewan. From 1935 or 36 you no longer could train in any hospital that had less than 75 patients.

Q: You lived in the nurses residences, beside the hospital?

E: No above it. We were in the attic of the hospital. And it was twenty-four duty. You were on call if you were on the OR, the Operating Room. The way they called you if you were downtown was to turn on the big OR lights, which, with the old Weyburn General being on the hill, you could see all over town.

Q: So if you were downtown you had to keep an eye on the hill to see if the light was on.

E: If you were the OR nurse and you saw those lights, you were there immediately. And you spent a minimum of three months in the OR. I spent more than that.

You took your probation training first. And that was four months.

Mainly it was book work, theory, how to do things. The practical part so that you could bath patients and could give certain treatments, but not medicines. After the probationary training for four months, during the days, from then on you went on shifts. There were three shifts in the day. They were twelve hours long but were divided. The probationers went on duty at seven in the morning and went off at seven at night, with time for meals and I think they got a half hour off in the afternoon. At maybe nine o’clock you would have a study session, or you would have a lecture session with the doctors as lecturers. We had instructors in addition to the doctors. The instructors came from Winnipeg. There was a Miss Stevenson when we were there. We took classes through the day, but the minute classes were over, you went back on the wards. You carried trays, you carried glasses up to the patients. After the four months that you were supposed to be able to do treatments. In your second year you went on nights, and you could be on nights alone. In your third year, you were supposed to be able to do most everything that was necessary through your training.

Q: When, if ever, did you get a day off?

E: We didn't get days off. We got a half day off in a week. Six and a half days of 12-hour work days (or nights), with two hours off on Sunday. That didn't count as a half day.

You couldn't have Christmas or New Year's, or any holiday off, those were considered for the patients. But you got a day off maybe the seventeenth or the eighteenth of December, the week before Christmas. You could go home or you could do what you liked, in place of Christmas.

If you were sick during your three years training, you had to put in that time after you were through. In those times, a married women was not allowed to work. And not just as a nurse, but practically any job.

I couldn’t be married and work as a nurse. I completed my RN exams the summer of 1935 and had been working in the hospital for a year after that when we were married.

I had graduated so I could get married, but according to the law I couldn’t work. There weren’t enough jobs to go around, that was the way they looked at it. But I was called back, temporarily, numerous times afterwards.

After I had my RN, after I left the hospital, after I was married and living on the farm. Dr. Good called to say he had a patient, really bad, a heart condition and I don’t know what else. He was quite an elderly man. Dr. Good wanted me to come to Yellow Grass to keep an eye on him for two or three days. He got better and came along fine. When it came to paying for it, they gave my husband a small pig. Money just wasn’t in existence in those days.

Thanks to UNA member and Registered Nurse, Lexie Douglas for bringing in her grandmother’s uniform, photo albums and even an interview she gave before she died.