Apr 01, 2020, By: Barb Shellian
Recently, I had the pleasure of reading When Days are Long: Nurse in the North (Wilson, 2019), the memoir of Amy Wilson a nurse who practiced in the Yukon and northern British Columbia in the 1950s, a catchment area that spanned 200 000 square miles. Her stories are entertaining but also provide fodder for reflection. In her down-to-earth writing style—it’s as though Wilson is chatting with us over a cup of tea at the end of a long day—she reveals the intricacies of remote nursing and the disparities of health services for Indigenous peoples.
Have dogsled, will travel
Wilson’s descriptions of such situations as a diphtheria epidemic, deadly influenza, immunization clinics at a rodeo, and delivering a baby in a tent shine a light on the specialty of being a nurse in remote areas of Canada in that era.
Once, she managed a month-long mass immunization blitz along the Alaska Highway that included washing needles and syringes with melted snow and ether—an adventure indeed. And imagine the challenge of getting word out about an X-ray machine coming to the community, or a dental clinic, or the importance of immunizations, without the use of fax, phone, or Internet! News was instead relayed, ingeniously, by sending word with the RCMP, and by telling the chiefs and Indian agents.
Once, she managed a month-long mass immunization blitz along the Alaska Highway that included washing needles and syringes with melted snow and ether—an adventure indeed.
Wilson travelled to her communities via dogsled, snowshoe, plane, boat, automobile, and ice bridge, experiencing many hazardous conditions. In the North, weather, geography, and access to resources shape a nurse’s practice.
Life in the North was not for the faint of heart. But the independence of nursing practice encouraged problem-solving, creativity, community capacity building, and family-centred care (before it was a “thing”).
The reader also learns about Wilson as a person. She was passionate about the role of music in healing, and left many musical instruments at camps along the way as part of her legacy. She also acknowledged the importance of mentors in her practice, and this led to her decision to make a difference in the North.
Wilson was persistent and dedicated, providing health care in difficult situations and viewing everyone she met as persons deserving of care and respect. She got things done by establishing relationships and working with the people of the North.
In recognition of her contributions to public health nursing, she received a citation and a medal for distinguished service. But perhaps her most cherished accolade was that she was given a special name by the local Indigenous people—Chai Wootcha, which means Good Woman.
Wilson built trust in the communities by respecting Indigenous medicine and integrating its teas and ointments into her practice. She stated that the Yukon was a “tug on my heart,” and that was where she felt most needed.
Questions of ethics
Wilson’s storytelling is highly engaging, but reading her book gives rise to more serious reflections on ethics. For example, why was persuading people to leave their communities for treatment such a large part of the Northern nurse’s role? Lack of access to services was a major strain on these families and communities.
She was passionate about the role of music in healing, and left many musical instruments at camps along the way as part of her legacy.
I was also sobered by her reference to the residential school in Whitehorse, and the implication that the practice of separating children from their families was acceptable.
Have things changed significantly for the health of Indigenous peoples? Many would say that things have not changed enough—relative to the advances for the majority of Canadians. This book looks at the past and makes us realize how important it is, as nurses, to continue to advocate for the health of Indigenous people in our country.
I would recommend this book for Wilson’s entertaining stories, but also for her inspiring reflections on how nurses can make a difference. For certainly, Amy Wilson made a difference.
Wilson, A. (2019). When Days are Long: Nurse in the North. Halfmoon Bay, BC: Caitlin Press.
Editor-in-chief Barb Shellian is a registered nurse committed to nursing practice, health care reform, and people. She is the immediate past president of the Canadian Nurses Association. She is also Director of Rural Health, Alberta Health Services—Calgary Zone and lives and works in Canmore, AB.