Dr. O'Flaherty remembers Aunt Sissy, a woman of strength and optimism
“Get the be-jesus outta here!" shouted Aunt Sissy, as she chased an errant goat out of her front garden, as I parked the car close by her place.
© Photo courtesy of University of Prince Edward Island.
Dr. William O'Flaherty
That was my first introduction to the good lady, who lived a mere gunshot away from the medical clinic in Western Bay, on the north shore of Conception Bay.
She was “an old maid,” or so she was described on the shore and was referred to by everybody as “Aunt." It was a mark of respect.
Mind you, the word around the place was that, years ago, there had been a young man of special interest during her late teens who had gone off to the Boston States, never to be heard from again. She remained single all her life.
She spent her middle age living at home with elderly parents, doing some seamstress work, odd jobs, and attending to the multiple tasks needed in running a home — a home with very limited income — before Confederation with Canada. Her parents died in the middle 1950s and bequeathed her the homestead and enough financial resources for support until such time as she became eligible for old age benefits, around the time she became my patient.
She was fiercely independent, in spite of various medical problems — afflictions which, in most circumstances, would have curtailed the activities of many people who lived beyond the biblical three score and 10. She had had surgery for a fractured hip (and walked with a limp ever after), suffered from generalized osteoarthritis, high blood pressure and what she referred to as “a touch of diabetes."
In spite of all that she kept her property in tip-top shape, cutting the grass with a sickle around her flower bed and her potato patch, white washing her paling fence and cooking her meals in an ancient wood and coal stove, behind which slept, all day and into the night, her beloved calico cat.
Aunt Sissy didn’t have many visitors. In fact there were times, especially during the winter months, when the only people she saw for a whole week were the postman (and he only to deliver an old age pension cheque ), the grocer with some meagre supplies and yours truly, on my weekly visits.
One good foot
There was one other person, a male friend, who came to her home for short visits once every month. He is worth discussing, is Mr. K.
Mr. K. had his left foot blown off at age 17 when his 12 gauge shotgun misfired. They brought him from the cliff edge — where he was shooting seabirds — to the local doctor who sawed off the splintered bones and repaired what little was left of the foot. It was the best the doctor could do under the circumstances, a hundred miles away from the nearest hospital. What was left after the rudimentary surgery was the heel only; all the forefoot was amputated.
For the rest of his life Mr. K. coped with walking on his heel fitted inside a boot that was specially designed by a shoemaker in Carbonear, which suited the purpose admirably. The injury didn’t stop him, or slow him down. He went on to work in the mines in Buchans alongside the other miners and was able to hold his own with the best of them.
Once a month, on a certain day, he was in the habit of visiting Western Bay. On that day, he had three things to occupy his time: a visit the doctor for a check up, to visit Aunt Sissy for his monthly cup of tea and a chat, and, as well, to visit the “welfare office” directly across the road from the clinic.
You can be forgiven for thinking, if you saw him going there, that the gentleman was looking for some sort of financial assistance from the government department, as were the other people on their monthly visits there.
The opposite is true. He went over to the welfare office for a purpose: to preach to the able bodied men there, to tell them in no uncertain terms how he had worked all his life “with one good foot and half a bad one,” and “what I could have done if I had two good feet, like ye fellas."
Beaming with positivity
I visited Aunt Sissy often. She looked forward with pleasure to my visits, and as well, so did I. She was always so positive, so uncomplaining in spite of all her infirmities. She saw positive aspects to all her existence, lots of joy in her life, and silver around every cloud.
I would tell her: "You know, Aunt Sissy, life can be difficult for everybody, including me. The life of a country doctor is not an easy one, but you know, whenever I visit you I walk out of your home feeling so much better, realizing that, really, things are not so bad after all. Things could be a lot worse."
After I told her that, or words to that effect, a number of times, she would say with a smile: "You know, doctor, any time you’re feeling down, a bit depressed perhaps, come on over and we’ll have a little chat, a little chin-wag. Then you’ll feel better, just you wait and see."
One day, after Mr. K. had made one of his clinic visits to me — late that morning, I remember — he returned to the office in the afternoon with significant concerns about his friend, whom he had just seen.
“She’s sick, Doc, damn sick; it came on, it did, all of a sudden. Looks like death warmed over, she does.”
I visited and learned that she had had chest pain, down her arms, for most of the previous night. On examination she was pale, short of breath and her lung bases were filled with fluid.
Her calico cat, sensing that all was not right, as animals are wont to do, refused to leave the makeshift bed in the kitchen where she was lying.
It was obvious that she had had a heart attack, that she was in heart failure and needed care beyond what I could give her in Western Bay.
She refused to go to the hospital.
“There’s nobody to look after my place, after my cat, after …"
Desensitized to tragedy
I gave her what medication I could: morphine for pain and anxiety, diuretics to drain the fluid from her lungs. But she needed oxygen, nursing care and constant cardiac monitoring and I could not supply that.
“You may not last the night," I told her, as gently as was possible to convey those terrible words.
“The clergyman’s wife says she’ll come sit here for a little while with me, so she said …”
The kind lady, the wife of the clergyman, did not have to sit long. Aunt Sissy died just before midnight.
We medical people become inured to human tragedy, hardened to sorrow afflicting our fellow man. It is not often we shed tears but that night I shed some, alone in the car on the way home.
And so, out of this life, and out of MY life, passed one of my favourite patients.
Mr. K. disappeared out of my memory, and, as well, out of the clinic. A review of his records, many years later, when I returned for a locum tenens in the area, revealed that his last visit to me, and to the clinic, was the day that Aunt Sissy died.
The calico cat lived on for years, having been cheerfully adopted by the clergyman’s wife. That, itself, would have made Aunt Sissy happy.
— Dr. William O'Flaherty is author of a best-selling memoir entitled "Tomcats and House Calls: Memoir of a Country Doctor." He worked a 40-year career as a country doctor in Newfoundland and New Brunswick. He was the country doctor in Western Bay, on the north shore of Conception Bay, from 1967 to 1989, and was born in the tiny fishing village of Long Beach, at the lower end Northern Bay. He writes from Moncton, NB.