Last grads of Royal Columbian Hospital nursing school savour memories in wake of demolition

·4 min read
Last grads of Royal Columbian Hospital nursing school savour memories in wake of demolition

The heavy machinery is so loud Eileen Brown and Carol Schmidt shout at each other as they stand across the street to watch their old nursing school in New Westminster, B.C., come tumbling down.

With each bite of the bulldozer the two retired nurses share a memory of the Royal Columbian Hospital School of Nursing where they studied in the mid-1970s.

One points to what used to be the classrooms. The other tries to pick out the gymnasium where student nurses often organized dances.

The school existed for 77 years when it closed in 1978. Brown and Schmidt were in the final class of 39 graduates.

"We discovered a few months in, we were going to be the last class," said Brown.

Demolition of the facility and its adjoining nurses' residence in the Sherbrooke Centre will make way for a major redevelopment of the hospital, but the two women say their memories will live on because nursing school was one of the best times of their lives.

Submitted/Carol Schmidt
Submitted/Carol Schmidt

Housemothers' rules

In 1975, Brown and Schmidt were in their late teens when they moved into the nurses' residence to begin the three-year training program.

Both their families lived in New Westminster but in those days everyone "roomed in," said Brown.

Housemothers kept tabs on all of the comings-and-goings in the group residence, especially when it came to men.

Students had intercoms in their rooms and housemothers would buzz to announce they had a male visitor.

All visits were required to be in the main floor public area — but not all of them were.

Brown says she was aware of others who "smuggled fellows in" through the elevator in the basement, although she never attempted it.

Eventually the rules loosened up and males were allowed upstairs with some precautions in place.

"Because girls could be wandering around, coming in and out of the shower or whatever, you'd get off the elevator and yell, 'Man on the floor,'" said Brown with a laugh.

Watch retired nurse Eileen Brown give a tour of the old RCH School of Nursing residence

Dress-code days

The seven-storey building provided single rooms with a built-in bed, built-in wardrobe, a sink and a desk.

"They were pretty skookum for the time," said Brown, who lived on the fourth floor.

Showers, bathrooms, laundry, a lounge and kitchenette were all communal although daily meals were provided at the hospital cafeteria.

Schmidt lived on the fifth floor on the side with a coveted view of the Fraser River.

The roof-top solarium of the building was often a favourite place for sunbathing, but there were rules about what nurses could wear on the job in those days.

"When we graduated I don't even think you could wear pants," said Schmidt.

On her first job the required attire was a white dress, white nylons and shoes and a cap which often fell off.

Schmidt quickly learned she could get the cap to stay by putting a sponge roller in the top of her hair.

The tiny comb inside her cap would attach to the roller and, for the most part, keep the cap on her head. As a result, at the end of each day, she said, she'd have one cascading curl.

"When it goes it'll be like losing a few of those memories but I still have them in my heart," said Schmidt referring to demolition of the Sherbrooke Centre.

Maggie MacPherson/CBC
Maggie MacPherson/CBC

Time for redevelopment

It's not just former nursing students who feel an attachment to the old building which was used for various health services and administrative offices after the nursing school closed and the residence was no longer needed.

"You can feel the history in the walls," said Royal Columbian medical director Dr. Steven Reynolds, whose office was in the Sherbrooke Centre for years.

Removal of the building is part of a $1.3 billion redevelopment of Royal Columbian Hospital, which includes a new critical care tower.

Reynolds says the project will increase the hospital's bed capacity by 50 per cent with new private and semi-private rooms, opposed to four-bed wards.

The work is scheduled to be completed in phases between 2024 and 2026.

Kevin Li/CBC
Kevin Li/CBC

A woman's world

The Royal Columbian Hospital School of Nursing existed from 1901 to 1978.

In all of those years, annual class photographs suggest only two men graduated from the program.

"One was in the '50s. One was in the '60s," said Brown.

In 1944, nurses formed an alumni association of which Brown and Schmidt are both members.

They were disappointed the association's plans to celebrate the Sherbrooke Centre were thwarted by the COVID-19 pandemic.

The parties, luncheons and last tours of the building all had to be cancelled.

Maggie MacPherson/CBC
Maggie MacPherson/CBC

"Not to be able to have that goodbye party, that's sad you know but time goes on and things change," said Brown.

The bonds of friendship, however, will remain along with the memories, they both said.

Maggie MacPherson/CBC
Maggie MacPherson/CBC