A sample from the book, ‘Never Say Di’ by Sue Kelso Ryan
Chapter 8. Arrival and Drug Squad in Canada
I had decided quite early in my nursing career that I was going to travel the world because I didn’t have a good childhood and I wanted to see what else was out there. I didn’t know where my mum was: she was around but she didn’t keep in touch, so I had no-one to ask for permission and no-one to take care of. I thought, Well, I’ll travel, and Canada seemed good so I went through the process of applying for a nursing post. I had thought I’d go off on my own but all my friends said they’d like to come so in the end there were five of us. Initially we fancied going to Vancouver but because I hadn’t passed my ‘midder’ exam at that time, they wouldn’t have me. So everyone decided they would come to Edmonton, Alberta with me and by the time we went I had passed anyway. First we had to go to the Canadian Embassy in London to get all the necessary paperwork. I had to wait for the result of my ‘midder’ exam re-sit, which held us up a bit. Fortunately I passed it, but I thought I was going to miss the boat. It was a bit close.
So we went to Canada on 24th June 1964, on board the Franconia, setting off all dressed up in skirts, jackets and hats, looking as though we were going to the Queen’s garden party. It was an impressively large ship: black and white with a single red funnel that tooted loudly as we pulled away from the quayside at Southampton. It took us two weeks to get there and we had a hurricane on the way. There were lots of things to keep us entertained. We dressed up in fancy dress for parties and I recall singing songs, such as Thank Heaven for Little Girls and getting a prize. Despite our sophisticated adventure, of course it had to be me who slid down the bannisters! We adopted a lady who was travelling alone and nicknamed her Auntie Winnipeg because that was her home town. She shared our table for meals, though not many of the other girls came to meals because they were all seasick. I didn’t suffer that way so I was lucky. We travelled standard class – four of us in a cabin. Pennie was sick and Jan was really sick: she didn’t seem to leave the bunks.
When we got to Montreal the plan was to get the Trans Canadian train right across to Edmonton. We arrived on July 1st 1964 and it was a really hot day as we steamed up the St Lawrence Seaway. We docked at half past 12 and had a frustrating few hours until we were able to disembark. We spent the evening with a woman we’d never met before. She had bumped into Ann’s mother in England while they were both buying hats and Ann’s mother had said that we were going to Canada. She said, ‘Oh, I live there. I’ll meet them off the boat.’ So she did and we spent the evening with her and then she got us a taxi to get the train.
It took us about three days to get to our destination. We spent the first night in the city’s YWCA hostel and the next day was a Saturday, so we went to The Bay (The Hudson’s Bay Company – a kind of department store) and bought our nursing uniforms: white dresses, stockings and hats. It came to a total of £4-13s-4d, which was pretty reasonable. To put our Canadian purchases into context, Ann recalls that her first pay cheque for nursing in England in 1958 was £58 for the month, including board and lodging. In those days it was cheaper to buy shoes in England than in Canada but that’s changed now.
A lovely lady welcomed us to the University Hospital of Alberta, Edmonton and took us through our one-week induction period and she offered to help us look for a flat. We were then assigned to our different wards. Pennie was on an orthopaedic ward; Ann went to neurosurgery and Jan was working with veterans. Ann says,
‘I remember thinking that I prefer to have the patients conscious. It gets a little bit tedious if you can’t communicate with any of them. But it is quite nice when you see a change, when someone has been right out and you see a wink or an improvement and you think, ‘We’re getting there.’
The hospital seemed ultra-modern to me, with things like automatic doors, which was the first time we’d seen them. I was assigned to Ward 42, where the office and the corridor were all open plan – not at all like the Nightingale wards in the UK. There were some cubicles for severe cases. Ward 42 was a very busy surgical and burns unit. As a qualified, experienced nurse, I was given staff nurse grade. Shifts varied: either early 7am-3pm, 3pm-11pm or latest 11pm-7am. The whole place was much more casual than English hospitals. When I first had to do rounds with one of the doctors, I started by saying, ‘Good morning sir.’ as usual. Imagine my surprise when he slapped me on the back and he said, ‘Come on girl, we’ll get around!’ The work was very different from what I was used to as well. We didn’t have to wash the patients or do bedpans – they had auxiliaries who did that – so there wasn’t the same amount of hard, physical work.
