Nurses’ contribution to the war brought the profession more respect than ever before. When the war ended in 1945, there were unprecedented opportunities for service as nurses helped to rehabilitate soldiers who were returning home. However, the nation-wide nursing shortage became even more urgent and this led to an examination of barriers to entering nursing practice by both the government and the AARN. In 1948 changes to the Registered Nurses Act officially reduced the education and registration requirements, but did maintain the title of “registered nurse”. The changes also gave more specific guidelines for training and registering male nurses.
In 1948, Canada passed the Federal National Health Grants Act. It was the first of three pieces of legislation that would establish the Canadian Medicare System and provide funding for health care and the building of new hospitals. The funding from the grant and the economic prosperity created by the recent discovery of oil supported Alberta’s rapid expansion of the hospital-focused health-care approach that shaped the system we know today.
As breakthroughs were made in surgical techniques and procedures, hospitals began to have operating room suites, recovery rooms and intensive care units. These changes contributed to the nursing shortage, as the specialized units required more nurses with specific skills. Hospitals also started to move from open wards to private rooms. Instead of being able to see and monitor all their patients at once, nurses had to check in on each patient in their room.
When the polio epidemic hit in the 1950s, fear spread across the province and country. Every day, nurses risked their own health and lives to provide the complex, expert care that polio patients required. The use of the Iron Lung required nurses to ensure the machine was working properly while also offering nursing care to patients confined in a rigid, sealed metal cylinder. During the epidemic, the AARN held two emergency council meetings to address these issues and push for measures to protect the nurses caring for polio patients. Even after the epidemic passed, many survivors required lifelong care, which continued to put a strain on the province’s limited nursing resources.
A few patients were able to breathe enough to sustain life for a few minutes. Most were completely paralyzed.”
Ida Johnson from Below the Flight Path by Christina Dorward + Olive Tookey
The discovery and increased availability of antibiotics to treat infection and vaccines to prevent the spread of infectious diseases reduced the need for related hospitalizations. Combined with developments in surgical techniques, these breakthroughs resulted in a shift in patient populations with a much larger proportion of surgical patients than ever before. This change impacted the role of nurses as they now assisted with patient care through complex procedures. With a growing awareness and understanding of the need for a germ-free environment before, during and after surgery, nurses became skilled in providing proper wound care and changing dressings.
In the spring and fall, a nursing director would visit each district nurse and then advise the Department of Health on the needs of the community and whether to open new stations or close existing ones. Recruitment began to get more difficult and as areas developed, they began to gain access to hospitals and other medical services. The prevalence of district nursing began to fade; however, the practice continued until the passing of the Nurses Act in 1951, and health units replaced the districts.
Throughout the 1950s, the AARN continued to grow and the association undertook a number of measures to address the ongoing nursing shortage. There was a focus on recruitment and with Francis Ferguson as the first director of recruitment, most classes filled to capacity. Married nurses were encouraged to return to work and refresher programs were offered for re-entry of nurses who hadn’t been working. The AARN also guided the process of establishing the first formal training program for nurse aids, a new permanent position that was adapted from the wartime ward aid.
During this era, the Alberta government began to question the need for nursing registration and the possibility of allowing graduate or non-registered nurses to fill in the gaps caused by the nursing shortage. The AARN disagreed and cautioned that the absence of registration could put patients at risk. These discussions led to another revision of the Registered Nurses Act that maintained the title of “registered nurse” and established the AARN’s mandate to register and discipline nurses in legislation. By preserving the registration of nurses in Alberta, AARN laid the foundation for achieving mandatory registration in legislation many years later.