Memoir celebrates Alaska Highway nurse

The winter of 1949 was bleak and cold, so when an emaciated and half-frozen Indigenous man stumbled into the shack of a ham radio operator in Hudson’s Hope, it set off a flurry over the airwaves to Fort St. John.

The man had trudged by snowshoe some 60 miles from a camp on the Halfway River; he looked like a ghost, swaying and mumbling for help from a “bad sickness” — diphtheria had broken out in the camp. Four were dead from the infection, which covers the throat and can suffocate one to death. Many more were suffering.

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But the nearest Indigenous field nurse, Amy Wilson, was nearly 1,400 kilometres away in Whitehorse. Her rushing journey by plane and by horseback to bring medicine to save the man and his friends open Wilson’s memoir, When Days Are Long: Nurse in the North.

“The whole book is visual,” said Laurel Deedrick-Mayne, Wilson’s grandniece, who relaunched the book at the Fort St. John museum in December.

“She really captured the conditions, the weather, and the heart break, but she also captured the great beauty of the north.”

Wilson was known as the Alaska Highway nurse, tasked with the healthcare of 3,000 Indigenous people spread across more than 500,000 square kilometres of northern B.C. and the Yukon in the late 1940s and early 1950s.

The job was hers, and hers alone, tending to the sick in tents, shacks, and on the trapline, and travelling by dog team, car, plane, snowshoe, horseback, and boat to reach them.

“You’ll be astonished by the absolute strength of her heart, both emotionally in how she cared for people, in how well she nursed people, but also physically in what she had to do just to reach people,” Deedrick-Mayne said.

Wilson first published her memoir in 1965, but it took her eight years to write. She kept copious notes about her travels and what she learned about traditional medicines, and her letters to government pleading for more services and supplies were written in triplicate.

“She was very interested in what made good medicine,” Deedrick-Mayne said.

For Wilson, good medicine started with a natural compassion for the people in her care, and she was a fierce advocate for Indigenous health rights and their needs.

Wilson’s work and the value of the people she nursed are still relevant today, Deedrick-Mayne said. “Nurses are a special breed of people,” Deedrick-Mayne said.

The book is a timely read too: 2020 was declared Year of the Nurse by the World Health Organization. Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission has also called for governments to increase the number of Aboriginal professionals working in health-care.

“This is the kind of thing Amy was lobbying about 50 years ago,” said Deedrick-Mayne.

Deedrick-Mayne plans to use the book’s royalties to establish an indigenous nurse training scholarship.

Email Managing Editor Matt Preprost at 

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