Laughter, tears and life-long lessons: Remembering the JGH School of Nursing
Class of 1971 marks its 50th anniversary with fond memories of a unique education
Its official name was the JGH School of Nursing. But to a generation of young women who studied in its classrooms, socialized in its lounges and slept in its dorm rooms, it sometimes seemed as much like a sorority house as a top-notch educational institution.
As in any sorority, there were pranks and parties, plus the giddiness and high spirits of the nurses-to-be—some not yet even out of their teens—who were living on their own for the first time.
However, what many graduates remember most clearly about the JGH School of Nursing was its unique environment—a rigorous yet supportive milieu within the hospital, where they honed their fledgling healthcare skills while forging friendships that, along with solid nursing practice, would last half a century or more.
A good deal of strength and support flowed from the close quarters that the nursing students shared for such a long time.
Sometimes the comforts were purely material—for instance, having access to the JGH kitchen, where a few simple items (toast, butter, eggs, peanut butter) were available during off-hours for students who had missed a meal or were working an overnight shift.
Far more fundamental, however, was the camaraderie that bound the young women together—notably, in their many midnight study sessions.
With a warm laugh, alumna Ellen Becker recalls helping a classmate who was having trouble with pharmacology: “We were up the whole night, and I can still see her sitting there with an icebag on her head.”
“I never had a sister,” adds Anna Rusnak, another graduate, “so for me, it was an eye-opening experience to be with so many other girls—but it was enriching, too. If someone didn’t understand something, we would tutor one another and not think twice about it.”
During the COVID-19 crisis of the past two years, those ties have grown even stronger: As Zoom and similar digital tools came into common use, numerous graduates—most of them retired, many scattered across North America—began contacting one another more frequently, motivated by the prospect of actually seeing their friends’ faces on-screen.
Typical is the class of ’71, whose members had been looking forward to celebrating their 50th anniversary with an in-person reunion in Montreal this fall.
Ms. Becker had provided a strong organizational push for the event, but once the spectre of a fourth wave became a real possibility, the only option was to postpone their get-together until next year.
Even so, they continue to stay in touch online, while commemorating their landmark anniversary by raising funds for the JGH Auxiliary, to be earmarked for an art therapy room for the hospital’s child psychiatry program.
Three of those graduates—Carla Strulovitch, Ms. Rusnak and Ms. Becker—met recently on Zoom to reminisce and reflect on why they believe they became better nurses for having made the JGH their personal and professional home from 1968 to 1971.
A home away from home
Their “hothouse” was the hospital’s easternmost wing, known today as Pavilion A. Built in 1950 to house the School of Nursing, the facility contained a three-floor dormitory, along with labs, classrooms, a lecture hall and just about anything the female-only students might need.
Even the patients—the ultimate focus of their efforts—were just a short walk away in a nearby wing.
From 1951 to 1972, roughly 1,000 graduates found their way into the world of health care via the JGH School of Nursing, which imbued in them the expertise and values that had distinguished the hospital since its launch in 1934.
Yet, after only 21 years of operation, the school met its demise. The axe came down in 1970, when the Government of Quebec announced its intention to standardize nursing education across the province.
Every school of nursing that was based in a hospital was ordered to wind down its activities and close by 1972.
But, for as long as it existed, the JGH School of Nursing provided students with a thorough grounding in such subjects as anatomy, physiology, surgery, microbiology, endocrinology and psychiatry—courses that were taught not only by the school’s nursing educators, but by some of the JGH’s leading physicians and departmental chiefs.
“What made all the difference, though, is that they taught us problem-solving and critical thinking,” says Ms. Strulovitch, a part-time member of staff in the JGH’s Centre of Excellence in Thrombosis and Anticoagulation Care.
“In receiving guidance on how to carefully examine a situation and use our best judgment, we acquired a practical method of examining a patient’s strengths and weaknesses within a framework of family-centred care. It was remarkably similar to what exists in modern nursing.”
Ms. Rusnak agrees, adding that this approach also found its way into the structure of the nursing teams, the development of care plans and many other aspects of nursing.
“We learned to think for ourselves, to respect ourselves, and to appreciate that, as nurses, we were part of a team and were on an equal footing with the other professionals,” she says.
“It’s incredible that our teachers had the foresight to prepare us back then for what was coming in the future.”
“We brought that skill set and competency not only to our professional practice, but into our personal lives,” says Ms. Strulovitch.
“It was a wonderful gift. If I had attended another nursing school, I don’t believe I would have the skills that I do today. I attribute that to the educators at the Jewish.”
At the same time, Ms. Becker notes, the younger students were given a chance to progress at a reasonable pace, and not be over-burdened too soon with major responsibilities.
“In that way,” she says, “when we were eventually left on our own, we felt more secure doing what was expected of us.”
More memories from graduates of the class of 1971
Dorothy Merchant Diamond
“I remember tiny newborn triplets whose bodies looked like baby birds … elderly men who had lost their entire families during the Holocaust … young people on ventilators because of a paralyzing disease … a woman who had been burned all over by an accidental fire from smoking in bed … a man who jumped out of a window on the Psychiatric floor, but survived by falling into a snowbank.
