Sign up for our free weekday bulletin.

Sarnia tornado one of many challenges for class of ‘54

Published on

In June of 1954, twenty-one young women crossed the SCITS Auditorium stage to receive pins and diplomas from the Sarnia General Hospital School of Nursing.

Five members of that graduating class are deceased and three live in nursing homes. But a remarkable nine of the 13 others are coming from far and wide for a 60-year reunion in Sarnia later this month.

The class of ‘54’s uncommonly strong bond was forged by a school that demanded a lot from its young trainees, said Sarnia’s Janet Thompson, the alumni’s unofficial historian.

“We were right out of high school, but we were already bringing babies into the world and closing the eyes on the dead,” she said. “We were like family.”

Sarnia has been producing top-notch nurses for 116 years. In fact, it’s one of the city’s greatest, if unremarked, exports.

Lambton College’s nursing program is continuing a tradition today that began in 1896 at Sarnia General Hospital, which opened with 26 beds, one head nurse and two nurses in training.

The hospital nursing school, which evolved into a three-year residence program with training placements in London and Detroit, produced a total of 927 young graduates who took their skills around the globe.

Sarnia’s killer tornado was one challenge faced by the class of ’54.

Thompson, 82, was looking out an emergency department window on May 21, 1953 when the sky darkened ominously.

“All of a sudden I saw a funnel cloud and it hit the light (poles) outside and the lights went out,” she recalled.

“When I went downstairs, patients were already coming in and doctors were coming in. We had to do a lot of suturing that day,” she said.

Following a 17 hour shift, Thompson picked her way back to the London Road residence by climbing over fallen trees, aware things could have been worse.

“In the nursery, every window was blown in and the broken glass was all over the basinets,” she recalled.

The head of the nursing school was a tough-but-fair instructor named Rahno M. Beamish, who later wrote an influential book about Canadian nursing that’s still available online. Though strict, she knew how to handle a trainee when they lost a patient or lazily dumped a bedpan out the window, Thompson said.

The classmates are coming from as far as California and Colorado for the June 25 reunion. They will reminisce about the grueling 12-hour hospital shifts and the three years of training that seemed like a lifetime, Thompson said.

“We’re really looking forward to getting together.”

 – George Mathewson













More like this