3. A Moment In Time: Sick Kids Nurses in Jean Masten’s Era – Kay Cowan

By Kay (Little) Cowan.  Article appeared in “Alumnae News”, Fall, 1999

We stood in a semi-circle, quietly at attention, proud of our blue uniforms and starched white aprons and bibs that shortly would be scrunched and wrinkled from cuddling and feeding our wee charges on Infant Medicine or the toddlers on Surgery with casts on various extremities whom we would bathe and feed.

Every morning after breakfast, which we were not allowed to miss, and before classes  or practice on the wards,  Miss Masten or Miss Gibson would lead us in prayers in that space between the beautiful rotunda and the cafeteria on the first floor of the brand new hospital. We were the first class to start in the 555 University Avenue location in 1952 and we were housed and protected from the city in the new elegant Elizabeth McMaster House.

The Nursing Department was run like a tight ship with Jean I. Masten as the Captain.  Our nursing leaders always seemed to have an accurate finger on the pulse of the place.  I recall one night as a second or third year student, working nights alone on 5A, the Cardiac Unit.  The cardiac resident had just arrived in answer to my urgent pleas to see a post-op charge, when Miss Kerr, the night supervisor, as if by magic, came sailing down the hall,  baptismal font in hand, saying “Do you need me?”, as I was about to page her.  Things seemed easier and less complicated then.  Everyone was trained in the same code of ethics, protocols and procedures.  Visiting hours were Sunday and Wednesday with viewing only on the infectious ward.  Yes, rigid, ruled and regimented.

This  was also the time of the “great ones”.  The legendary Dr. Alan Brown still made rounds on the wards and we students were stationed at bedsides, ostensibly to diaper, cuddle and tuck babies back in after the team was through, but encouraged and privileged to listen to the bedside lectures.

Dr. Bill Mustard was performing “Blue Baby” operations and later developed the famous surgery to correct Transportation of the Great Vessels.  Dr. Nelles Silverthorne gave intravenous and drug therapy to dehydrated babies on the infectious ward through his invention the Fletcher Drip, the precursor to IV therapy, saving babies with gastroenteritis and children with meningococcal meningitis.  We nursed children with hydrocephalus with huge heads until shunts were perfected much later by the Hendricks, Hoffman and Humphrey’s team.  Dr. Salter was a caring chief resident.

HSC had no ICU, the Metabolic Unit was only one room, and children with cystic fibrosis usually died before the age of four.  Polio patients were in iron lungs.  Equipment was all reusable – no pre-packaged disposables and everything was labour intensive.

This was Jean Masten’s domain.  She encouraged nurses from the hospital for Sick Children in Great Ormond Street London to come for post graduate experience and our nurses went to England.  Later nurses came from all over the world as did our patients. We began to learn and develop respect for those from cultures and customs different from our own.

We as students were given exceptional learning opportunities not available to today’s college prepared nurses, because we were immersed in paediatrics 24 hours a day, living, breathing, crying and sharing experiences with each other  –  essentially learning what went on in the emotional as well as the physical corners of the hospital.

But life in training was not all serious.  There were hilarious Christmas parties and baseball games with residents, staff doctors, nurses, all staff and students invited.  Jean Masten usually presided over our special occasions held in the beautifully appointed residence; our third of the way Black Band Dance and the Mother and Daughter  tea, Father and Daughter banquet and the party before graduation.

At the end of our three years, what  made us true paediatric nurses?  I believe it was the honing of out “reading” skills.  Reading body language, pain signs, interpreting infant cries, learning the nuances of facial expressions for all ages.  The smiles when you get it right are  the rewards that keep you trying.