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Desperate Need

( Originally Published 1905 )



IT was to these rough waters that Dr. Grenfell came when the need of the folk reached his ears and touched his heart. Before that, in the remoter parts of Newfoundland and on the coast of Labrador there were no doctors. The folk depended for healing upon traditional cures, upon old women who worked charms, upon remedies ingeniously devised to meet the need of the moment, upon deluded persons who prescribed medicines of the most curious description, upon a rough-and-ready surgery of their own, in which the implements of the kitchen and of the splitting-stage served a useful purpose. For example, there was a misled old fellow who set himself up as a healer in a lonely cove of the Newfoundland coast, where he lived a hermit, verily believing, it may be, in the glory of his call and in the blessed efficacy of his ministrations ; his cure for consumption—it was a tragic failure, in one case, at least—was a bull's heart, dried and powdered and ad-ministered with faith and regularity. Else-where there was a man, stricken with a mortal ailment, who, upon the recommendation of a kindly neighbour, regularly dosed himself with an ill-flavoured liquid obtained by boiling cast-off pulley-blocks in water. There was also a father who most hopefully attempted to cure his little lad of diphtheria by wrapping his throat with a split herring; but, unhappily, as he has said, "the wee feller choked hisself t' death," notwithstanding. There was another father—a man of grim, heroic disposition—whose little daughter chanced to freeze her feet to the very bone in midwinter ; when he perceived that a surgical operation could no longer be delayed, he cut them off with an axe.

An original preventative of sea-boilswith which the fishermen are cruelly afflicted upon the hands and wrists in raw weather—was evolved by a frowsy-headed old Labradorman of serious parts.

"I never has none," said he, in the fashion of superior fellows.

"No?"

"Nar a one. No, zur ! Not me ! "

A glance of interested inquiry elicited no response. It but prolonged a large silence.

"Have you never had a sea-boil ?" with

the note and sharp glance of incredulity. "Not me. Not since I got my cure." " And what might that cure be ? "

" Well, zur," was the amazing reply, "1 cuts my nails on a Monday."

It must be said, however, that the Newfoundland government did provide a physician—of a sort. Every summer he was sent north with the mail-boat, which made not more than six trips, touching here and there at long intervals, and, of a hard season, failing altogether to reach the farthest ports. While the boat waited—an hour, or a half, as might be—the doctor went ashore to cure the sick, if he chanced to be in the humour ; other-wise the folk brought the sick aboard, where they were painstakingly treated or not, as the doctor's humour went. The government seemed never to inquire too minutely into the qualifications and character of its appointee. The incumbent for many years—the folk thank God that he is dead—was an inefficient, ill-tempered, cruel man ; if not the very man himself, he was of a kind with the Newfoundland physician who ran a flag of warning to his masthead when he set out to get very drunk.

The mail-boat dropped anchor one night in a far-away harbour of the Labrador, where there was desperate need of a doctor to ease a man's pain. They had waited a long time, patiently, day after day, I am told ; and when at last the mail-boat came, the man's skipper put out in glad haste to fetch the government physician.

" He've turned in," they told him aboard. What did that matter ? The skipper roused the doctor.

" We've a sick man ashore, zur," said he, "an' he wants you t' come ---"

" What ! " roared the doctor. " Think I'm going to turn out this time of night ? "

" Sure, zur," stammered the astounded skipper. " I—I—s'pose so. He's very sick, zur. He's coughin' —"

"Let him cough himself to death ! " said the doctor.

Turn out ? Not he ! Rather, he turned over in his warm berth. It is to be assumed that the sick man died in pain ; it is to be assumed, too, that the physician continued a tranquil slumber, for the experience was not exceptional.

"Let 'em die ! " he had said more than once.

The government had provided for the transportation of sick fishermen from the Labrador coast to their homes in Newfound-land ; these men were of the great Newfoundland fleet of cod-fishing schooners, which fish the Labrador seas in the summer. It needed only the doctor's word to get the boon. Once a fisherman brought his consumptive son aboard—a young lad, with but a few weeks of life left. The boy wanted his mother, who was at home in Newfound-land.

" Ay, he's fair sick for his mother," said the father to the doctor. " I'm askin' you, zur, t' take un home on the mailboat."