It wasn’t long after I started working on the surgical and burns ward that I got a call from the principal of the hospital to come down and see him in his office. I immediately thought, Oh Christopher Columbus, what have I done? I’ve only been here a few days! I went down to his office, where I discovered the principal and another man. The first question he asked me, ‘Are you married?’ I thought, Ooh gosh, they’re very fast! Very forward here. No I’m free, I’m single and available!
During the induction week, we had been surprised to find that they had set up various social events. They took us down town and ice-skating and there were lots of tours and things I wasn’t expecting. The personnel forms we had to sign at hospital when we arrived had amused us. We had to describe ourselves under various categories, such as ‘obese, normal or emaciated’ and ‘alert, aggressive or withdrawn’. Very strange, we thought.
It turned out that they were assessing us all, looking for the “idiot” that was able to go on this surgical burns unit and help them with a particular problem they had there. So when I was called to the office, it soon became apparent that the “idiot” was me! The principal said, ‘We want you to work with Gary: he works in the drug squad. We want you to be our inside contact on the ward. We’ve got to find out what’s happening. There’s somebody on that ward, we don’t know who, who is taking out liquid morphine from the drugs cupboard by 50ccs and replacing the stolen drugs by filling the containers up with water.’
The hospital management had realised that someone must be stealing the narcotics when the patients didn’t respond to the painkillers they were being given by injection. On one occasion, security went past the open ward and saw something that made them suspicious, so that’s when the principal decided to call in the drug squad. They didn’t know who they could trust on the ward, so they needed to call on someone brand new, from another country, as their insider: someone who wouldn’t have established friendships with colleagues on the ward or anyone they wanted to protect. Our induction week allowed them to discover which of us was best suited to go on that ward and yours truly was picked – I like to think that’s because they’d spotted my latent acting talent. I didn’t have any choice in the matter. I thought I could play the part and I had to.
In order to find out who was taking the narcotics, I had to do several things: one was to get onto a permanent 3-11 shift. I had to make quite a fuss to arrange that! I said, ‘I’ve come all the way from England and the only shifts I can work are 3-11’. I needed to swap with a nurse who had requested the 3-11 shift because she had family commitments. I had to use my best acting skills and I said, ‘Sorry, I don’t care about that.’ I kicked up such a fuss in order to get the shift (and secretly help the drug squad) that I was not popular with the rest of the staff from the beginning. But of course, nobody could know why I was behaving the way I did – not even my friends. I had to keep it completely secret. I felt like a spy!
My drug squad contact, Gary, said, ‘We’ve got this camera across the road in a building opposite, focused on your drug cupboard. It means the drug cupboard needs to be visible at all times, so you’ve got to make sure you get rid of the curtains and the fly mesh on the windows.’ Always one to rise to a challenge, I secretly poured ink on the curtains and got those down and then I put my fist through the fly mesh and so we had that down. The ward staff said they would put the curtains back and the repair the fly mesh but I said, ‘Oh no, I want to be able to see out and plus the fact that if there’s a fire I need to escape!’ (I’m on the tenth floor! Where I thought I was going to escape to, I don’t know!)
I got away with it though, so the camera had a good view of the drug cupboard on the ward. I had to have regular contact with Gary: he’d phone and say, ‘I’ve got what I want, you can go to lunch or supper now or get out of the ward for a bit.’ Or else he might say, ‘When you get on duty, mark the bottles with a little pencil without them seeing you and then I want you to pick them up with forceps, put them in your pockets and go down to supper. Come back via the principal’s office and we’ll take fingerprints and then you go back to work.’ So I went down to supper with bulging pockets, full of these bottles of narcotics. I thought, If I fall over, how am I going to explain this? Or they’re going to see that I’ve got bulging pockets! But I got away with it.
