Peace Arch Hospital, with the oversight of Fraser Health, is moving forward with plans – among them a new $20-million emergency department scheduled to be complete by late 2018-early 2019 – to keep pace with the needs of a rapidly growing and evolving community. In the fourth of a series of articles, Peace Arch News asks long-time hospital supporter Ellen Kennett and Rita Whyte, one of the first ER nurses in 1954, to retrace how the hospital came to be.
Nostalgia – and the intervening distance of some six decades – has a way of painting the past with a charming, rosy glow.
Seen from the technology-driven viewpoint of 2015, the seaside cottage community of White Rock and South Surrey in the 1940s and 1950s now seem indescribably quaint and Norman Rockwell-ish, the challenges and stresses of the day comparatively gentle.
The cars and clothes and houses and trappings of daily life may well have changed. But a medical emergency in 1955 was just as urgent as an emergency today – and the demand just as severe for a hospital capable of serving the population of that time.
Just ask Ellen Kennett and Rita Whyte. They were both very much involved with the newly opened White Rock Hospital – today’s Peace Arch Hospital – Kennett (formerly Sinclair) as an auxiliary member and sometime user of the hospital, Whyte as one of the first two nurses employed in the ER.
Kennett, who grew up in Cloverdale, still remembers what it was like in the 1940s, when the siren of a locally operated private ambulance bearing an accident case through the gravel roads of White Rock and South Surrey en route to New Westminster’s Royal Columbian Hospital was inevitably followed by the roar of a car driven by one of the community’s first handful of doctors, flooring it to get there at the same time as his patient.
And Whyte – who started at the hospital in 1954 and, by 1957, had been promoted to supervisor of the operating room and assistant director of nursing – still recalls the harrowing impact a tragic incident, particularly one involving a child, could have on a tight-knit community where just about everyone knew everyone else as a friend or a neighbour.
“I grew up in White Rock – I came here in Grade 11 and graduated from Semiahmoo Secondary when it was on Johnston Road,” she said.
Though an upgrading of PAH is mandatory to meet the needs of today’s growing population, one shouldn’t forget that the existing facility is a testament to the dedication and foresight of earlier generations.
If the White Rock and South Surrey community hadn’t been feisty and stubborn back then – much as it is today – it’s possible we would not even have a major hospital to improve on.
In a narrative Kennett developed to celebrate the hospital’s six decades, she recalled it was not the first facility in the community.
Gertrude MacMillan, assistant to Dr. Fred Sinclair, Surrey Medical Officer of Health, established a small private hospital at her home on Prospect Avenue in 1927 and operated it until 1953.
“She called her place The Restigouche, which sounds more like a holiday resort than a hospital,” Kennett said.
It functioned largely as a convalescent home (13 White Rock babies were born there), and the area was also served by a branch of the Victorian Order of Nurses, but the only recourse in serious medical cases remained the Royal Columbian.
Periodic bids to establish a hospital in Surrey, Kennett recalled, “carried little weight until the Royal Columbian served notice in 1946 that Surrey patients would no longer be accepted.”
It was a time of new health consciousness in the community after the arrival of doctors Tom Blades and Al Hogg, who set up business in the Cloninger Hotel on Marine Drive (latterly the Ocean Beach Hotel, now Hemingway Public House).
A Surrey Hospital Society was formed with three members representing South Surrey, but, Kennett recalled, the south-end representatives, frustrated by delays in determining a location (particularly after provincial health department officials recommended a site in White Rock), broke away and formed a White Rock Hospital Society in 1947.
Only one government grant was available to build a hospital in Surrey; going it alone meant the White Rock group would have to raise $150,000 before the province would approve building a hospital in this community .
It was, as Kennett points out, “a huge amount” for a population of some 6,000 to raise – but it was then that Peninsula residents showed their mettle.
“The community really took full ownership of the hospital,” Kennett said.
The formation of a women’s auxiliary; the foundation of the hospital Superfluity store; the generous 1951 donation of 5½ acres of land by Amy Weatherby, (“not a wealthy lady,” Kennett told Peace Arch News) whose dreams of a hospital outweighed the prospect of any money she could gain by selling her property; numerous fund-raising drives, events and contributions by community-minded organizations and businesses; a fundraising show, Hospital Hi-Jinx staged by the White Rock Players Club’s Franklin Johnson – all these are stuff of local legend.
When the White Rock District Hospital, as it was then known, was officially opened on Aug. 25, it was truly a proud day – and one of the nurses in white starched uniform and cap in the photos was ER nurse Rita Whyte.
“I was there from the very beginning,” she said. “I was employed before they opened the doors, to set up the equipment.”
At that time, the 50-bed hospital had an emergency room, an operating room and an outpatient department – and a close-knit team, Whyte said.
“In a crisis everybody was helping – the doctors were close by and came and helped,” she said, adding that while family doctors did some surgeries, others came in from New Westminster for serious cases.
She had come in from New Westminster herself – her first hospital was St. Mary’s, where she worked under the tutelage of Winnie Blackburn, who later became director of nursing after the first director, Grace White, resigned.
“I really wanted to be a doctor,” Whyte admitted. “But as a (working) woman, in those years, you could either be a teacher or a nurse.”
The character of nursing and health care was different then, Kennett pointed out, noting that ambulances were seldom called and doctors routinely made house calls.
“They were dealing with a lot of little things, like children being sick with high fevers.”
“A lot of things were looked after in a home situation – once the hospital came we were able to handle a lot more care there,” Whyte said.
Infectious outbreaks were all but unheard of, she said, although the time she worked at the hospital in the ’50s and ’60s was the peak era for Polio vaccinations.
But accidents were just as life-threatening then as now.
“We had some bad things come in,” she said, recalling one horrendous crash on the then-King George Highway.
“Even though it was a small town, bad accidents would happen.”
Whyte marvels to hear that current plans for expansion of the ER – which will have 50 separate treatment rooms – as many as there were beds in the entire original hospital.
“That’s wonderful,” she said. “We’ve come a long way. I was looking at the beds we have now. The (old ones) didn’t compare – things are so much better now.”
But she knows the enthusiasm with which hospital greets the planned changes mirrors the enthusiasm that she and her colleagues felt.
“It was an exciting and challenging time for everybody.”
(Next week, in the concluding installment of the series, Hospital Foundation chair Art Reitmayer discusses how the vision of community members continues to contribute to PAH as it enters a new era).