Jul 06, 2020
By Laura Eggertson

Tundra, tropics, and COVID-19: Lois Chetelat’s remarkable career

Courtesy of Lois ChetelatLois Chetelat with husband Gerard.

In this instalment of the Nursing 2020 profile series, we introduce Lois Chetelat, a Canadian nurse whose career has taken her to northern Canada, Central America, and Asia, caring for the disadvantaged in dangerous and frightening circumstances. At 80, her concern for those in need is still evident as she volunteers to screen staff for COVID-19 in a long-term care home.

Fifty-five years after a five-year-old Tibetan girl died in her arms as they raced to a hospital in Kangra, India, Lois Chetelat cannot forget the horror of what came next.

It was 1964. Chetelat, a 25-year-old nurse from Porcupine, ON (now Timmins), had volunteered to work with CUSO International (Canadian University Services Overseas) to care for children at a Tibetan refugee camp in northern India. Kangra was Chetelat’s first international posting, after an 18-month stint in Inuvik, NWT following her graduation from the Victoria Hospital School of Nursing in London, ON.

In Inuvik, and at a nursing station in Aklavik, NWT, Chetelat learned to be resourceful and independent in settings that demanded she be both. On medical evacuation flights, she flew with labouring patients on bush pilots’ planes as they bucked and dipped in terrifying winds.

On one flight, she rigged up an IV on a coat hanger to hydrate a boy with meningitis. Gunshot wounds, gangrene, and life-threatening burns were among the conditions she treated and describes in her memoir, From Tundra to Tropics: Letters Home from a Canadian Nurse.

Later, Chetelat trained local nursing students in Honduras during a war with El Salvador. Her next posting was as a member of a Canadian medical team upgrading nursing and obstetrical skills at a hospital in central Indonesia.

Courtesy of Lois ChetelatLois Chetelat with a group of student nurses following their capping ceremony in Santa Rosa de Copan, Honduras.

Tibetan refugees

The international deployments were sometimes dangerous: in Honduras, she dodged the war’s bombing sorties. But it was Chetelat’s two years in northern India that honed her nursing skills and her fortitude.

“These were the dirtiest, sickest, most malnourished specimens of human beings I or any of the others had ever seen.”

By 1964, Chetelat was the only nurse in a makeshift school in Dharamsala, home to the Tibetan government-in-exile. It was a two-hour drive to the refugee camp and hospital in Kangra. Local teachers and monks helped her care for 117 children, refugees from the Chinese occupation of Tibet.

Stranded for four months on the border without adequate food or shelter, the children were seriously ill when they arrived.

All of them had “severe, uncontrollable diarrhea,” Chetelat wrote in a letter home to her family. “These were the dirtiest, sickest, most malnourished specimens of human beings I or any of the others had ever seen.”

For five days, Chetelat slept on the floor with her patients. When they were too weak to walk, she carried the children to latrines. Chetelat and the teachers fed the children diluted milk and sugar, gradually increasing the milk as the children’s systems tolerated it.

“You had to adapt. You had to use what was available,” she says.

Traumatic cremation

Twenty of the children were critically ill. It was during the first emergency run to the mission hospital in Kangra that a five-year-old girl died. When Chetelat arrived at the hospital, however, the doctor there told her she had to return to the school immediately. The girl’s body had to be cremated, lest it explode in the 110° F heat.

When Chetelat reached the school, the principal instructed four teenage boys to cremate the girl’s body in the woods.

“Because I was appalled that children should have to bear the responsibility for this difficult chore, I accompanied them to a place in the woods where the burning would occur,” Chetelat wrote.

They built a funeral pyre and placed the girl’s body atop a pile of wood that was slow to light.

“One of them kept saying to me, ‘She’s still alive, she’s still alive,’” Chetelat remembers. “I had to say ‘No, she’s dead.’ They couldn’t accept it. It was horrible.”

That night, the cremation over, Chetelat cried in the arms of her Tibetan friends. Then she went back to work, knowing, as one of her friends told her, that there was no one else to do what was required.

“By the time I left there, I knew what I was capable of doing,” Chetelat says of her time in India. “I loved being there. I loved the children.”

Thirty-three years later, at a reunion of former CUSO volunteers and the Tibetan government-in-exile, Chetelat met a man who was one of the teenagers who helped her build the funeral pyre.

“We sat there and looked at each other and we started to cry, because it had been so traumatic for both of us,” Chetelat says.

Marriage and home

Chetelat’s yearning to travel was inspired by the life of Lois Cox, a family friend for whom she was named, and who worked for the YMCA in India.

“By the time I left there, I knew what I was capable of doing.”

“I grew up dreaming about India but never actually believing that one day I would live in the country,” Chetelat says.

Her international postings gave her lifelong friends and led to her marriage. She met her husband, Gerard Chetelat, in Indonesia. At the time, he was a Jesuit priest. They married once he received a dispensation from Rome to leave the priesthood, and they moved back to Canada after the birth of their first son, Pierre.

After raising Pierre and a second son, John, Chetelat returned to school to earn a BA and then a PhD in medical anthropology, writing a history of midwifery in Canada. She taught at a CEGEP in Quebec and at Algonquin College and Carleton University in Ottawa, where the family settled. Chetelat used her experiences to illustrate her lectures on the influence of culture on personal concepts of health and health care.

Now 80, Chetelat doesn’t have much time to enjoy the gardening and Scandinavian murder mysteries she loves.

COVID-19 duty

She’s back at work during the COVID-19 pandemic, screening long-term care staff at the nursing home where Gerard, 94, is a resident.

She takes the coronavirus pandemic in stride, as just one more challenge she must adapt to after a lifetime of facing situations that would have daunted others.

“I don’t worry about it,” she says of the coronavirus. “I read about it; I try to educate myself about it. It’s just a reality.”

Chetelat is also on the board of SAM³, a collaboration between the Bruyère Research Institute and Carleton University that uses technology to help seniors remain at home.

And she is the chair of the Family Support Group of Extendicare Starwood, a charity that provides music therapy and a friendly companions program for residents of the long-term care facility where Gerard lives.

Each day, before the pandemic made it impossible, Chetelat brought Gerard home to spend the afternoon with her. Now she’s just happy that working at the nursing home means she can continue seeing Gerard.

Theirs remains a love story.

“He has no memory, but he’s still the sweet, kind, gentle person he’s always been,” she says.

Laura Eggertson is a freelance journalist based in Wolfville, NS.

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