Healing the sick and trading for furs
Medical historian documents unique role of St.Luke’s Hospital
For more than 30 years, St. Luke’s Hospital in Pangnirtung was a centre of health care for the Eastern Arctic.
Until it closed in 1972, the hospital was also a centre of trade in the Cumberland Sound. Healthy Inuit arrived at the hospital from camps to trade skins, country foods and handicrafts, say former workers, and no one was turned away.
Many sick Inuit spent prolonged periods at St. Luke’s. Jointly supported by the Anglican Church and the federal government, care was supplied “without prejudice” to everyone, that is, not just to Inuit converts to the Anglican church.
“Today, people who are sick are sent home from the nursing station. Back then, sick patients were put in the hospital and stayed until they were well enough to go home,” former hospital workers Evie Anilniliak and Siloah Metuq told Emily Farrell.
Farrell, a medical historian, is documenting the memories of Inuit who worked at St. Luke’s Hospital, with the assistance of Meeka Alivaktuk.
“The success of St. Luke’s lies in the remarkable dynamic established between the missionary nurses, workers and the community,” says Farrell who recently spoke about her research at the Unikkaarvik Visitors Centre in Iqaluit.
The hospital was also the largest employer of Inuit in the region. Over the years, 43 Inuit women and 13 Inuit men worked at St. Luke’s. Until the 1960s, Inuit workers received goods at the Hudson Bay Co. store rather than cash in return for their labour.
Women workers were usually aged between 13 and 16 when they started work at the hospital. The hospital also became the workers’ home during the week. There, cleaning, floor washing, dusting, laundry, meal preparation and dishes occupied most of their days. The battle against tuberculosis meant keeping everything clean was essential.
“The workers had to wash everything… the doctors’ room was always cleaned; it was spotless,” former worker Quanaq Qupee said.
Patients’ clothes were soaked in iodine and washed. Women workers took the laundry to a stream, boiled the water, washed everything and took the clean items back to the hospital to dry. For many years, this was all done by hand, using a washboard, without the help of wringer washing machines.
Women workers also helped out nurses in the delivery of medication.
“You watched the nurses do their duties so you could learn,” Evie Anilniliak said. “We were able to give them a break.”
Farrell has documented how nurses and their assistants developed warm relationships.
“At Easter time, I would wake up in the morning and my breakfast would be waiting on the table, there was a cross put up in the room and we had oranges and grapefruits to eat. This caring helped me a lot, even today, good memories,” Neevee Nowdlak said.
Many male workers became lifelong workers, supporting their families through their work at the hospital.
Quanaq had the job of fetching fresh water, emptying the waste and keeping a supply of coal for the hospital’s furnace. He also assisted in burials – a task that became intense during the influenza epidemic of 1941.
Then, the hospital became quickly overcrowded as the sick streamed in from outlying camps. Even the home of the Anglican minister was full of sick children. The upstairs of the hospital and the nurses’ living room were also used to house the ill.
“All the patients who were still living in the hospital in the epidemic year were fed, bathed and medicated by all the ladies who were working that year. The nurses were always welcoming and kind,” said Anilniliak.
Meanwhile, bodies of those who died from influenza piled up in the shed. The bodies were buried one at a time in a mass grave.
Despite the hardship and hard times of those years, former workers say people still miss the hospital.
“At the time, if we were sick, we would be put in the hospital to stay, but now it’s not like that… it is the people who live in the communities and camps that miss the hospital… it was not just for the sick.”
Former hospital workers who participated in Farrell’s study say something special was lost when St. Luke’s closed down in 1972.
As the Canada Health Act came into force, churches would no longer be involved in providing health care as part of their mission in the Eastern Arctic, and St. Luke’s was replaced by a government-run nursing station in 1973.