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Winter Practice

( Originally Published 1905 )



IT is, then, to the outporter, to the men of the fleet and to the Labrador liveyere that Doctor Grenfell devotes himself. The hospital at Indian Harbour is the centre of the Labrador activity ; the hospital at St. Anthony is designed to care for the needs of the French shore folk; the hospital at Battle Harbour—the first established, and, possibly, the best equipped of all—receives patients from all directions, but especially from the harbours of the Strait and the Gulf. In the little hospital-ship, Strathcona, the doctor himself darts here and there and everywhere, all summer long, responding to calls, searching out the sick, gathering patients for the various hospitals. She is known to every harbour of the coast; and she is often overcrowded with sick bound to the hospitals for treatment or operation.

Often, indeed, in cases of emergency, operations are performed aboard, while she tosses in the rough seas. She is never a moment idle while the waters are open. But in the fall, when navigation closes, she must go into winter quarters ; and then the sick and starving are sought out by dog-team and komatik. There is no cessation of beneficent activity; there is merely a change in the manner of getting about. Summer journeys are hard enough, God knows ! But winter travel is a matter of much greater difficulty and hardship. Not that the difficulty and hardship seem ever to be perceived by the mission-doctor; quite the contrary : there is if anything greater delight to be found in a wild, swift race over rotten or heaving ice, or in a night in the driving snow, than in running the Strathcona through a nor'east gale. The Indian Harbour hospital is closed in the fall; so intense is the cold, so exposed the situation, so scarce the wood, so few the liveyeres, that it has been found unprofitable to keep it open. There is another way of meeting the needs of the situation ; and that is by despatching the Battle Harbour doctor northward in midwinter. The folk know that he is bound towards them know the points of call—can determine within a month the time of his arrival. So they bring the sick to these places—and patiently wait. This is a hard journey—made alone with the dogs. Many a night the doctor must get into his sleeping bag and make himself as comfortable as possible in the snow, snuggled close to his dogs, for the sake of the warmth of their bodies. Six hundred miles north in the dead of winter, six hundred miles back again ; it takes a man of unchangeable devotion to undertake it !

The Labrador dogs—pure and hall-breed " huskies," with so much of the wolf yet in them that they never bark—are for the most part used by the doctor on his journeys. There would be no getting anywhere without them ; and it must be said that they are magnificent animals, capable of heroic deeds. Every prosperous householder has at least six or eight full-grown sled-dogs and more puppies than he can keep track of. In summer they lie everywhere under foot by day, and by night howl in a demoniacal fashion far and near ; but they fish for themselves in shallow water, and are fat, and may safely be stepped over. In winter they are lean, desperately hungry, savage, and treacherous—in particular, a menace to the lives of children, whom they have been known to devour. There was once a father, just returned from a day's hunt on the ice, who sent his son to fetch a seal from the waterside ; the man had forgotten for the moment that the dogs were roaming the night and very hungry—and so he lost both his seal and his son. The four-year-old son of the Hudson Bay Company's agent at Cartwright chanced last winter to fall down in the snow. He was at once set upon by the pack ; and when he was rescued (his mother told me the story) he had forty-two ugly wounds on his little body. For many nights afterwards the dogs howled under the window where he lay moaning. Eventually those concerned in the attack were hanged by the neck, which is the custom in such cases.

Once, when Dr. Grenfell was wintering at St. Anthony, on the French shore, there came in great haste from Conch, a point sixty miles distant, a komatik with an urgent summons to the bedside of a man who lay dying of hemorrhage. And while the doctor was preparing for this journey, a second komatik, despatched from another place, arrived with a similar message.

" Come at once," it was. " My little boy has broken his thigh."

The doctor chose first to visit the lad. At ten o'clock that night he was at the bed-side. It had been a dark night—black dark : with the road precipitous, the dogs uncontrollable, the physician in great haste. The doctor thought, many a time, that there would be " more than one broken limb " by the time of his arrival. But there was no misadventure ; and he found the lad lying on a settle, in great pain, wondering why he must suffer so.

" Every minute or two, " says the doctor, " there would be a jerk, a flash of pain, and a cry to his father, who was holding him all the time."

The doctor was glad " to get the chloroform mask over the boy's face "—he is a sympathetic man, the doctor; glad, always, to ease pain. And at one o'clock in the morning the broken bone was set and the doctor had had a cup of tea; whereupon, he retired to a bed on the floor and a few hours' " watch below." At daylight, when he was up and about to depart, the little patient had awakened and was merrily calling to the doctor's little retriever.

" He was as merry as a cricket," says the doctor, "when I bade him good-bye."

About twelve hours on the way to Conch, where the man lay dying of hemorrhage —a two days' journey—the doctor fell in with a dog-train bearing the mail. And the mail-man had a letter—a hasty summons to a man in great pain some sixty miles in another direction. It was impossible to respond. " That call," says the doctor, sadly, " owing to sheer impossibility, was not answered." It was haste away to Conch, over the ice and snow—for the most of the time on the ice of the sea-in order that the man who lay dying there might be succoured. But there was another interruption. When the dog-train reached the coast, there was a man waiting to intercept it: the news of the doctor's probable coming had spread.