Sometimes Gary said, ‘Don’t go to the cupboard for a while,’ which was easy for him to say but it meant that I couldn’t give anybody painkillers, even though I knew it was diluted. One of the nurses would say, ‘This patient is in awful pain. She needs some pain killers.’ And I’d say, ‘No, no – she just makes a lot of fuss! She’ll be all right, I’ll sort it out.’ And the nurse would be insisting, ‘But she needs an injection of pain killer!’ And I’d say, ‘Yes, I know but she’s like that, she makes a bit of a fuss.’ This went on for about six weeks. So they were in pain for about six weeks, I’m afraid. It was an agonising choice but I had to follow my orders. I’m afraid I was reported to Matron for bad nursing.
I wasn’t being rewarded for doing this in any way – it was just that I had been told to do it. But it went on for too long. I had to be available when Gary said, ‘Can you get out of the office?’ Each day, I had to write a report for him and to do it in secret I had to sit in the sluice with all the bedpans. And the nurses would say, ‘I don’t know whether you know this, Miss Wallbridge, but we do have an office for you to be able to write reports in. You don’t have to sit in the sluice.’ And I’d reply, ‘I like it in here.’ I had to be so secretive and I didn’t know what would happen if someone found out what I was doing.
Usually, I contacted Gary by telephone when I came off duty and handed over the notes detailing who gave what drug to which patient and all that sort of stuff. They wanted to know whether I suspected anyone. Of course I don’t find writing easy and writing the notes for Gary took me more time than completing my nursing reports about the patients. I met him every evening. He was nice, I admit! I never got round to finding out whether he was married. Sometimes he would dress up, for example in a janitor’s uniform to walk past the ward and observe. If I caught sight of him, I thought, Oh no, it’s not you is it? I could hardly keep a straight face! Then he’d dress up as a houseman or intern but he was always in some sort of disguise walking past. I had to pretend I had never seen him before. It had its funny side.
There were all sorts of stupid things like that and this went on and on. I never got off duty on time: I’d always be home so late because I had to get my reports to Gary afterwards. And if we were ever seen together he would give me a big hug, so nobody saw my face. Which I quite enjoyed actually, it was quite nice! Even the girls I lived with, I couldn’t tell them: I couldn’t tell anybody. They’d go off for camping weekends or go water-skiing or for barbecues and I’d say, ‘Oh no, I’m not interested.’ Ooh! It was so annoying and really hard to keep up the pretence. I’m sure the other girls thought I’d gone nutty.
Once the ward sister dropped a syringe and I thought, Oh good grief it’s her, is it? And it wasn’t a good thought that I was spying on the ward sister. So I had a bit of an anxious time one way and another and I was terribly tired and isolated but I got through it. Eventually the principal phoned to say, ‘We’re going to make an arrest tonight. We know who it is.’ The person they arrested was the ward clerk. She had the key to the valuables cupboard, and the usual arrangement was that when you went for lunch or supper you would hand over the keys to her and of course the drug cupboard key was on the keychain. So she was already prepared – unlock, pull out, push in and done – but it was all on camera now you see, so they had the evidence they needed. It turned out she was peddling the narcotics and using them too. She was arrested in the car park. When I got back into the ward, the staff all turned their backs on me. Because I had been spying on every one of them: I suspected every one of them. They didn’t understand that I had no choice. I had to do it. That was a bit tough.
Some time later, my friends commented:
‘We didn’t know a thing about it. It was quite brave really, knowing that you’re being checked out as well and that the person you’re checking up on might know what you’re doing. They could dot you one or something!’
After the excitement of the arrest, I stayed on the same ward. The other staff accepted me in the end: very much so – they used to come round to my house for meals and parties and finally I was accepted into the fold. It was a happy ending, once they realised that the ward clerk needed help and by doing what I had done I had ensured that she got that help. It was also obvious that I hadn’t had any choice.
And so a kind of normality settled on us and I was able to embrace life Canadian-style with enthusiasm.