Longtime staff members research Western Hospital’s history

Eric McCarthy newsroom@journalpioneer.com
Published on June 27, 2014

ALBERTON – A meeting parish priest, Fr. William Monaghan had with the Sisters of St. Martha on June 29, 1944 could have served as a good starting point for a history book on Western Hospital, but the writer and researchers, all retired staff of the facility, chose to look back further, to what life was like before there was a hospital in West Prince. 

Medical care before the hospital was built was often “whatever the doctor could do with his little black bag,” while on house calls, says Marlene Bolger in relaying some of the early history. Deliveries, even some surgeries, were often performed in homes, sometimes on kitchen tables and sometimes with little or no pain control medication.

 “We wanted people today, as well as future generations, to have a greater understanding of the challenges people faced before there was a hospital and also to have an appreciation for the dedication of the Sisters of St. Martha, who started the hospital, and the people of all West Prince who have supported it over the years,” said Bolger, the book’s primary writer.

Within weeks of that first meeting 70 years ago members of the congregation were at the old Albion Terrance Hotel in Alberton, stripping paper and preparing to convert the building to a hospital. Medical services started the following year.

Ten retired staff members who collectively logged 337 years of service at Western Hospital, brought together at the urging of former administrator Andrew MacDougall, spent countless hours over four years researching the facility’s history and piecing it all together into a 500 plus page book, Through the Years: A History of Western Hospital. The book will be launched Thursday, July 10 during a 7:30 p.m. ceremony at Alberton Arts and Heritage Centre.

“I’m so glad it’s done” Bolger said of the history research and writing. She said she will miss the committee meetings, noting the members worked hard and enjoyed the process.

Anita Arsenault, who retired last Christmas after 47 years of service (the first four while still in high school), admits the hospital and the Sisters of St. Martha played a big part in her life. She remembers a breakfast she prepared during her high school years. Her porridge turned out like glue, but one of the Sisters assured her, “it won’t kill them.” She grew with their trust and confidence.

They also paid for her nurses training on the condition that she provide them with one year of service upon graduation. One year turned into a career.

The staff, Arsenault said, was routinely involved in fundraising for hospital equipment. “We’d get the equipment, but we’d have so much fun,” she said of the concerts and skits they prepared, an opportunity for doctors and other staff to work together outside of the medical setting.

Two points that stand out for Bolger from all the research has been the influence the Sisters have had on the hospital, and the close bond all members of the staff have enjoyed.

The Sisters, Bolger said, performed most of the hospital services in the early years and only transferred ownership to Hospital and Health Services in 1991. By then obstetrics had been stopped for 10 years and surgeries before that. The hospital continues to evolve, Bolger, a former administrator, acknowledges.

During the hospital’s first 15 years more than 3,900 babies were delivered at Western.

One of the highlights of the research, Bolger said, was bringing together retired staff from different departments in the 1950s and 60s to reflect on the life of the hospital.

Those gatherings led to a Dear Diary chapter in which staff shared their stories.

Close to 120 people, including community members and current and former staff were interviewed. Among those interviewed was a New York City doctor, now in his 80s, whose father, Dr. Sydney Bandler was on staff in Alberton when Western Hospital opened.

The book recalls all the fulltime doctors who served at Western and the 18 who served the area prior to the hospital’s opening.

Much of the editing for the book was provided by Krystyna (Hellmich) Pottier whose father was one of Alberton’s long-serving physicians.

Joining Bolger and Arsenault on the history committee were Sheila Gallant, Phyllis Profit, Paula Crockett, Eva Rennie, Helen MacNeill, Georgie Wallace, Phyllis Porter and Joan Barbour.

The Western Hospital Healthcare Auxiliary will apply profits from the sale of the history book to the purchase of equipment for Western Hospital.

Following the July 10 launch, the book will be available for purchase at several West Prince locations.