Lillian Basha Moakler is a funny and spirited woman who loves to entertain. She’s fiercely independent, self-sufficient and has a work ethic like no other. At 97-years-old, she shows no signs of slowing down anytime soon.
Mrs. Moakler had a long and storied career working in health care as a registered nurse and then with the provincial government before retiring in 1984. From the time she graduated in 1945 until her retirement, Mrs. Moakler worked in many different places throughout Newfoundland including a stint on the coastal hospital boat, the MV Lady Anderson, which serviced the south west coast of the Island.
For some people, Mrs. Moakler’s claim to fame was her return home to Bell Island in 1965 as the first Director of Nursing and administrator of the Dr. Walter Templeman Health Care Centre. Mrs. Moakler would argue that her claim to fame is being the first person to administer penicillin in Newfoundland and Labrador while she was still in training at the old General Hospital.
This summer, the Town of Wabana and Eastern Health, commemorated Mrs. Moakler’s tenure on Bell Island by erecting a sign renaming the laneway into the Dr. Walter Templeman Health Care Centre property as “Basha-Moakler Way” with Mrs. Moakler advising on what she wanted the sign to say.
Before Mrs. Moakler’s sign was put up, the site manager of the Dr. Walter Templeman Health Care Centre at the time, Carol Ann Mason, sat down and had a cup of tea with Mrs. Moakler to share stories about working at the health care centre, then and now.
Carol Ann – When did you start working on Bell Island?
Mrs. Moakler – I worked at Bell Island starting in 1965. I actually started in 1964 to put the place in order. The beds had to be put together and the curtains had to be hung – that stuff. The hospital opened in January 1965.
Carol Ann – So you were the first nurse?
Mrs. Moakler – I was the first Director of Nursing and first administrator because we didn’t have an administrator at that time. I was somebody to tell them what to do. They were putting the beds together and they didn’t know which end was the head and which was the bottom!
Carol Ann – How long did you work on Bell Island?
Mrs. Moakler – Five years and then government offered me a job and I said yes foolishly. The mines were closing out, everyone was leaving, all my friends had left. My two children were small – five and 11 and my husband had died.
Carol Ann – Why did you start working on Bell Island?
Mrs. Moakler – I felt I was a trouble-shooter for government. Wherever there was a shortage of nurses, I was there. They were looking for someone for Bell Island and I was a Bell Islander. I was working at the cottage hospital then in Harbour Breton.
Carol Ann – So you ended up on Bell Island for five years.
Mrs. Moakler – I got married before that and went to Bell Island to live with my husband and my children were born. When the public health nurse there went on holidays for two weeks, I’d fill in for those two weeks. And I worked as an X-ray technician for Dr. Templeman. Mrs. Templeman taught me how to do the X-rays. You would do anything in those days for a bit of money. My husband had an appliance building but who could afford to come in and buy a dishwasher or a clothes washer or a dryer? They’d probably put $5 down and pay $5 a week. The mine was in full operation then.
Carol Ann – It was a different spot then, I’m told.
Mrs. Moakler – It was wild and wooly! It was a great place to be.
Carol Ann – They said when the mine was in full operation, the population was between 13,000 and 15,000. Now it’s about 2,500.
Mrs. Moakler – It was 13,000 to 15,000 during the week. And then on the weekends, the boats would go to Harbour Grace and Carbonear and take the people home. They would come back on Sunday night.
Carol Ann – I was told the miners were instrumental in getting a hospital on Bell Island, in terms of wanting a health-care facility.
Mrs. Moakler – My dear, as far as I can remember, they wanted a hospital on Bell Island. There was a clinic where the bakery is now across from the health-care centre and they had four or five beds there and the nurse lived upstairs. Dr. Templeman would come and have his clinic there. I must have been only three or four but I saw her come downstairs with the gown and the cap on and from then on I wanted to be a nurse all my life! I couldn’t see anything else.
Carol Ann – So, that’s where it started.
Mrs. Moakler – Yes, that’s where it started. Mary – I don’t even know her last name now.
Carol Ann – So when you were at the hospital, there must have been a lot of activity there; more than now. I know there was an operating room at one point.
Mrs. Moakler – We had one doctor and he loved surgery. My youngest daughter spent more time in the hospital asleep. I would often get a call at 12 o’clock at night, because I gave the anesthetic, that the doctor was going to do surgery. I would have to bring my youngest to the hospital and I would put her to bed near the nursing station. She would be lying in the bed with probably another woman in the bed next to her. At probably three or four in the morning, I would take her home. The doctor was good at surgery.
Carol Ann – I guess most of the nurses who worked there were from Bell Island.
