No Emergency Services – Call 911

#11 in the Harry Forbes Remembers series

With today’s myriad of drugs, antibiotics, special treatments and easy access to doctors, few people know what it was like for rural residents during the early days in Western Canada. 

There were few, if any cars and many miles to drive with horse and buggy to get to a doctor. He was not just a phone call away: there were no phones! Then too there was a scarcity of money to pay for medical care. Universal health care had not been heard of. If a hospital stay was necessary, it was often paid for by delivering garden vegetables, meat or chickens to the hospital to be used for the patients’ needs. (Then too folks could be saddled with hospital debt payments for many years after the stay.)

Mostly people learned to care for themselves, only seeking medical help in dire circumstances.

Harry’s sister, Helen says, “Mother took her tiny son, who was seriously ill with scarlet fever, twelve miles across the prairie with the horse and buggy to see the doctor. Meanwhile Agnes, only eight years old, was left in charge of three younger sisters, a baby brother and the household chores.”

In bygone days doctors did it all: delivered babies, set bones, operated for appendicitis etc. Midwives often served as doctors when they delivered many or most of the babies. Doctors would send major problems to larger centers, even to Rochester. The doctors kept a horse and buggy or sleigh on tap or at a livery stable in case he had to make an emergency trip into the country to see patient who was unable to reach the hospital. The doctors were dedicated to their jobs and communities; often your family doctor was friend for life.

The following story is but one about early doctors making “country calls” sometimes going long distances, often in adverse weather conditions. When there was no road, relays of fresh horses were placed every 18 or 20 miles. It’s an example of their dedication and the use of more common remedies, e.g. rum.

A Quart of Overproof Rum and a Relay of Saddle Horses

This ordeal supposedly occurred in the late 1930’s or the early 40’s, 96 miles behind a ridge of mountains west of Bella Coola in B.C.

Working with Andy Christenson’s five-man haying crew, this man Vinney, drove a horse mower. A run-away occurred in which he got caught in the sickle-bar, severely mangling one leg below the knee and badly tearing the other one. They were working 3 1/2 miles from the home ranch.

Having retained his whip, he used it as a tourniquet on his severed leg. Wrapped in coats and shirts, he was carried back to the home ranch on a home-made fence post stretcher where a young nurse in training did the best she could. Vinney was in need of a doctor as soon as possible.

By country telephone and telegraph an airplane was ordered from Vancouver to pick up a doctor at Bella Coola and land on Anahim Lake, three miles from the home ranch. The plane landed at Bella Coola at 12 o’clock the next day but was unable to take off because of the wind and rough, choppy waters. The next day the plane still couldn’t take off.

Andy Christenson’s father, Adolph lived in Bella Coola and was keeping close tabs on these happenings. He was a tough old westerner in his late sixties and a man of action, and man who didn’t have much faith in airplanes. He was prancing around Bella Coola like a wild caged animal.

He phoned his son, Andy. “I’m bringing the doctor by relay saddle horse and I’ll be there before the plane. I’m starting out by car as far as possible with the doctor, then by saddle horse the rest of the way.” All night Andy’s crew placed pairs of relay horses from this end for him to change horses.

Along about six o’clock the next morning, those anxiously waiting could hear hoof beats coming. Adolph burst into view, still urging his horse on. Behind him came the doctor, both hands on the saddle horn, eyes glazed, gasping. Adolph slid from the saddle with the doctor’s satchel. The doctor swayed from his saddle and Andy helped him into the house where he and the young nurse attended to Vinney. The doctor then walked out of the room and fainted.

Adolph commented, “Who says a plane can beat a horse in this country. Give me a string of saddle horses, a quart of overproof rum and I’ll beat any relay of airplanes in this country. He then greeted Vinney, dropped down on the sofa and he too was out like a light.

When the old Model A had given out at about 20 miles, they had walked to the ranch for two horses and saddles, then gone by relays from ranch to ranch. At each relay stop, when Adolph changed saddles, he fed the doctor a mixture of coffee and rum to revive him until the next change.

By the time they reached their patient, the poor doctor, who had probably never ridden before, was almost in as bad a shape as his patient. They had made 20 miles by car and 76 miles by relay saddle horse in rough country most of it during the night.

The plane landed on Anahim Lake that afternoon. With Vinney prepared by the doctor and the young nurse, all three caught the plane to a hospital where Vinney not only survived, but his shattered legs healed too.

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