Feb 01, 2013
Helen Mussallem: In her own words
“With her passing, an era has come to an end,” said Helen Mussallem’s friend Marie des Anges Loyer, at a memorial service to commemorate her life. The sentiment was echoed by many in the days following Mussallem’s death in November, at the age of 97. Mussallem, who served as CNA’s executive director from 1963 to 1981, will be remembered as one of Canada’s nursing greats, in large part for her achievements in transforming Canadian nursing education. But behind the legend was a woman — one with a dedication to her family, a seemingly insatiable curiosity and a true passion for life.
On her nursing training
I had never seen anyone die. That was quite traumatic. We didn’t have counselling and so on like they have now.
I remember at that time there was an anesthetist that everybody said to watch; we weren’t allowed in the room. And he would always put the mask on his face first, and have a little whiff of the gas. He was really hazardous, now I look back at it. But nobody reported him, people sort of closed ranks.
I had never seen anybody born of course; I fainted the first time. I wouldn’t have, except that the lady that supervised said, “If you are going to faint, faint quietly.” I just crumpled up against the wall.
They used to have the Infectious Disease Ward…they had the Venereal Disease Wards for the really very hush-hush…they were all put down in rooms below ground at the Vancouver General. Well, they wanted to keep them out of sight I guess, for one thing, and secondly, I guess there was underneath it all there was sort of an ethic that they had “done wrong” so we were going to put them in these beds. A lot of gonorrhea with the women, I can remember that so well. And tuberculosis of course was quite prevalent in my training. Two of my classmates died of tuberculosis.
We weren’t coddled but we were watched, and the people there, they had a really “way out” idea that we should be educated rather than trained. Because in other hospitals even today, although it’s not the same system, they were using the students, they were indentured labour. But not at the Vancouver General. It was really well thought out, by and large. When I look back I couldn’t believe it, because I didn’t know anything else.
On going off to war
The supervisor in the operating room where I was working called me in one day. Miss Jamieson, a great big imposing lady, she scared the bejeezus out of the doctors. She said something about, “You must go down and sign up to go.” She said, “I didn’t sign up to go overseas during World War I, and I missed something. I want you to do it.” That was Miss Jamieson. And so I thought about it, and thought about it, and then I didn’t tell my parents or anybody, but I thought, “Gee, it is exciting.” Everybody is doing it, so I went down and signed up.
There was no shortage of volunteers, and the people that were disappointed were the ones that never got overseas. It was a great experience, when I look back on it. We did rifle training in Victoria. We weren’t supposed to, but the chief medical officer decided that we should know how to shoot. He told us that we had to remember that if our patients were in danger from an enemy, we had to shoot whoever it was that was threatening them. And I wondered if I could. I really often worried that I wouldn’t be able to shoot, and I kept saying, “I wish it would happen and then I’ll know what to do.” But that seemed to me like an awful thing to do, and I always forgot where the pistol was.
We went to Sussex, New Brunswick, and we were treated like ordinary soldiers. We drilled for eight hours a day, standing at attention, saluting, marching, marching, saluting, standing at attention. And we lived in H-huts, which were very primitive. There were 36 of us in each hut. We ate the rations with the other ranks, and they just said we were soldiers like the others. Well, no one was going to treat anybody any differently, we didn’t expect it, but it was pretty basic and pretty crude.
And then one day, we went overseas. We were on the ship for five days and five nights. There were 8,000 troops on the ship; there were 80 women and the rest were men.
On her landmark survey of nursing education
I had no idea that places that called themselves schools of nursing were just, well, it was indentured labour. They just used the students to staff the hospital with. There was such little regard for their education, and they were housed in some of the poorest of circumstances. Not so in the West, but when you got to the Atlantic provinces and going into some little place in Quebec and so on, it was almost unbelievable. And no one could have done those surveys without being as furious, I guess is the word, as I was. That people would say they were educating nurses, and they were just tossing them on the ward to pick up the education they could. Oh, it was very primitive, and I really did write with fire coming out of my pen. I couldn’t believe it. But I wasn’t alone, it was all the people that worked on those surveys that made the change. It was really quite dramatic when I look back at it, because we could still be struggling through these miserable hospital schools.
I was persecuted by the Hospital Association because they didn’t want to lose their schools. I went to one of their meetings; they’d always invite me to their meetings. And at one meeting, they talked about this woman that was going around preaching all this stuff about how terrible the hospital schools were, and she should be put in her place. They didn’t even know I was sitting in the back. Some of those administrators, for years after, never forgave me.
I look back on it now, and I really couldn’t have made it simpler. I had my master’s then, but I am really not a scholarly writer. I can write factually and I can do that reasonably well. But, well, the evidence was so clear. Anyone else could have done it but it just happened that I was selected and I was there. And one thing, I don’t have many strengths but if I have something to do, I put all my energy into getting it done, and then I rest back. Some people can take little rest pauses and so on, but I have to get it done.
On meeting Fidel Castro
My visits to Cuba began in 1973, when I was asked by the government to be a consultant to assist the Ministry of Health in Cuba to develop a school of nursing in the University of Havana. It is difficult to catch even a glimpse of Castro except on state occasions and on May the first celebrations. At such times, he speaks very loudly and at great length, sometimes two and a half hours.
When I see him on my television screen, he appears to be a loud aggressive man. The U.S. press paints him as a villain. But when I had my first conversation with him, I was amazed. It was in 1983 and I was the official representative of the World Nurses Association. I was removed from the audience in the Congress Hall in Havana without explanation. Soon a long black limousine appeared and out came Fidel, in full military uniform. He was greeted by the director general of the World Health Organization and they walked over directly to me. In a very quiet voice, for such a large man, he asked where I was from, how long I had been in Cuba, and what my work was. I then commented that my friends at home would not believe I had chatted with him, so he immediately summoned a photographer.
A year later, in June 1984, I returned to Cuba for an international congress of nurses of North and South America. On the last day, there was a rumour that Fidel was coming. Again, I was plucked out of the hall and again I chatted with him in a private session. But this time, when we were ushered on to the stage, I was seated on his right-hand side. That was very special. At one point in the meeting, a nurse stood up and read a long citation about what I had done for the Cuban nurses and the Cuban people. Then the certificate that bore my name and Miembre de Honor was presented to me by Fidel, who kissed me on both cheeks, and the assembly cheered wildly. After the meeting ended, the platform party followed Fidel to his car. In an unscheduled, rare stop, he spoke quietly to the small group of official nurses, revealing his deep concern about their problems. He said he understood they didn’t all have good watches and good shoes. The nurses responded well. He then inquired about their working conditions and asked for their suggestions on improving the health system. He listened well. We stood and chatted for almost one hour. I don’t think any other president or prime minister has ever done that. He left quietly with warm good wishes for all.
Words she lived by
Although these words may not have originated with Mussallem (they’re from a Hallmark cartoon), they resonated strongly with her and she was fond of quoting them.
“Life should NOT be a journey to the grave, with the intention of arriving safely in an attractive and well-preserved body. But rather to skid in sideways, chocolate in one hand, martini in the other, body thoroughly used up, totally worn out and screaming WOO HOO what a ride!”
All text, except where noted, is excerpted from the Dr. Helen K. Mussallem Biography Project (drhkm.ca) and is used with permission. Selections have been condensed. Canadian Nurse would like to thank Mussallem’s niece Dr. Lynette Harper and her husband, Bruce Finlayson, for their assistance in putting these memories together.