Sep 28, 2020
By Gloria Stephens , Laura Eggertson

‘Respect the past to build the future’: N.S. nursing alumni lives up to its motto

Courtesy of Gloria StephensFor Gloria Stephens, the archives have provided invaluable information and biographies of nurses of previous generations; she’s writing a history of nursing in Nova Scotia. “It’s unbelievable what some of these nurses have done,” she says.

When a handful of Nova Scotia nurses formed an alumni association in Halifax 100 years ago, they could not have known just how long their motto would endure.

“Respect the past to build the future” referred, at the time, to the nurses’ shared past as students at the Victoria General Hospital School of Nursing.

The future they built would be eventful. For hundreds of members, that future included caring for survivors injured three years earlier in the 1917 Halifax explosion, working steadfastly through the Great Depression, serving in the Second World War, and participating in the advances medicare and technology brought to Canadian medicine.

A century later, the Victoria General Hospital School of Nursing Alumni (VG alumni) is still going strong — long after the nursing school graduated its last class and closed in 1995.

“As far as I can determine, we’re the only hospital alumni that have functioned continuously for 100 years,” says Gloria Stephens, the group’s historian. Stephens, 89, a retired operating room nurse, has been a member of the alumni since graduating from the “VG” in 1953.

“As far as I can determine, we’re the only hospital alumni that have functioned continuously for 100 years.”

Since March 2, 1920, when it was officially established, the VG alumni group has met in Halifax on the first Tuesday of the month — until the COVID-19 pandemic. Lockdown measures forced the group, which has about 500 members across Canada and abroad, to suspend its meetings.

Homecoming cancelled

The pandemic also prompted the cancellation of homecoming 2020 celebrations that were scheduled to take place this month. Stephens hopes the centenary commemoration will take place in 2021 instead.

There is much to celebrate, she feels.

Originally formed by Bertha Pickles, a ward supervisor at the time, the VG alumni were initially led by president Mildred Holloway (Hall), class of 1909, secretary Gertrude Keith, class of 1919, and treasurer Ethel Redmond, class of 1918.

Pickles organized the group — complete with a constitution and bylaws — to create a community of support. At the meetings, members found sympathetic colleagues to listen as they vented about their day, their career, or the difficulty of balancing work and family life.

Although there were social aspects to the meetings, including bridge competitions and bowling leagues, regular speakers on medical and non-medical topics attested to the alumni’s dedication to lifelong learning.

In short order, the VG alumni also became more organized and politically active.

Courtesy of Gloria StephensVictoria General Hospital.

Formed regulatory body

The VG alumni formed the Graduate Nurses Association of Nova Scotia, which was Canada’s first nurses organization. After a legislative act in 1922, the organization became the Registered Nurses Association of Nova Scotia. This association was the first regulatory body for nurses in Canada to require an exam, and to issue an RN certificate. The first certificate was awarded to Eveline Pemberton, the night nursing supervisor at the Victoria General Hospital, making her the first registered nurse in Canada, Stephens says.

“We’re very proud that we were the instigators of this association,” she says.

Today, the VG alumni continues to hold a combination of social and educational events, and provides its members with a welcoming space to share stories and seek support.

The group embraces and supports current standards of patient care, patient advocacy, advancement of nursing practice, education, lifelong learning and preserving nursing history.

Today, the VG alumni continues to hold a combination of social and educational events, and provides its members with a welcoming space to share stories and seek support.

For Stephens, fellow alumni and her involvement in writing about the group’s history were both a source of comfort while she cared for her husband, who died in 2016 after a long illness.

“Everybody is very supportive,” she says.

The organization also raises funds for charitable causes. The funds have gone to women’s shelters, the music fund for palliative care patients at the Victoria General Hospital, bursaries for nursing students, a bed for the nursing skills lab, and wheelchairs for residents of the Northwood nursing home.

“We do a lot to help our fellow nurses,” says Stephens.

Focus on history

Edith Ward, who graduated from the Victoria General School of Nursing in 1971, is among the 35-45 regular attendees at the VG alumni meetings. Ward, a pediatric nurse who worked in Australia and New Zealand as well as in Halifax, joined the group because of her love of history and her interest in meeting new people.

At 70, Ward is among the youngest people at the meetings. A volunteer with the Halifax search and rescue team, Ward is also an avid traveller. She’s been a featured speaker at the VG alumni meetings, discussing her service as the medical officer on the four-month Tour D’Afrique cycling tour, and her trek on the Camino de Santiago pilgrimage route in Spain.

“It’s a great group of people and they have such a great wealth of stories to tell,” Ward says. “I’ve told a couple of my own.”

Courtesy of Gloria StephensThe Victoria General Hospital School of Nursing Alumni (VG alumni) is still going strong — long after the nursing school graduated its last class and closed in 1995.

The VG alumni maintains a small museum and the VG School of Nursing Archives, as well as a history of the Victoria General Hospital and a medical history of Halifax. For Stephens, the archives have provided invaluable information and biographies of nurses of previous generations; she’s already published Remembering Nurses Who Served, which covers the lives of 200 graduates of the Victoria General Hospital School of Nursing who served in the First World War, the Second World War, and the wars in Korea and Vietnam.

“It’s unbelievable what some of these nurses have done,” she says.

Keeping the VG alumni group active is important not only to honour the careers and accomplishments of its members, but also to preserve the history of nursing in Nova Scotia, Stephens says.

She’s confident that despite an aging membership, the group’s commitment will keep it going.

“I think the alumni’s going to live for quite a number of years yet,” Stephens says.

Gloria Stephens joined the Victoria General Hospital School of Nursing Alumni in 1953 and is the group’s historian. She is a retired operating room nurse.

Laura Eggertson is a freelance journalist based in Wolfville, N.S.

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