The doctor was in a perverse mood that day. He would not take the boy.

" Sure, zur," said the fisherman, " the schooner's not goin' 'til fall, an' I've no money, an' the lad's dyin'."

But still the doctor would not.

" I'm thinkin', zur," said the fisherman, steadily, " that you're not quite knowin' that the lad wants t' see his mother afore he dies."

The doctor laughed.

"We'll have a laugh at you," cried the indignant fisherman, "when you comes t' die ! "

Then he cursed the doctor most heartily and took his son ashore. He was right—they did have a laugh at the doctor; the whole coast might have laughed when he came to die. Being drunk on a stormy night, he fell down the companionway and broke his neck.

Deep in the bays and up the rivers south of Hamilton Inlet, which is itself rather heavily timbered, there is wood to be had for the cutting; but "down t' Chidley "—which is the northernmost point of the Labrador coast—the whole world is bare ; there is neither tree nor shrub, shore nor inland, to grace the naked rock ; the land lies bleak and desolate. But, once, a man lived there the year round. I don't know why; it is inexplicable; but I am sure that the shiftless fellow and his wife had never an inkling that the circumstance was otherwise than commonplace and reasonable ; and the child, had he lived, would have continued to dwell there, boy and man, in faith that the earth was good to live in. One hard winter the man burnt all his wood long before the schooners came up from the lower coast. It was a desperate strait to come to ; but I am sure that he regarded his situation with sur-prising phlegm ; doubtless he slept as sound, if not as warm, as before. There was no more wood to be had ; so he burnt the furniture, every stick of it, and when that was gone, began on the frame of his house—a turf hut, builded under a kindly cliff, sheltered somewhat from the winds from the frozen sea. As, rafter by rafter, the frame was withdrawn, he cut off the roof and folded in the turf walls; thus, day by day, the space within dwindled ; his last fire was to consume the last of his shelter—which, no doubt, troubled him not at all ; for the day was not yet come. It is an ugly story-. When they were found in the spring, the woman lay dying on a heap of straw in a muddy corner—she was afflicted with hipdisease—and the house was tumbling about her ears ; the child, new born, had long ago frozen on its mother's breast.

A doctor of the Newfoundland outports was once called to a little white cottage where three children lay sick of diphtheria. He was the family physician; that is to say, the fisherman paid him so much by the year for medical attendance. But the injection of antitoxin is a " surgical operation " and therefore not provided for by the annual fee.

" This," said the doctor, " will cost you two dollars an injection, John."

"Oh, ay, zur," was the ready reply. "I'll pay you, zur. Go on, zur ! "

" But you know my rule, John—no pay, no work. I can't break it for you, you know, or I'd have to break it for half the coast."

" Oh, ay ! 'Tis all right. I wants uncured. I'll pay you when I sells me fish."

"But you know my rule, John—cash down."

The fisherman had but four dollars—no more ; nor could he obtain any more, though the doctor gave him ample time. I am sure that he loved his children dearly, but, unfortunately, he had no more than four dollars ; and there was no other doctor for fifty miles up and down the coast.

"Four dollars," said the doctor, "two children. Which ones shall it be, John ?"

Which ones ? Why, of course, after all, the doctor had himself to make the choice. John couldn't. So the doctor chose the " handiest " ones. The other one died.

" Well," said John, unresentfully, the day after the funeral, " I s'pose a doctor haves a right t' be paid for what he does. But," much puzzled, "'tis kind o' queer !"

This is not a work of fiction. These incidents are true. I set them down here for the purpose of adequately showing the need of such a practitioner as Wilfred T. Grenfell in the sphere in which he now labours. My point is—that if in the more settled places, where physicians might be summoned, such neglect and brutality could exist, in what a lamentable condition were the folk of the remoter parts, where even money could not purchase healing ! Nor are these true stories designed to reflect upon the regular practitioners of Newfoundland ; nor should they create a false impression concerning them. I have known many noble physicians in practice there ; indeed, I am persuaded that heroism and devotion are, perhaps, their distinguishing characteristics. God knows, there is little enough gain to be had ! God knows, too, that that little is hard earned ! These men do their work well and courageously, and as adequately as may be; it is on the coasts beyond that the mission-doctor labours.



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