In 1969, Miles Frankel, a young British doctor, was recruited by the International Grenfell Association to provide medical services to communities in northern Newfoundland and coastal Labrador. From St. Anthony he travelled—by boat, Jeep, aircraft, and even dogsled—to nursing stations and small cottage hospitals strung out along the coast. Ever willing to heed the call, his work in outport Newfoundland and Labrador would sometimes require him to take on the role of veterinarian! “After two years at Poplar, I was proud of what I had achieved in turning myself into a competent doctor, but I was convinced that I had no interest in going further in the hospital service. Then, one day, I saw in the British Medical Journal an advertisement for a travelling doctor for the International Grenfell Association, with ‘interesting work in the Subarctic.’ I applied and got the job. Six weeks later, I immigrated to Canada and transferred my medical skills across the Atlantic. It was a life-changing experience, and I never regretted it.” Professionally, Dr. Frankel remained a rural doctor, both in Canada and Ireland. His was a mission of mercy, always undertaken in the spirit of new experience and a desire to help those in need. In I Want to Know If I Got to Get Married, he recalls with compassion and good humour the places he visited in rural Newfoundland and Labrador, the province’s lively customs and traditions, and the resourceful people he met.
There had been an accident in Port Hope Simpson, two hours away by skidoo. I had been holding a clinic with the nurse in Mary’s Harbour, a winter community on the Southern Labrador. All day there had been a coming and going from the nursing station, the waiting room full with a procession of modest, almost secretive people who sat in turn in the black leather chair with the headrest for dentistry. With each there had been barriers of strangeness, different language idioms, and a natural reticence about symptoms. They coped with the difficulties in their own ways, comprising a spectrum from frank clowning to the painfully tongue-tied, but I had seen many of them a dozen times before and that made the day much easier for all of us. The atmosphere had been more domestic than clinical. There had been a great exchange of gossip, the padding about of stockinged feet, the larking of some children and the crying of others, the bantering from the “aide” who mopped up melting snow from the linoleum. She was a local girl and probably related to half of them.
“What’s the matter with you, Uncle Jonas? Ain’t your woman giving you enough to eat? You look wonderful poor to me. Doctor’s gonna take you away in his airplane and feed you up in the hospital.”
“Enough of your brazen talk, maid,” said Uncle Jonas. “I’m a hard case of the sugar diabetes, and the doctor’s keeping me thin for a purpose. I eats according to a diet, or there’ll be no way to cure me up except by needles, and that’s handy on the last thing I wants.”
It was four-thirty and almost dark outside, and still the skidoos were coming, their headlights pitching and flashing on the spruce trees outside the clinic window. I stopped for a cup of coffee and drank it in the waiting room, talking to a man who had brought along his mother for me to see.
Then there was loud talking outside and three men clattered up the steps into the nursing station, scarves around their faces, ice and dusty snow over their eyebrows and the fur of their hats. Their entrance was sudden and dramatic, and they were half aware of this, although they spoiled the effect by attempting, in automatic deference, to brush a little snow from their boots. One of them took off his hat, smiled a shy greeting to the nurse, and then turned to me.
“You the doctor?”
Another of them said, “Feller got his arm cut off in Port Hope Simpson. We wants fer you to come and take a look at he.”
“Is the arm right off? What did he do it with, a chainsaw?”
“Some of the boys took him down to Mrs. Penny’s and we came right on. I ain’t a doctor, but it looks bad to me. Mrs. Penny put clean linen on and the blood soaked all on through.”
I stood in the waiting room thinking of what I would need to take, of clothes to wear, of the forty miles through the forest trails, of the wounded man and his frightened attendants. The cozy, homely atmosphere of the nursing station was shattered, and the realities of the coast were to hand: isolation and suffering.
The nurse had already begun to collect together instruments and drugs and to put them into a big komatik box. We took the notes of other patients whom we could see while we were in Port Hope Simpson and all the paraphernalia for a normal clinic. Into the box went many of the bits and pieces that were to be found in modern casualty and outpatients departments: electrocardiogram apparatus, a bottle of dried plasma, and packs of sterile surgical instruments. We were chancing the frosty evening in taking a bottle of fluid for intravenous infusion because, like all drugs in vials for injection, it was likely to freeze and shatter. The temperature outside was seventeen below zero, Fahrenheit, forty-nine degrees of frost. We contacted St. Anthony on the radio telephone and asked for a plane on the following day, with a medical student or nurse to escort the patient back to the hospital. A message was sent out across the harbour for two guides who would bring us back when the affair in Hope Simpson was over, and they arrived at the nursing station, ready to go before I was even dressed.
The waiting room was still full, although everyone knew that the clinic was over, and any disappointment at not being seen was taken with good humour, as part of their involvement in this drama. They all knew the injured man, his wife and family. They all knew the appalling effects of the loss of a limb in a community that could only maintain itself through hard physical work.
Frankel’s writing is vivid and riveting.-- The Telegram --
A fascinating glimpse at a world long gone, through the eyes of someone who was simultaneously part of and separate from the communities he served.-- Northeast Avalon Times --
He’s a vivid writer with an extraordinary memory for things that happened over 40 years ago. Sometimes he’s even lyrical, as in his descriptions of midnight Dec. 31-Jan. 1 and of the pack ice. He can also give a lively sketch of each of the people who came to one of his clinics.-- The Guardian --