Meet Amy Wilson …
“We filled our government car, a 1949 Chevrolet, with supplies until the doors would barely close. Everything had to be in its exact place or we couldn’t have closed them at all. We checked over everything: shovel, axe, towing rope, extra gas and oil, spare fan belt, car tools, two sleeping bags, Coleman lamp and stove, two medical bags, one small suitcase each, and most important of all, toxoid.”
The car, later dubbed by highway people, “the mercy car,” was driven by registered nurses Amy Wilson and Aileen Bond, Alaska Highway Nurses, Department of National Health and Welfare, reporting to the Regional Superintendent of Indian Health Services, Edmonton, as they began Operation Toxoid in February 1949.
Their heroic road journey was initiated several weeks earlier with a call for help to her Whitehorse office from Hudson Hope, 1,450 kilometres south. She caught the midnight flight, a five- or six-hour journey, to Fort St. John. She drove to Dawson Creek for additional medicine, drove 240 kilometres farther north to the Sikanni Chief area, then a 40-kilometre sleigh ride to a First Nation village where their worst fears were confirmed – it was diphtheria.
Back to Whitehorse, preparation, planning and Operation Toxoid began. Their assignment: the immediate immunization of everyone along the Alaska Highway from Dawson Creek to at least as far as Whitehorse.
Getting there was a major part of the operation, as was the medicine itself. “The toxoid,” she tells us, “was the bane of our existence during the next few weeks. It mustn’t get too hot or it would lose its potency. It mustn’t get too cold or the fragile glass containers would break. We cared for that box as though it contained a premature baby.”
But she qualified those concerns: “Oh, that life-giving toxin!” she noted, “It seems so wonderful to us who have been trained in its use, but how much more wonderful must it seem to someone who has never heard of it.”
The mettle of these women is illustrated in her comments about their car, which they loved. Shovelling and pushing were common, and when the gas line froze, “we unhooked it at the engine head, then with a catheter attached to a syringe, squirted ether into it. That dissolved the ice and we were on our way.”
“By the middle of March,” she wrote in her book No Man Stands Alone, everyone along the highway between Dawson Creek and Whitehorse had been protected against diphtheria.”
Donald R. McLaren, bush pilot, Indian-Eskimo Association of Canada, wrote in the flyleaf of her book: “No Man Stands Alone is a fascinating story. It has a true title, for no man can stand alone in the north for long. In the Cree language Muskeekee Iskwao mitone sakehikoowisew (“the district nurse is greatly beloved”). She deserves the praise and gratitude of the whole nation.”
The whole nation didn’t recognize her, but her peers did, and quickly. “Early in April 1950,” she wrote, “Miss Bond and I were called to Victoria to attend a convention of Public Health Workers. There we were each presented with a specially struck medal and a Citation. The writing on both read “For Distinguished Service.”
“We felt proud but very humble, for we knew that equally deserving of those honours were the men who, with no thought of self, had provided us with transportation and shelter – who had fully lived up to the interpretation of ‘Men of the North.’ We never stood alone.”
There’s a lot of fuss made constantly, to the point of tiresome, of “celebrities” in our society. They’re touted as if they are the be all, and end all, the very foundation of our society. In my reality they’re more like the chrome on our car, a bit of flash, but it doesn’t help it perform any better.
It’s people with work ethics and dedication matching Amy Wilson and Aileen Bond who are our true foundations and keep our society performing and running smoothly. Her thoughts this week, and in last week’s column, are indicative she and Aileen Bond were two true celebrities of our time.
A tip of the hat to all caregivers in all disciplines in our world. Conditions are obviously better than the good old days, but the dedication of our regular heroes keep our standards high.