Williams celebrates 90th birthday and looks back on career in Public Health

By Lois Ann Dort    

GUYSBOROUGH – Kaye Williams came to Guysborough as a newly minted Public Health Nurse in 1952. And she’s been here ever since. In that long stretch between now and then she saw changes in medicine reach our rural communities, including the first polio vaccine. She saw doctors come and go while one in particular stayed, and stayed and stayed. She started a family and raised four children; a working mom before that term gained recognition. And she watched families grow, providing a helpful hand and more along the way.

Williams retired from Public Health in 1986 but changed her mind and continued in that role until 1990. Over those years she worked hard to keep people in Guysborough County healthy with school visits, baby check-ups, and in the early days of her career, battling the scourge that was tuberculous which was common in certain areas of the county.

In 1952 Williams had 56 schools on her roster. There she would measure and weigh the children, check their teeth, hair and overall health. And that was just one part of her job description. Other than the constant travel on rough roads, Williams said in an interview on Monday that the job wasn’t bad but, “sometimes the children weren’t the best. One school that I particularly didn’t like going to, and seemed to leave until the last, there was somebody in there that made spitballs and threw them around.

“One thing I had to do, when I was finished in the schools, was go and inspect the outhouses. And that wasn’t always a pleasant job,” she said with a chuckle.

One of the hardest parts of her job was delivering bad news; often a TB patient would have to be sent away to a sanatorium. This was particularity grievous news to deliver if it was a small child or the mother of a family who was the patient in question.

Williams remembers delivering the news to one mother that “she must go forward to Kentville sanatorium.” The young son of the mother in question opened the door and said to Williams, ’Go now.’

“That was the only time I was ever invited to leave a house,” said Williams.

While TB was a problem in Guysborough County, polio wasn’t. Williams said she couldn’t remember one case in her years in Guysborough but prior to her arrival in Guysborough, she spent a summer working with polio patients in Halifax. She recalled that a quarter of the patients in iron lungs died every night.

Williams was in charge of the first polio vaccination program in the Guysborough area and said she went to every school to administer the first vaccine, which wasn’t very effective, only to do it again when a better vaccine was available. The syringes used at the time were made of steel and were boiled for reuse which added to the work load.

When Williams had almost a quarter century of service in Guysborough under her belt, two new, young doctors arrived in 1976; Dr. Fred Archibald and Dr. Anita Foley. Before this time doctors cycled in and out of town, spending a year or two in practice and then moving on. But as things worked out, Dr. Foley, whose recent passing shook the community, stayed and practiced in Guysborough until her retirement in 2018. “It was absolutely wonderful when they arrived because I could take a great big sigh of relief...They were both so active and interested. The need was so great that Dr. Foley...I think that’s what kept her here. She cared so much for the community.”

Speaking of the late Dr. Foley, Williams said, “She took a great interest in Guysborough and the people were quite amazed. There were times that I could see it happening, that she would be doing the work of social worker and medical doctor. When she saw that there was something missing in the family, she would try to correct it. She was the best thing that ever happened to Guysborough, without a doubt.”

Williams said that in the almost 30 years since she’s left the field of public health much has changed. Many nurses are much more specialized than she was; in her day the public health nurse took on anything and everything, there was no alternative. There were many times when there was no doctor in Guysborough and Williams would be called upon to deliver a baby, transport a sick child to Antigonish or in one instance baptize a man who had succumbed to a gunshot wound in a hunting camp.

These days Williams sees many of her former patients, their children and grandchildren while she attends to her many volunteer activities in Guysborough. But a birthday, which she is celebrating this week, wouldn’t be complete without seeing as many of your family, friends and neighbours as possible. Therefore, an Open House birthday party to celebrate her 90th will be held at the Chedabucto Lifestyle Complex on June 23 between 1 and 4 p.m.

As a former Public Health Nurse, the logical question to ask Williams was advice for good living and good health, to which she replied, “Eat well, sleep well and get your exercise.”