Tuesday, December 1, 2009

The Life and Destruction of Saint Mary's Hospital

By Jaimie McEvoy, 272 pages hardcover.

McEvoy tells the history of this recently torn-down Sisters of Providence hospital through the people who made it a great health care and community success. Top-notch medical practice and close, emotional links to New Westminster, Canada and nearby cities gave Saint Mary's its distinctive character.

As well, the Sisters and their Catholic spirituality, which they brought to life through their caring interactions with the poorest and most needy patients in the area for over 100 years, gave the hospital a soul, something that McEvoy paints quite clearly.

Beginning in 1887, The Life and Destruction of Saint Mary's Hospital shows the slowly growing hospital, in the hands of determined, dedicated Sisters and a supportive Catholic and non-Catholic community in British Columbia, dealing with the health problems particular to each era. In its first decades, it dealt with deadly smallpox, as well as typhoid, pneumonia, and even leprosy. Medical care could be rudimentary, with injured minors, cannery workers, or sawmill laborers sometimes having their limbs amputated because of gross infections and gangrene. In these beginning years, McEvoy notes, “if the disease didn't kill the patient, the medicine might.”

The Sisters always did things their way. For instance, before the era of government welfare support, they fed and sometimes sheltered the indigent, and at times gave out small sums of money. This played a crucial role in the Depression. In responding wholeheartedly to their vocations, the Sisters also broke the mold by accepting patients no other hospitals at the time would accept – the poor who couldn't pay their medical bills, natives, and Japanese workers. McEvoy notes the “cacaphony” of languages in the wards and lunchroom.

He also writes, “[I]t was from the beginning – as it would be for many decades – very much a hospital of the ordinary working man because it was just uphill from the industrial area and wharves on the Fraser River.” Working people played such an important part of Saint Mary's because the Sisters always reached out to them, often going door-to-door looking for the sick and needy. They also went to the far-flung logging camps in search for donations to continue their work, venturing into places that only prostitutes would normally go.

The hospital and the Sisters changed with the times, and Saint Mary's kept up with medical and technological advances, installing the latest elevator or using the latest medical equipment. Over the decades it developed many specialties, including palliative care, procedures for hip-fracture patients, breast health, ophthalmology, and diabetic treatment.

The province and the hospital had been on tenuous relations for some time, perhaps because of the hospital's independence or outspoken opposition to abortion. Yet the community support it received seemed to give it reprieve after reprieve. As the years passed, the B.C. Provincial government kept centralizing health care, until the 1990s, when local voices fell on deaf ears in the capital.

Thus McEvoy judges the folks in government for stifling local politics, which makes for a very good story. As well, McEvoy never forgets the spiritual heritage of the Sisters, and their original vocation. Yet The Life and Destruction of Saint Mary's Hospital misses a crucial side, which is some judgment of the forces of secularization that surrounded the hospital's closure in 2005. Local versus centralized politics is not the whole story. A better-rounded history would have spent some time discussing values of a secular government and society that might no longer be open to Catholic health care.

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