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Nellie McClung: Cost of a battleship would build a lot of hospitals

This column first appeared in the Victoria Daily Times on July 22, 1939. If I wakened in the black middle of a soundless night in a hospital, I would know where I was.

This column first appeared in the Victoria Daily Times on July 22, 1939.

If I wakened in the black middle of a soundless night in a hospital, I would know where I was. I would recognize the detached, impersonal feel of the place, with its reassuring efficiency and security.

If I could reach the light (and you always can in a hospital) I would recognize the neutral walls and plain furniture, with not a curve — not a Greek key or a fleur-de-lis. Just everything that is needed in its plainest, simplest form. There is a feeling of resignation in a hospital, too, a laying aside of earthly cares that cannot be found anywhere else. Time stands still and so does not count against us.

I have been spending two hours each morning in one of the divisions of the X-ray department, with my feet in glass stocks, receiving an ebb and flow of energy, and so I have had time to observe my fellow travellers, who like me are halted for repairs on the road of life.

We are a tired-looking lot, creased and travel-stained. Even the young man whom I pass as I come into my stall. He sits in a little cubicle, looking at a copy of Life, dressed in a grey suit, with a flower in his lapel, just the same each morning. It looks like the same flower and the same copy of Life.

I wonder what he is in for, and if he minds the interruption in his daily occupation. I look into the general waiting-room, too, and there they sit, young and old. Each one with a story — a Hindu woman with a baby, and a very young couple holding hands, women with over-run ankles and men with bandaged arms.

In contrast to us, the damaged and ravelled ones, the nurses simply glow with health as they move about among us on their soundless rubber heels, low-voiced, smiling, orderly. Even the little probationers have acquired that easy-running, germ-defying look. I am glad their dresses have short sleeves now, and comfortable neck. I have not seen one pair of stiff cuffs, not even on the heads of departments.

My composite picture of the hospital nurse who smoothes the bed of pain and coaxes health back into jaded bodies is something like this. A crisp young woman in her early 20s, very slight, in fact too slight in her pinch-waisted uniform; dark hair bobbed and waved, low-heeled black shoes, long lashes, white, even teeth, a few pale and becoming freckles, steady eyes with a humorous twinkle and a clear voice. She knows how to pull the wrinkles out of sheets, arrange pillows, allay fears and discuss foreign affairs, tell you about the last picture she saw or say nothing at all, according to the patient’s needs.

I was interested to hear a discussion regarding Wuthering Heights. It was not popular with these young moderns. Hearts do not break now, they said, women have more than one ambition and there are many ways in which they can find themselves. A little probationer contributed this: “If your husband prefers his stenographer, you are sad about it, of course, and have a few hard cries, but you snap out of it and start a hat shop.”

Where do they all come from — these capable young women enlisted in the army that fights pain and trouble, and why do they choose this life, with its stern discipline and long hours? It can only be explained on psychological grounds.

Florence Nightingale knew something about a woman’s capacity to serve, when she began her long fight to have the opportunity of nursing wounded soldiers. She was called “a brazen hussie” by one of the members in the British House of Commons. She was accused of many things, from embezzlement of funds to stealing the patients’ jam. Even the clergy of her time asked in pained amazement: “Why should any decent woman want to nurse strange men?”

That seems a long time ago, but prejudice dies hard. Even as short a time ago as the beginning of the war, the Scottish women’s hospital with Dr. Elsie Inglis at its head, when offered to the British government, was turned down because there were only women on the staff. Now there isn’t a country in the world where women are not employed as nurses.

The only criticism that I can make of our hospitals is that we haven’t enough of them and what we have are not accessible to everyone. Their fees are not exorbitant. Indeed, many hospitals are running at a loss. But even so their services are beyond the means of many of our people.

Lord Halifax, in his great world appeal, sent out recently, quickened all our imaginations when he reminded us that every nation would benefit from co-operation. The standards of living would be raised, there is enough for all, if we would only stop piling up armaments and mediate our differences. Some day when the good sense of humanity has asserted itself, and this fine philosophy has permeated even the dark aisles of the Nazi mentality, nations will no longer be driven to reckless spending for defence, and we will indulge our fighting spirit in a great battle against disease and poverty.

People, even our own people, in this favoured part of Canada, were flowers bloom and birds sing, are needy. Pain, which is our common heritage, makes us near akin, and on the very first day that I came out of the hospital, with Lord Halifax’s brave words in my ears, I went downtown and found myself sensitive to every evidence of human suffering.

In the bus station, where I waited for the Gordon Head bus, I saw women carrying heavy shopping bags, stiff-kneed and heavy-eyed. I thought of the cool hospital beds, the skill of doctors and nurses — the advance of science — and yet these people are suffering from complaints which can easily be remedied. I saw a little child with bow legs, another one with adenoids and a man with bad teeth poisoning his system. I counted 10 people as I sat there in need of hospital care. People who could be set free to live their lives in comfort.

Between them and this relief stands the barrier of money. Money that is being spent like water to build up defences. The price of one battleship would build many hospitals.

I wonder, if we do get out of this jam and God, in His mercy allows us to live in peace, will we in sheer gratitude begin to feel another’s woes and help to bear other people’s burdens in the form of free clinics and free hospitals?

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