All Aboard! Exploring the Newfoundland Railway

Railway / Coastal History

Railway/Coastal Boat Service

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Doctors, Nursing and Medical Care

Living in a small outport meant medical or nursing care was difficult to access. This caused tremendous problems and hardships when a family encountered serious injury or illness. Getting medical attention usually required an open boat trip to connect with a train or coastal boat, then a journey to the nearest large town for medical care. A visit to an outport by a nurse or doctor would be a rare and celebrated event. The coastal boat service was the critical lifeline for medical treatment and relief from the agony of suffering and worry.

NONIA (Newfoundland Outport Nursing and Industrial Association) was formed in 1924 by the Outport Nursing Committee to provide nursing and midwifery services with their salaries initially paid out of the general revenue. The purpose of NONIA in 1924 was to encourage the manufacture of weaving and knitting products by outport women for sale in St. John's to support the maintenance of outport nurses.

Temporary relocation of fishers to the summer fishery in Labrador created even greater healthcare problems. Dr. Wilfred Grenfell pioneered medical service in Labrador and treated fishers and native residents. Grenfell persuaded the government to assign a medical attendant on the coastal boat which brought fishers to and from Labrador. Eventually, the S.S. Kyle had two small cabins set up with hospital beds. By the 1930s it was fortunate to have such well known doctors as Nigel Rusted, Charles Hutton, and David Hawkins on board.

One of Dr. Rusted's mentors was Dr. Norman Gosse. Dr Gosse was a native of Newfoundland and chief surgeon at the Victoria General Hospital in Halifax. He had been a medical officer in 1922 on the coastal boat service. Dr. Rusted was advised by him to have the following items for treatment.

For constipation: black draught; Epson salts, castor oil.

For "Water Pups" (an infection of the wrists caused by rubbing of the oil clothes): "Dragons Blood," a red wax-like substance, which came in sticks; a portion was broken off, heated and used as a poultice.

For "bad Backs" - Belladonna Plasters: a red flannel in 6-8 inch squares with the drugs smeared over; or linament; or the area reinforced with adhesive strapping.

"The medical officer had to deal with many and varied problems, ranging from infected fingers and wrists, a most common complaint, to complications of pregnancy and tooth aches, the cure of which was extraction... These were pre-antibiotic days, and, strangely, there were no complications from dental abscesses. Those who recovered from any major infection, such as pneumonia, did so by the 'grace of God'. This applied generally - not only to the Labrador coast. In a case of emergency, such as gastric bleeding, the patient was 'rushed' to the nearest hospital, often 50 to 100 miles away, at a speed of 14 to 15 miles an hour! There were no roads and there was no air transport at that time." (Dr. W.H. Drover, Medical Officer on the S.S. Kyle in 1935. Them Days magazine, June 1984, pp. 44-45).

Public health nurse administering to a patient.
The Department of Health relied upon improvements in Newfoundland's transportation system to introduce many Public Health initiatives. Atlantic Guardian photo.
The M.V. Nonia on 'Fisherman's Trip' in Labrador.
View from M.V. Nonia on the 'Fisherman's Trip'.
The S.S. Cabot Strait in ice, 1958.
The S.S. Cabot Strait in ice, 1958. Once WWII ended, the S.S. Cabot Strait was built to replace the S.S Caribou. She came into service in 1947. CN Pensioners collection.