" I've a fresh team o' dogs," sir, said he, " t' take you t' the island. There's a man there, an' he's wonderful sick."

Would the doctor go ? Yes—he would go! But he had no sooner reached that point of the mainland whence he was bound across a fine stretch of ice to the island than he was again intercepted. It was a young man, this time, whose mother lay ill, with no other Protestant family living within fifty miles. Would the doctor help her ? Yes—the doctor would ; and did. And when he was about to be on his way again

" Could you bear word," said the woman, " t' Mister Elliot t' come bury my boy ? He said he'd come, sir; but now my little lad has been lying dead, here, since January."

It was then early in March. Mr. Elliot was a Protestant fisherman who was accustomed to bury the Protestant dead of that district. Yes—the doctor would bear word to him. Having promised this, he set out to visit the sick man on the island; for whom, also, he did what he could.

Off again towards Conch—now with fresh teams, which had been provided by the friends of the man who lay there dying. And by the way a man brought his little son for examination and treatment-" a lad of three years," says the doctor ; " a bright, healthy, embryo fisherman, light-haired and blue-eyed, a veritable celt."

" And what's the matter with him ? " was the physician's question.

" He've a club foot, sir," was the answer.

And so it turned out : the lad had a club foot. He was fond of telling his mother that he had a right foot and a wrong one. " The wrong one, mama," said he, "is no good." He was to be a cripple for life—utterly incapacitated : the fishing does not admit of club feet. But the doctor made arrangements for the child's transportation to the St. Anthony hospital, where he could, without doubt be cured ; and then hurried on.

The way now led through a district desperately impoverished—as much by ignorance and indolence as by anything else. At one settlement of tilts there were forty souls, " without a scrap of food or money," who depended upon their neighbours—and the opening of navigation was still three months distant ! In one tilt there lay what seemed to be a bundle of rags.

" And who is this ? " the doctor asked.

It was a child. " The fair hair of a blue-eyed boy of about ten years disclosed itself," says the doctor. " Stooping over him I attempted to turn his face towards me. It was drawn with pain, and a moan escaped the poor little fellow's lips. He had disease of the spine, with open sores in three places. He was stark naked, and he was starved to a skeleton. He gave me a bright smile before I left, but I confess to a shudder of horror at the thought that his lot might have been mine. Of course the 'fear of pauperizing' had to disappear before the claims of humanity. Yet, there, in the depth of winter," the doctor asks, with infinite compassion, " would not a lethal draught be the kindest friend of that little one of Him that loved the children ? "

For five days the doctor laboured in Conch, healing many of the folk, helping more; and at the end of that period the man who has suffered the hemorrhage was so far restored that with new dogs the doctor set out for Canada Bay, still travel-ling southward. There, as he says, " we had many interesting cases." One of these involved an operation : that of " opening a knee-joint and removing a loose body," with the result that a fisherman who had long been crippled was made quite well again. Then there came a second call from Conch. Seventeen men had come for the physician, willing to haul the komatik themselves, if no dogs were to be had. To this call the doctor immediately responded ; and having treated patients at Conch and by the way, he set out upon the return journey to St. Anthony, fearing that his absence had al-ready been unduly prolonged. And he had not gone far on the way before he fell in with another komatik, provided with a box, in which lay an old woman bound to St. Anthony hospital, in the care of her sons, to have her foot amputated.

Crossing Hare Bay, the doctor had a slight mishap—rather amusing, too, he thinks.

" One of my dogs fell through the ice," says he. " There was a biting nor'west wind blowing, and the temperature was ten degrees below zero. When we were one mile from the land, I got off to run and try the ice. It suddenly gave way, and in I fell. It did not take me long to get out, for I have had some little experience, and the best advice sounds odd : it is `keep cool.' But the nearest house being at least ten miles, it meant, then, almost one's life to have no dry clothing. Fortunately, I had. The driver at once galloped the dogs back to the woods we had left, and I had as hard a mile's running as ever I had ; for my clothing was growing to resemble the armour of an ancient knight more and more, every yard, and though in my youth I was accustomed to break the ice to bathe if necessary, I never tried running a race in a coat of mail. By the time I arrived at the trees and got out of the wind, my driver had a rubber poncho spread on the snow under a snug spruce thicket ; and I was soon as dry and a great deal warmer than before."

At St. Anthony, the woman's foot was amputated; and in two days the patient was talking of " getting up." Meantime, a komatik had arrived in haste from a point on the northwest coast—a settlement one hundred and twenty miles distant. The doctor was needed there—and the doctor went !

This brief and inadequate description of a winter's journey may not serve to indicate the hardship of the life the doctor leads : he has small regard for that ; but it may faintly apprise the reader of the character of the work done, and of the will with which the doctor does it. One brief journey ! The visitation of but sixty miles of coast ! Add to this the numerous journeys of that winter, the various summer voyages of the Strathconch; conceive that the folk of two thou-sand miles are visited every year, often twice a year : then multiply by ten—for the mission has been in efficient existence for ten years—and the reader may reach some faint conception of the sum of good wrought by this man. But without knowing the desolate land—without observing the emaciated bodies of the children—without hearing the cries of distress—it is impossible adequately to realize the blessing his devotion has brought to the coast.



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