Nurse in Charge
By Mandy Poole
ST. LEWIS – With a population of about 220 people, St. Lewis is home to three grocery stores, a single gas station, a post office, an all-grade school, a crab processing plant and the St. Lewis Clinic. Inside that clinic is Victoria Paul.
Paul is an outport nurse who began nursing in Labrador in 1982. At that time, she was stationed in Port Hope Simpson, Labrador.
“I chose Port Hope Simpson because that’s the name very similar to the name of where I came from – Port Hope, Ontario, so that’s how I ended up there,” said Paul.
When Paul first decided she would come to Labrador to complete her clinical training, she didn’t know Labrador was a part of the mainland.
“I flew from Toronto to Gander and then got on a smaller plane the next morning and flew from Gander to St. Anthony, and I didn’t think we were going to make it,” she said.
“I thought we were going to crash a couple of times, because all of a sudden the plane would start to nose drive. What I found out after was that where I was sitting up close to the pilot, he was diving down lower because he saw a moose and he had wanted to show the nurse, but I didn’t realize that.”
Paul said she was terrified at some points, but when she finally reached her destination, that’s when the real story began.
“I didn’t know where I was getting off, the plane was very small, and the pilot finally turned around and said, ‘when that lady over there gets off, you get off.’”
Paul said she noticed that the lady had red hair like she did. Her name was Betty Sampson; they eventually became very good friends and still are to this day.
When the plane landed on the ice – there were no airstrips back then – it was quite rough. She was greeted by someone with a snowmobile and a komatik and was told that’s how she would be getting to the clinic.
“I was put in the komatik and half way up the hill it tipped over and I ended up in the snow. So it was quite the adventure, just getting there at the time,” chuckled Paul.
Language and lifestyle
One of the first things Paul noticed about life in Labrador was the language.
“Even though it’s supposed to be English, there are different words that we interpret to be something else – one of them being the ‘bridge.’”
On one particular stormy day, Paul received a call from a neighbouring community. The frantic caller had said their daughter had fallen off the bridge and dented her head in.
“Of course, it was stormy and I couldn’t get out – I couldn’t remember ever seeing that bridge that they were talking about. I wasn’t sure; I kept asking, ‘How high was the bridge?’ ‘What was under the bridge?’ and I wasn’t getting clear cut answers.”
A couple of days later when the weather had cleared, Paul quickly flew out to the community and discovered that the ‘bridge’ that the caller had spoken of meant the steps coming from the side of the house.
“That’s what they called a bridge, and I had worried for days about this little girl, and I didn’t know, but because of the weather we couldn’t get to her any faster. Then I understood that if the people there thought it was that bad, they would have been bringing her in to Port Hope.”
Besides misunderstandings, Paul had to adjust to many more challenges as an outport nurse.
“From October/November until May, the one road around town would be shut down for trucks, and we would have to use snowmobiles to get us around,” she said “We depended on boats or planes to get us in or out, and as nurses we escort some very sick patients to the hospital (in St. Anthony) to receive further medical care.”
Even food was a big factor in the early days of her time in Labrador.
“We used to have to order enough food twice a year to last not only for the nurse(s) but also for everyone travelling to the nursing station for clinics – taking into mind not just what everybody liked but what if the weather came down and people got stuck for extra time?”
When Paul was debriefed after coming out of her first clinical program in Labrador, her response was, “Well, I lived.”
She said some things were very scary and some things were much unknown.
“We were doing a lot of things that in normal nursing roles you wouldn’t be doing – like in a hospital – but I came out, I survived it.”
In smaller towns around the coast, said Paul, the clinics dispense medications for the patients to take home, while in more urban areas you would only get a prescription note. Paul also said that communication between nurses and doctors about patient advice happens over the phone, rarely ever in person.
“At the end of your work day you don’t just leave and have someone else take over the care of a patient. We are on call in case problems arise,” said Paul.
Lure of the Labrador wild
After her first time in Labrador, Paul worked in Africa. She said she knew from an early age that when she was to become a nurse, she wanted to practice in the Arctic and in Africa.
“I don’t know if it was because of my age or if I had watched too much Tarzan on TV or what it was. I knew it wasn’t just regular nursing that I wanted more outport type of nursing and that was right from the beginning. That was why I took the International Health Course after I did my RN.”
