2020 is the International Year of the Nurse and Mid-Wife. In celebration and recognition, we will feature stories all year long of nurses and midwives from across the province and the great work they do for BC First Nations people and communities.
Molly Smith Glaser is quick to correct me when I refer to her as the first Indigenous nurse in BC – “I was the second,” she tells me with a laugh, revealing her humble nature.
The truth is, Molly is an inspiration to many people, and not just those who first suggested she be interviewed as we honour nurses and midwives during the International Year of the Nurse and Midwife. From Musgamagw Dzawada’enuxw Nation, and the Gwayasdums Community on Gilford Island, Molly’s desire to be a nurse became reality because of her incredible determination and resilience – she had to overcome and conquer many obstacles in her way.
Born to Alice and Chief Peter Smith, hereditary chief of their nation, Molly was five years old when she knew that she wanted to be a nurse.
“It was because of my brother, and the experience I had,” Molly shares, “My older brother was eight and I was five. He had tuberculosis and meningitis and he was sent to Nanaimo for treatment. I became ill with pneumonia in both lungs and I couldn’t be moved for treatment – I would have died if I was moved. I was in a coma, in and out of consciousness. My brother died while he was in Nanaimo as I was struggling for my own life at home at Gwayasdums. I remember my mom telling me, ‘You can’t go, we’ve just lost your brother’.
"While I was unconscious, I saw my brother, he came to me, saying he was waiting for me. Mom and Dad said I couldn’t go. My brother told me to tell our Dad that he wanted his colouring books and oranges. When my parents held the funeral for my brother, they didn’t take me because I was too ill. When they came back, I told them that I had been to the funeral. They told me, ‘No, you were here, in a coma,’ but I told them that I had been at the funeral, and talked to them about what had happened there – how my father had done burnings, and I named the people who had spoken about my brother. I told my parents that my spirit was up in the woods and had watched the funeral. My life was spared, but my brother lost his. I was five but I knew then that I wanted to be a nurse, to help people.”
It wasn’t an easy path. Molly was 13 when she was taken from her family as part of the Sixties Scoop. She was made to live with a non-Indigenous family in Delta, and was enrolled into high school for grade nine. Molly’s education wasn’t yet at that grade level, and the expectation was that she wouldn’t pass and would fail out of high school. But Molly quickly made friends at this new school, and they tutored her at lunch. “I was very shy, but I had friends and a good counsellor with Indian Affairs who encouraged me, and I thought, ‘I can do it.’”
And she did. Molly graduated from high school at age 17, and immediately applied for nursing training, but was told she was too young, and to come back in a year. “I decided to do grade 13 at Richmond high school – they had that then – and it is the equivalent of the first year of university. When I finished that, I went to work at Coqualeetza in Sardis, a Native hospital, and I worked as a nursing aide helping people with special needs. Then I started my nursing training in 1966 at Royal Columbian Hospital.”
“I was so shy that the director of the Royal Columbian Hospital school of nursing was reluctant to place me on a hospital ward, so she thought she would send me to Riverview Mental Hospital to work with the psychiatric patients to help me get rid of my shyness. This is something that third year students had to do as part of their training, but she sent me in first year.”
At the end of her first year, Molly was about to have her first child, a son, and she had to leave training, but always knew she would go back to it. After some time as a new mother, Molly’s son went to live with her parents in Gwayasdums while she finished her nursing training. He came back to live with her and her husband as he was about to start kindergarten.
Her son became the oldest of five children, and Molly continued working as a nurse while she and her husband juggled work and family life with five small children. “I worked the 3 pm to 11 pm shift at the hospital so I could be with my kids in the morning and get them ready for school. We also had one or two other children live with us while attending school.”
Molly worked in the emergency department and then ambulatory care at Royal Columbian Hospital, until she had to stop working as a nurse because of problems with her hips – “I couldn’t move or help lift people anymore.”
During her time at Royal Columbian, Molly encountered racism as both doctors and nurses she worked with made assumptions and derogatory comments about Indigenous female patients. Molly would call out her colleagues, pointing to herself as an Indigenous woman. “Is that what you think I am?” she would ask when she heard their hurtful words. Molly helped many in the medical profession to reframe their thinking about Indigenous people.
“Co-workers would tell me that I brought a calming effect to the ER when things were especially chaotic, saying ‘Thank God, Molly’s here’ – I had a really good memory, and I always knew who was who, the names of every patient in each bay and kept it all moving. I also kept excellent records and notes, and wrote everything down.”
When I ask Molly if she would have done anything differently, I hear her chuckle as she is reminded of the time Jean Chretien asked her that very same question. Molly met him when he was the head of Aboriginal Affairs and he presented her with a $1,000 scholarship. “I was on the news that day,” she says before adding, “And no, I wouldn’t have done anything differently. There were nurses who I worked with who were LPNs (Licensed Practical Nurses), and I encouraged some of them to become RNs (Registered Nurses), and many of them did. What would I say to anyone who is thinking about becoming a nurse or anything else? If you have a dream, pursue it!”