“We rebelled at having to wear our uniforms with hems below the knee, since this was the age of miniskirts, bell-bottoms and tight jumpsuits! We also had to pin a little pancake of a cap onto our heads when we worked on the wards, so I grew long hair that could hold onto this thing with bobby pins.
“The JGH gave me three years of learning to love humanity in all of its suffering and courage, and it set me up for a lifetime of understanding what it is to be human.”
Anne Schwartz Cymet
“When I entered the School of Nursing in the fall of 1968, I was an immature young lady who had grown up sheltered and very protected, lacking confidence in myself and my abilities.
“But the teaching staff was wonderful—not only good teachers, but wonderful mentors. They gave me room to grow up and they taught me what it takes to be a caring and competent nurse. Those skills have stood by me for the past 50 years, in and out of nursing.”
Leni Lerner Engels
“During our training we were always encouraged to engage in critical thinking by analyzing our patients’ needs and acting on their behalf. Perhaps some of us were too outspoken or too opinionated—but that was the JGH way!”
“Our training was a seminal experience—being faced with life and death, learning how to care for the ill, bringing comfort under strained and emotional circumstances, forming lifelong friendships, and so much more. The JGH School of Nursing made me the person I am today.”
“Exactly!” exclaims Ms. Strulovitch. “There were horror stories about students at other Montreal hospitals being given a leadership role too soon after starting their nursing program—and that was really tough on them.
“At our school, the goal was not to use us as free labour, but to educate us to be strong, motivated, caring nurses.”
A time for laughter and camaraderie
Ms. Strulovitch recalls that even married students were obligated to live in residence at the JGH while pursuing their studies.
Dorm life was of particular benefit to the younger and less worldly students, many of whom arrived at the JGH straight from high school.
But even those with more experience—having already earned a degree or switched into nursing after a year or two in university—grew to appreciate the reassurance of a communal living arrangement.
“My memory is that we all got along,” says Ms. Strulovitch. “We accepted everybody for who and what they were. From what I can remember, there were no serious problems during those three years, which is incredible when you think about it.”
The laughs certainly helped. Though not a true sorority, the JGH School of Nursing had its own month-long initiation when, says Ms. Becker, some newcomers had to wear a bib, while others were sent scavenging for various items, such as a urine sample from the Urology Department.
“My job,” she says, “was scrubbing the floor of the front lobby with a baby toothbrush.”
These ordeals were well known to members of JGH staff, who invariably reacted with tolerance and good-natured smiles—typical of the family feeling that has always pervaded the hospital.
Among the student nurses, this engendered a bond whose closeness emerged in many different ways—for instance, at Chanukah, when groups of them entertained patients and staff with holiday songs, while strolling through the wards and corridors.
Socializing was also on the agenda, but since the class of ’71 had arrived at the tail-end of an era when many young women were kept in a protective cocoon, the School of Nursing remained off limits to male visitors, except for a lounge on the main floor (now used as an office by the JGH Foundation).
“The nurses’ residence was very restricted in those years,” says Ms. Becker.” If you had a date, he couldn’t come up to your room; you had to meet him in the dating room downstairs. The house mother, whom we loved, was a finely starched, white-haired woman who wore spectacles and manned the front door and made sure everything was done properly.”
But in no way did this diminish the students’ enthusiasm or inventiveness, as they organized fashion shows and raised money for charitable causes by washing cars at a nearby gas station.
At their parties (including formal, prom-like events), the auditorium in Pavilion A might be elaborately decorated to resemble a country estate (with imitation grass on the floor) or a Japanese tea room (with some students dressed in geisha costumes).
“What I remember is the harmony; it felt like a family,” says Ms. Becker. “We witnessed everything together—from birth to death—when we worked with patients. We shared ideas and laughter and, at times, even sorrow. We were there for one another in good times and hard times.”
As a result, many graduates stayed on at the JGH for decades, with some retirees even continuing as volunteers in the hospital to this day.
Ms. Strulovitch has served in numerous areas throughout the JGH, including the Coronary Intensive Care Unit, labour and delivery, research, and as Head Nurse of Hemodialysis. To the best of her knowledge, she is the only graduate of the JGH School of Nursing still working at the hospital.
Ms. Rusnak, who retired eight years ago and lives in Montreal, started out at the Montreal Children’s Hospital and later worked in intensive care in a hospital in Toronto. Along the way, she practiced “everything from pediatrics to geriatrics, from bed care to being director of nursing.”
Ms. Becker currently lives in Vancouver and worked in adolescent psychiatry at the British Columbia Children’s Hospital, until she retired about 10 years ago.
All three say they regret the closing of the JGH School of Nursing, since its unique conditions cannot be replicated today.
What they gained in that environment was the focus and the unity of spirit that enabled them to make a seamless transition from “civilian” life to the world of disciplined but compassionate professionals.
“Without question, we gave generously of ourselves to one another and to the hospital as nursing trainees,” says Ms. Becker, “but there was so much more we received in return—enough to last a lifetime.”
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The photos below are taken from a promotional booklet that was published in the 1950s by the JGH School of Nursing to familiarize prospective students and their parents with the curriculum, facilities and lifestyle. (Click on any photo to enlarge it.)