It’s the story of Myra Bennett, a British nurse who came in 1921 to Newfoundland for a planned two years. She married Angus Bennett from Daniel’s Harbour and stayed on the Northern Peninsula until she died in 1990 at the age of 100. We saw the play several years ago in Cow Head, near where Mrs. Bennett lived. My dentist, who knows nothing about Newfoundland or outpost nursing, saw it in London last week. Like us, she loved it.
The play tells her story, but it’s really the story of all the nurses who looked after the health of those living in far-flung and isolated communities on Newfoundland’s west coast. They did everything from birthing babies to surgery if need be. Many, like Nurse Bennett, came from England. Others were from Newfoundland and took nursing training in St. John’s.
In remote areas of the island, nurses were pretty much the entire medical system. There were Grenfell Mission doctors based in St. Anthony and a few cottage hospitals, but the nurses scattered in small communities were those first called upon and sometimes the only source of medical help. Today, we would call them nurse-practitioners in that they did much more than nurse training alone teaches. Many stayed for their allotted time only but others, like Mrs. Bennett, stayed and nursed those who had become their neighbours and family throughout their lives.
There were also local midwives and healers without formal education who learned by assisting someone more experienced. Many local healers were Mi’kmaq, using barks, berries and animal parts in medicines. Some were believed to be able to “charm” illness away. Mary Francis Webb of Flat Bay was one of them. Well-known and respected, she served a huge area extending way south of her Bay St. George community right up to Corner Brook.
Nurses, midwives and healers traveled anywhere any time they were needed. They also raised children, grew gardens, tended animals and did all the work that other Newfoundland outport women did. Some of the informally trained midwives supplemented their education with formal training if they could. All worked with doctors, calling on them when they needed specialized skills. But if the doctor couldn’t get there, they had to rely on their own skills. Cecilia Benoit wrote Midwives in Passage about Newfoundland’s traditional and professional midwifery.
Theatre Newfoundland and Labrador’s Tempting Providence conveys the hardship and the beauty of an outport nurse’s life – the place and the work. It’s a lovely play, transporting you to the Great Northern Peninsula of a century ago with the use of a simple white sheet and talented actors.