It has been 50 years since the hospital in New Town opened its doors, and before another momentous move, nurses, doctors, patients and administrators past and present gathered to pay tribute to that history as well as reconnect with their fellows.
“You meet patients, then they become friends, and then you have friends for life,” said Aubrey Bildson, who worked for 22 years in the accounting department.
H.H. Williams Memorial Hospital threw open its doors to the public last Saturday, a public that filled the halls, lined with historical and archival material from the institution’s past. There were items ranging from photos of staff and patients to outmoded medical instruments and included a multitude of articles from this newspaper, as well as its predecessor Tapwe.
But far more engaging were the living stories told by the people who were present for the beginning of western medicine in Hay River.
“We used to go meet the new nurses at the airport,” Ruth Webb, the first matron of the facility, said laughing when a photo of herself and another woman with axes standing next to what passed for a fire truck appeared on the screen set up in the board room. “We’d take the axes … we scared a lot of people.”
She arrived in Hay River for the first time in 1965 and made the trip from her home in Alberta for the event, exactly 50 years later. Webb and her husband left in 1999 when she was diagnosed with cancer and couldn’t be treated in the community but she still keeps in touch with many residents. She delivered many of the younger ones, noting that she was always happy to let women squat as a traditional birthing position – which was against general western medicine practice – and that it seemed to endear her to many.
“I’m so glad to be back today,” she said. “We have an acreage in Stoney Plain but home is here.”
Iris Misiak’s husband Chet built the hospital at the behest of her brother, Ken Gaetz, for whom the street it inhabits was named. She said when she came to Hay River at first she didn’t care much for it.
“I liked to shop and I missed the city for that … there weren’t many shops here,” she said. “But then I would go back to the city and I didn’t want to go back anymore … it was too busy. Working here was like working with family.”
The anniversary celebrations were largely the result of the efforts of Erin Griffiths, executive assistant for the Hay River Health and Social Services Authority, and the committee she chaired. The goal of the event, she said, was to honour the history of the hospital before moving to a new location on the other side of town and celebrating that progress.
“It’s really to say thank you to all the people who have ever worked here,” she told The Hub. “This building is full of history, full of archives, full of stories… The history is there, we just wanted to honour it.”
Griffiths said there are plans for a memory wall at the new hospital and something of a display area for some of the artifacts from Hay River’s health care past but that she is also working with the museum to see if they would be interested in any of the items.
The original plan for the new health centre was to have staff move during the spring of 2016, however, the Hay River Health and Social Services Authority had said that construction was ahead of schedule in September last year.