If you’ve given birth at Victoria General Hospital in the past 37 years, you might have run into Stella Morris.
Morris, 77, has worked in the hospital’s mother and baby unit as a registered nurse for those 37 years. She has helped deliver babies to mothers that she also helped deliver.
Through her years in nursing, Morris said she has seen massive changes in technology, from the advent of ultrasounds, MRI and CT scanners to electronic health records and a lot of disposable plastics. Back in the day, a woman might stay in hospital up to 14 days after a caesarean section. Now, it can all be done in one day.
Still “basic nursing does not ever change,” said Morris. “Good bedside care does not ever change.”
After almost 60 years in the profession — including 46 in Victoria — and countless 12-hour shifts, Morris is finally calling it quits today to devote her energies full-time to the West Saanich hobby farm and vineyard that she shares with husband David Morris and her dogs and chickens.
“Thousands of patients would have received her care over the decades,” said Christine Sorenson, president of the B.C. Nurses’ Union. “I have great admiration for an individual who’s dedicated that many years of her life to a profession that provides care for people in some of the most vulnerable times of their life.”
Most nurses retire in their early 60s, but not Morris: “I always enjoyed looking after people,” she said.
Peggy Quigg, the clinical nurse educator on the mother and baby unit at Victoria General Hospital, called Morris a wonderful nurse and a strong mentor for co-workers and student nurses. “She exemplifies being caring and generous,” said Quigg, who marvels at her colleague’s energy. Morris will collect eggs from her chickens and fresh produce from her garden in the morning before her shift starts at 7:30 a.m.
“She’s supported moms and newborns for so many years. She’s a beautiful person. She will leave a big hole behind her.”
Morris comes by her work ethic honestly. Stephania (Stella) Holowaychuk was one of 12 children born to a Polish mom and Ukrainian dad in Smoky Lake, just northeast of Edmonton.
All 11 of her siblings are still living independently, in a testament to the family’s health: Irene, 92, Olga, 90, John, 86, Mary, 84, Steve, 83, Anne, 81, Susan, 76, Harry, 74, Bob, 72, and Dennis, 68.
Like many immigrants, the Holowaychuks came to Canada with just a suitcase and were given $10 by the government and 160 acres of bush to farm. Many of the 12 kids were born at home and raised on a strong work ethic, a respect for education, and healthy food: “We ate what we grew.”
Helping others was a value their father, a carpenter, instilled in his children: When people ask for help, you give them what they asked for and more.
Morris and her sisters entered the professions most easily accessed by women at the time — banking, hospitality and nursing.
At the age of 17, Morris set off to Royal Alexandra Hospital in Edmonton to start an apprentice-type nursing program open only to single women. She had room and board and free tuition at the hospital, for which she worked six days a week, 11 months of the year.
Morris was inspired by her sister Mary, who was also a nurse. “My older sister talked so much about what a great profession it was,” she said. “When she was 80, I said: ‘Mary you are older than your patients, you have to stop working.’ She loved what she was doing.”
Sister Anne, 81, and Susan, 76, were also nurses.
“The job was caring for people, which I think is very important,” said Morris. “You certainly didn’t go into it for the money. It was all about the caring and helping people get well or recover from surgery and injuries.”
Upon graduation in 1963, Morris went back to George McDougall Hospital in Smoky Lake with a $50 bursary from the Women’s Auxiliary for a year of required work in her hometown.
She worked in a 15-bed hospital where the town’s only doctor, who doubled as the town’s dentist, did obstetrics, pediatrics and minor surgery.
After that, Morris toggled back and forth between Calgary and Edmonton. It was in Calgary General Hospital on the orthopedic ward that she met then-patient David Morris, who was about 25 at the time and had a torn ligament from a skiing accident.
“I married my patient,” she said. “There was an attraction. I don’t know if it was love at first sight. He thinks it was, but I think he’s just telling me that,” she quipped. “I must say he was quite charming and very talkative. And he was caring. He was everything you’d want in a husband.”
She was off to Edmonton for work at the time, but they kept in touch, dated and married within a year. They had three children: Lisa, 49, Pam, 50, and Geoff, 47. Lisa and Pam are also nurses.
When David got a job with the B.C. government, the family moved west to Victoria in 1974.
Until today, Morris was still working 12-hour shifts, full time: “I have good stamina,” she said.
She has worked in ophthalmology, orthopedics, obstetrics, general nursing, on a special intravenous team and finally maternity.
“All of those areas were my favourite at the time I was doing them during different stages of my life.”
She especially enjoyed the IV team (which has since been disbanded) because it helped reduce patients’ pain and discomfort: “You become very proficient — one poke and we’d establish an IV.”
Daughter Lisa Banks compares her mother to a hummingbird who “never never never stops moving” — working, gardening, tending to chickens and the farm, walking the dog.
“Oh my goodness, how would I describe her?” said Banks.
“Selfless. She’s so giving. She is the ultimate nurturer. Caring for people, it’s like her calling. It’s what makes her tick.”
Growing up with a mom who worked 12-hour days and many night shifts from 7 p.m. to 7 a.m. meant being self-sufficient and sometimes not getting the amount of attention she desired as a child, but she knew her mother was compelled to help people who were in dire need. Now, as a mother, Banks said she only hopes to reach the high bar her mother set.
On the maternity ward at Victoria General, where Morris has been for 37 years, it’s “the moms who are really struggling, those are the ones she will always go the extra mile for,” said Banks.
Morris said she has watched the babies she has cared for at the hospital grow up and return to have their own babies. She said it’s nice when patients return as adults and still remember her, still send her cards.
Banks said her own path of nursing was subconsciously inspired by her mother, whom she viewed as someone very fulfilled through her job. “She never complained, even after a long night shift,” she said. “She’s got an unmatched work ethic — I’ve never seen anything like it.”
The idea of retiring did not come easy, but Morris said her body is ready and she’s got much work to do on the farm, starting with raising chickens. Morris also enjoys teaching her grandkids to make jam and pickles, and raise chicks.
“It’s with a lot of sadness that I am leaving my profession,” said Morris, “but age-wise I feel the time is right.”
“I loved what I was doing,” she said. “But I am also a keen gardener and have a little farm. I can’t do both. And my husband needs me.”
Morris said a few years back, one of the obstetricians died of an aneurysm at age 71 and it made her think about how she wanted to live out the rest of her healthy years.
“I’m sure it will be a big adjustment but there are many things to do at home.
“I’m just leaving one profession for another — full-time farmer.”
With that, Morris, on a day off, is off and outside to clean out the chicken house.