Paul’s advisors asked her if she would come back to Labrador again, but her plans for Africa were underway.
Paul did volunteer work while in Africa. She says the type of nursing practiced there was very different in comparison to what she was used to. At one point the staff at the hospital wanted her to run the emergency department. She felt at that time she wasn’t ready for that and decided to venture back to Canada, and on to Labrador.
Paul went on to work in Port Hope Simpson again, finding relief that, unlike Africa, if she needed a hand, a doctor at the end of the phone could help her if she had any questions.
“The other nurses in the other clinics, we often rely on their experiences and judgement,” said Paul, who went on to work in Port Hope Simpson again in 1983. Paul worked in Port Hope Simpson and then went on to Mary’s Harbour, Charlottetown, St. Lewis and Cartwright.
Despite all of the extra duties that Paul has been faced with, she said living in Labrador has its good points too.
“You get to share in the whole life of a patient . . . As nurses, we were invited into the homes, culture and lives of the communities where we worked.”
With the time Paul spent in Labrador, her values and standards as a nurse had shined through.
“I think a lot of it was I had terrific parents. Even though my mother died when I was 16, I think that a lot of her kindness and giving – that rubbed off on me from a very early age.”
Paul said good values were always important to her and her family.
“I worked from an early age. We always had to do chores. We didn’t have a lot of money, but we made the best of every situation. I think that just coming from not having everything handed to me – if I have something I’d always share it and that’s what I continue to do at this time in my life.”
Even now Paul carries those values with her and has passed them on to her only child, daughter Sasha. Paul was pregnant with Sasha while she lived and worked in Labrador.
“I was nine months pregnant, and it was my first night not on call when I got a call that a girl from another community was pregnant and having problems. The weather was down, and we could not get a plane or a doctor in, so it was only me and a midwife book I had.”
Paul said the patient and the baby were fine. Everything went smoothly. In the end, she had to go and rest because she herself was having contractions every five minutes, but everything settled down and Sasha was delivered in St. Anthony by a midwife around her due date.
Sasha lived with Paul for a time while she was stationed in St. Lewis; Paul said she became a ‘true Labradorian’ quite easily even though Sasha had been reluctant at first.
“(Sasha) said that every time I talked about Labrador I had a big smile on my face about the type of nursing I did, so she wanted to see what it was like. I had to promise her three things: a new computer, a Ski-Doo and ‘Don’t make me talk like the others.’ But within two weeks’ time she was as local as can be.”
Sasha currently lives away from Labrador with her husband Lorenzo in Edmonton.
Perks of small town life
During her time in Labrador, Paul has touched the lives of many people. One person in particular is Cara Chubbs. She and her husband Neil have had three children, all of which Paul had helped in prenatal care.
“Victoria is there to answer any questions my husband and I may have regarding the kids’ health, whether it be during or after clinic hours,” said Chubbs.
“We had three pregnancies that I had complications early on … as well as going into labour three weeks preterm with our second child, and she was the nurse that we called.”
Chubbs spoke of Paul with fondness. Chubbs said Paul does a great job as the nurse in charge and as a community member as a whole.
“I think she has had a great impact on the community as she has nursed here for many years while also serving as a member on the town council, volunteering with organizations and events in town.”
Dora Poole, who works with Paul at the St. Lewis Clinic, also said that Paul is a great nurse in charge and that she treats everyone with respect.
“She takes pride in her work and has real concern for her patients,” said Poole. “I think she has a real impact on the community because she’s been here for a long time, knows the peoples medical history and don’t mind giving a helping hand when needed.”
“She is truly an amazing person.”
True Labrador Nurse
As winter fades into spring in St. Lewis, the nurse in charge remains happy with the course that her life is taking.
“I worked independent for a number of years while I was raising my daughter. I ran my own business in foot care and I taught foot care at a college in Ottawa. I worked with doctors in Calgary with foot care, so I can’t see me not doing something in nursing whether it’s the outpost nursing or whether I start up my own business again.”
Whatever Paul decides, the people of St. Lewis will be behind her and proud that she has helped this community for so long.
“I’ve enjoyed my time here; I wouldn’t have come back if I didn’t.”
Writer and photographer from remote Labrador, Canada. Just another cold Labradorian chillin' in the Big Land. Can most likely be found walking my dog Grace or behind an iMac screen slowly taking over the interwebs.