A labour of love recalled

Published on August 15, 2014
Mary Sheenan

NEW GLASGOW – Mary Sheenan’s eyes light up when she speaks about talking about her studies and work at the Aberdeen Hosptial.


It wasn’t a labour of love for the 81-year-old Pictou County woman, but rather a love affair.

“I think I fell in love with being a student nurse as soon as I walked up the steps the first day,” said the graduate of the Class of 1953 which was the last class to come out of the Aberdeen School of Nursing located on the west side of New Glasgow. “I remember the director of nursing was kind of intimidating because myself and another girl were 20 minutes late because we had a flat tire. She looked at her watch and said, ‘I hope this isn’t your usual habit’.”

But her words didn’t stop 19-year-old Sheenan, who was Mary Foote at the time, from forging on with her studies and finding a career she loved.

“I loved it with a passion,” she said. “I don’t know what the best part would be. I think it was meeting the patients and knowing how much they depended on me. “

Sheenan’s second passion is writing so she combined her love for both into a new book, When Freddie Gardner Played.  

The memoir relays stories about her attendance the Aberdeen School of Nursing in the early 1950s and some funny stories as well as some sad memories.

She will have a book signing Sept. 24 at 7 p.m. at the New Glasgow Library. Her books are also for sale online from her publisher Marechal Media Inc at FindingMaria@gmail.com or from Sheenan at 752-8942.

Sheenan admits she didn’t know she wanted to be nurse right away, but always had an interest in the medical profession.

After graduating from high school, she worked at the local telephone company to earn enough money to continue her education. Here, she would take calls for Dr. Dan Murray and became interested in what he did for a living.

“I knew when he would be doing a home delivery, an appendectomy on a kitchen table or an extraction of a tooth,” she said. “I found this all very interesting.”

Sheenan said medical school costs about $15,000 at the time so her father asked her to consider going to the Aberdeen School of Nursing first to see if she liked learning about medicine.

“In my second year, I realized I would not have been a good doctor,” she said. “ There were too many things I haven’t thought of and I saw some doctors mishandle cases.”

Sheenan said nursing school was intense with academic studies on procedure in the first four months followed by a capping ceremony and the ridding of her black stockings and shoes for white ones.

There were two classes that year, made up seven students in one class and five in another.  Two students dropped out of the program, one didn’t do well in her studies and the second eloped, she said, but the were soon learning on the job training.

“Here we were fresh newly capped students going across that wooden ramp, saying prayers silently and than being forced being into wards,” she said.

The students were under the supervision of others, but working on the wards still had its challenges.

“That first night I got the worst shock of my life,” she said. “I decided to give man a bed bath and I lowered the crib side and he saw an opportunity and put out his foot and sent me flying across the room. I looked like something the cat dragged in by the morning.”

Similar to today, she said there was a lot of paperwork on the job, but nursing is much different today compared to her training in the 1950s.

She said nurses in this era would scrub mattresses, change linens and bed pans. She said many things were recycled and if a nurse broke anything, it came out of their pay cheque to replace it.

“You worked hard, but you didn’t realize you were working hard,” she said. “It was expected.”

The bond with the patients was also different, she said.

“In my day, we had so much hands on care that we really gave an awful lot to our patients,” Sheenan said “We could sooth them, give them nice back rubs and position them differently, before you resorted to medication. The patients never forgot that.”

After graduation, Sheenan worked in many different areas of the medical profession, but obstetrics and surgical were her two favourite areas.

She helped deliver many babies into the world and even one on her own, but not all off her memories are good ones, she added.  The job could be difficult because there were times when the news wasn’t good.

“It was very sad at times,” she said, but Sheenen said she was professional about the job and her family knew when she walked out the door to the hospital she was there to work.

“There was a rule, I was never to be called at work unless it was someone hemorrhaging or something you couldn’t handle,” she said. “The only time I got called from home was when one of my children called and said, ’mom, where are you working?’ I said, ‘the case room’ and they said, ‘And you didn’t know our cat was pregnant’.”

After she wrapped up her nursing career in 1991 when she was first diagnosed with a brain tumor and wrote this book to help with her recovery.

Today her health is good and she is thinking of writing another book.


 Quotes from the book:

Our nursing sheets, patient charts, and medication cupboard were located within arm’s reach along the wall of our nurse's station across from the private and semi­private rooms in Ward G. I came on shift one night with the place in complete disarray. Sometime during the day a student nurse was preparing a narcotic for injection, using distilled water and the alcohol-fueled lamp. However, in her haste she mixed up the two clear liquids, putting distilled water in the lamp and alcohol in the spoon with the narcotic tablet. As she tried to light the wick of the lamp, the alcohol in the spoon burst into flames and ignited the patient charts hanging above. Someone doused the flames with a pitcher of water, but for the next several days it was our duty to try to salvage the charred pages of charts and records. Even though I didn’t witness this event it reinforced a