In those early days when doctors made house calls – Reflections of Ponoka

Mr. Ames was a district mail carrier in 1917

Mr. Ames was a district mail carrier in 1917

To say that our early district pioneers were a rugged bunch may quite well be a total understatement.

As well as taming the wild prairies to establish their homesteads and livelihoods, they raised large and lively families, and somehow survived and thrived together by making the best of what they had by adding their skills, creativity, and relentless enthusiasm. Yes, they were very hardy folks, but there is no doubt that along the way they did suffer illness, injury, and ongoing hardships and challenges that would require medical attention and the kindly assistance of neighbours and community.

Ponoka’s first physician, Dr. A.A. Drinnan, did not arrive in the village until 1902, and then as many others followed, Dr. Melvin Graham would open his 51st Avenue home clinic in 1922, often performing surgery on his kitchen table. With no hospital in the area for many years, the onslaught of babies were delivered at maternity homes tended by nurses or by midwives in their own homes.

For serious cases the patient was brought into town by buggy or sleigh, but the good doctors would make house calls if they could get through, and if more attention was required the patient had to be transported many miles to hospitals at Lacombe, Red Deer, or the cities.

So how did they survive these every day emergencies? Following is a delightful lifestyle account penned for his retirement memoirs by late Ferrybank district farm boy, war veteran, father, athlete, and district schoolteacher, Bill Doran.

Today we are blessed with perhaps the best health care system of any country in the world, including the finest equipment, and highly trained doctors and nurses. It certainly was not always thus in the early days, in fact, none of the 11 children of the Sam Doran family were born in the hospital. Most were born at home with the assistance of Mrs. Rattray as the midwife, and young Bill’s most special memory was when yet another baby was on the way, they were always told to stay away from the bedroom, and keep lots of hot water boiling.

“Childbirth now seems to have come full circle, as there is a certain pressure to return to midwifery as many believe that children born at home are better adjusted than those born in a hospital.”

In the pioneer days of the Twenties and Thirties, doctors were few in number and badly overworked, but unlike the ones of today they did make countless ‘house calls’ if necessary. This often meant a gruelling 20- to 30-mile trip in a sleigh or buggy and later cars, often under adverse conditions. As a result of the doctor shortage and the difficulties of travel, many of those pioneer families were forced to use certain old-fashioned, but effective medical treatments. Chest congestion might be treated with liberal applications of goose grease and skunk oil or the use of onion and mustard plasters, while various types of poultices were applied in a painful but effective way of drawing the poison from all-to-common boils and infections.

Various surgical operations were handled much differently than they were 60 years ago. Some, like tonsillectomies have now been considered serious, but in the Twenties and Thirties, the teams of medical experts would actually come into district schools and halls and do a mass removal of tonsils for the young people. Doran can still vividly recall the neighbour kids lying on a mattress for the ride home in the back of a hayrack and still feeling groggy from the anesthetic.

• When Pat Doran was 10 he came down with a severe pain in his lower right abdomen, was placed on a mattress in the bottom of the sled and rushed by a high-spirited team to a doctor in Ponoka. He was loaded on the southbound train, then from the station taken to the hospital in Lacombe, where Dr. Hynes preformed an emergency appendectomy. In those days you had to stay in bed for a week or 10 days after the surgery. Bill later had the same operation done while in the air force at Regina, Sask. in 1943 and was sitting up in a chair the same day.

• Measles was also very common in those early days, and whether winter or summer they were always miserable and itchy. Doran can’t remember which member of the family came down with scarlet fever in the winter of 1933-34, but the dreaded six-week quarantine went into effect, and lasted for four months until everyone was cured.

“When the Scarlet Fever came we couldn’t deliver our cream, so we likely had the fattest hogs in the country, but thank goodness the truckers still came to get our grocery order, then later delivered back to the farm, at a distance of course.”

Through it all the neighbourly Montalbetti brothers did most of the snow plowing for the districts, while the friendly Ponoka merchants held back the bill until the illness was over.

• With the large and active families there were always lots of cuts and bruises associated with growing up. When they had earaches their father would light up a cigar and gently blow smoke into the bad ear, while mother was cheerful and gentle with a special touch for handling illness or hurts, and always came up with some remedy to smear on the bad spot. She suffered from diabetes and severe headaches, but gave herself the daily insulin injections, and never complained. Their father had painful and crippling arthritis for many years, often having to use a cane or crutches, but was always visiting and bringing good cheer and his checkerboard to others, even in his wheelchair.

• One of Bill Doran’s major observations: “In the pioneer days the young and old lived and associated together, with a much closer bond between them. Those old-timers led fascinating lives and they were tough, but the big difference nowadays is that there are great facilities and professionals to take care of their ongoing comfort and care. Sadly there are not as many young people now who come around so they can share their age old stories.”