Given that Jeannie Busby, a 101-year-old former nurse now living in Whitby, kept working until the age of 90, it’d be stating the obvious to say that she made the right choice when she went into nursing school nearly 80 years ago.
There were quite a few different things that got her headed in that direction, including a year spent in a sanatorium recovering from tuberculosis. She says she spent a lot of time thinking about health care and nursing over that year.
“There wasn’t too much to think about other than that,” Busby recalled.
She was also inspired by the roughly 4,500 women who served, many overseas, as nurses during the Second World War.
Since the war was ending before she finished school, though, serving overseas as a war nurse wasn’t in the cards. Instead, she did more schooling at McGill and then began working at the Toronto General Hospital and Toronto Sick Kids Hospital, where she also taught nursing.
“I didn’t like teaching as much as I liked doing it,” she said. “I liked being on the front lines more than teaching but wanted to make sure that they were taught properly.”
Busby, who always excelled at science in school, stresses the importance of a good education in nursing, something that, over the 20th century, evolved from a practice taught largely through apprenticeship to a subject you could get a PhD in. The first university nursing programs had been established after the First World War and, most importantly, the 1918 Influenza Pandemic, which made a need for a more robust public health program more obvious.
Despite the fact that there was a glut of nurses during the depression, many of them graduated from training schools (of varying quality) that opened up in addition to the universities, almost immediately after the Second World War started, it was apparent that Canada had a severe nursing shortage.
We think of our current nursing shortage as a modern anomaly but, in fact, history shows that shortages are likely at least as common, if not more, than periods when supply meets demand. And, as we think about International Women’s Day this week, it’s hard not to grasp that at least some of the problem is that, historically, it’s been a gendered profession and, as a rule, we don’t pay as much for women’s work.
Plus, there’s the issue that, until recently, women were expected to leave the workforce and raise children after they got married. That was likely the path Jeannie would have walked after she married journalist Jack Busby and had four kids. A family tragedy, though, led her back to work.
“My sister was in a horrific car accident,” explained Briar Busby, Jeannie’s daughter, who helped conduct the interview from Busby’s residence at Amica Whitby. “And my mom was at loose ends, so she went back and then, when my dad died, having work to do saved her life.”
“She and my dad were definitely chalk and cheese, but they were the loves of each others lives.”
Busby’s second nursing career was significantly different than her first, though. She took a job at the Don Jail, where she was one of only two women on staff. One of her responsibilities as an on-duty nurse was helping inmates with mental health issues and, in that role, she wound up moving over to the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health.
Busby’s extensive experience with people facing mental health challenges led to more work in the penal system, both at provincial parole clinics and as part of the psychiatric team for the Paul Bernardo criminal case. She continued to work, part-time, as a psychiatric nurse until she was 90 years old.
Although nursing at the time was a female-dominated profession, it was far less common for women nurses to be involved in the penal system, psychiatric nursing and forensics.
Busby recalls, though, that the job remained the same, no matter what setting she was working in.
“My favourite part was really just the contact with the people,” she says. “Because if there was anything that I could do to make it better for them, I would.
“That could be kind of difficult at times. Nursing gives you a great idea of what people need and they do need a lot. But I liked it anyway.”
Christine Sismondo is a Toronto-based writer and contributor to the Star. Follow her on Twitter: @sismondo