Mrs. Moakler – Yes. They were Bell Islanders. Most of them finished training at St. Clare’s and then they would come back. When I was over last summer, I visited the hospital and I was flabbergasted. It’s all changed, but one of the girls came out dressed up and she looked at me and said what are you doing here? She must have worked with me at the time, but I didn’t know who she was.
Carol Ann – I know there was a lot of chatter about you after you left.
Mrs. Moakler – All good I hope!
Carol Ann – All good. They talked about the fact you were over and some of the staff knew who you were. Some people remembered you. What other staff would have been at the hospital other than nurses at that time?
Mrs. Moakler – Nursing assistants and doctors and their wives who were usually nurses who filled in at the time. Kitchen staff and the laundry staff. There was always a secretary because when you got medications, you had to pay for them. So you had to write out a receipt and the secretary took the money.
Carol Ann – So the medications were handed out from the hospital?
Mrs. Moakler– Yes. Even though there was no pharmacy. But it was usually only about $2 or $3.
Carol Ann – Even though there’s a pharmacy on the Island that operates six days a week, sometimes we do have to provide a small amount of medication to get people through until the pharmacy opens to fill out their prescription. That still happens on a much smaller scale.
The administrator’s office now is right behind the nursing station.
Mrs. Moakler – That used to be the babies’ room.
Carol Ann – I was told it was the nursery. What used to be the operating room down the back is now our emergency trauma room.
Mrs. Moakler – Tell me, when I was over, I didn’t pass the kitchen and go out the back. What are these rooms now?
Carol Ann – Down that end now, when you go down the long hallway past the kitchen, we have the public health and community health nurse offices. Our opioid treatment clinic also operates out of that area – that’s new and they use the door down by the kitchen. Also the doctor’s on call quarters are down there.
Mrs. Moakler – My suite used to be down there.
Carol Ann – Salaries have also changed. You said your salary when you worked on the coastal boats was $72 a month. My first salary when I graduated in 1978 was $13,900. Which seemed like an awful lot of money to me back then.
Mrs. Moakler – Yes I guess it did.
Carol Ann – The time you were over on Bell Island, they had wards – a male ward and a female ward. One of those wards is where the conference room is now I think.
Mrs. Moakler – There was a ward down the hallway past the nursing station but I changed that. I turned that room into a sort of family room.
Carol Ann – That’s still there. They call it the solarium. Behind the nursing station where the administrator’s office is, was the nursery with the windows so you could see in.
Mrs. Moakler – Just by the nursery was a room for deliveries.
Carol Ann – That is now the staff lunchroom.
Mrs. Moakler – Excuse me? They don’t go out to the dining hall now?
Carol Ann – Dining hall – the cafeteria – is still there but there are no meals served there anymore. It’s there to serve the long-term care unit. That whole wing, which used to be acute care, is now long-term care, so the kitchen serves them.
Mrs. Moakler – That’s interesting.
Carol Ann – So a lot of changes. We don’t have any acute care beds in operation now. We have long-term care, the emergency room, out-patients and the physicians now operate their clinics out of the hospital as opposed to off-site.
Mrs. Moakler – When I was there, we had acute beds because we had a doctor doing surgeries every time you turned around. It had to be staff there all the time. We would have three nurses for every eight-hour shift.
Carol Ann – Now there is one or two registered nurses, a licensed practiced nurse and a personal care attendant.
Mrs. Moakler – But the staff know they can call on you if they needed to.
Carol Ann – I’ve had to help with CPR from time to time when we have an emergency.
Mrs. Moakler – They know they can depend on you.
When I was there it was acute care, it was newly opened, spotless and everybody was running after everybody. We had four doctors here at one point.
Carol Ann – We have three doctors now although we have had just one in the past. One lives on the Island and the other two go back and forth but when they’re on call, they stay. When you were there, there were a lot of people so there must have been a lot going on. Was the hospital a sort of centre or a hub with anything social happening?
Mrs. Moakler – There was not so much as a cup of tea! It was all work! I don’t even remember us getting together for Christmas. That’s interesting because I would rather entertain than eat.
We had a meeting shortly after we opened the hospital and I said this is an acute care hospital and there will be nobody coming here who will be sick for years and years and years. We will have none of that.
Carol Ann – Now it’s the opposite. The people who stay there now are there for years. It’s a different function. It provides a home for them. The nice thing about it is that most of the staff, with the exception of some of the nurses, are from Bell Island so the people who come in to our long-term care unit, they know them. They grew up with them. They were their “nans and pops.” When people come in and they’re talking about somebody, particularly people who may have dementia, they may be looking for a family member, the staff often know who they’re looking for. It allows them to be able to respond in a more comforting way.
Mrs. Moakler – When you think about it, me being a Bell Islander and I will always be a Bell Islander, if I have to go in some place, it will be Bell Island!
This story was written by Vanessa Colman-Sadd, a communications manager with Eastern Health.