Call the Nurse: True Stories of a Country Nurse on a Scottish Isle

Nursing Book Club

Call the Nurse: True Stories of a Country Nurse on a Scottish Isle

Local hero

By Mary J. MacLeod (Arcade Publishing, 2012)
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Reviewed By Christine Contillo, RN, BSN

Call the Nurse is a wonderful book of a type with which we are already familiar. In the footsteps of James Herriot’s All Creatures Bright and Beautiful, which presented delightful tales by a veterinarian in the English countryside, these are local stories by a Scottish district nurse. While you’re reading them, you can almost picture the potential PBS series.

She’ll Know What to Do
In 1969, author Mary MacLeod and her family threw over their busy life in London for an adventure on an unnamed, wild Hebrides island off the coast of Scotland. Even after her children left for boarding school, she and another nurse continued to meet most of the basic medical needs of the people in the area.

MacLeod’s professional position was probably comparable to what we know as a public health nurse. I’m all too familiar with that job, having spent 10 years in that capacity for a local health department. I spent my days dealing with baby clinics, shots, visiting the elderly, changing dressings for those unable to get out and course lots of planning of how to get there.

When the services of the doctor were unavailable, people would call me, which meant that I had neighbors showing up at all hours asking if a laceration needed stitches or could be “fixed with Super Glue” or whether a blistered rash looked like contagious chicken pox (which of course was when none of my own children had yet caught the disease).

Once, I heard, “Oh, here comes Mrs. C — she’ll know what to do,” as I entered a deli and saw a bloody hand being held above someone’s head. Before I even looked, my first thought was, “Call 911 right now.”

MacLeod’s duties seem to have been similar, albeit hundreds of times more difficult thanks to bad weather, ferries that sometimes couldn’t run, cranky people with no resources at all and a general shortage of modern amenities. (Fortunately, MacLeod’s husband possessed a lot of practical skills, which I would think would be necessary before even considering a life like that!)

While she describes many mundane tasks, MacLeod is able to make each one sound fascinating and leaves us wanting to know more about the crofters on the island. The book is as much about family life in a small farming community as it is about nursing.

A Cozy Community
MacLeod describes things like driving long distances on slippery roads in all kinds of weather to give an insulin shot to an old woman who could no longer manage it herself; calling for helicopters to swoop in for patients who needed more care than she could provide; or helping to arrange respite care for families exhausted not only by their daily farming, but also from caring for their own sickly or aged members. On one occasion, she even found herself drafted into construction service, assisting a crew in removing a window to enable a large multiple sclerosis patient to leave a house that lacked a big enough exit.             

Along the way, she became privy to tales of local domestic drama and even managed to tease out the identity of the father of a baby put up for adoption years earlier.

In short, MacLeod was a nurse at her best in often difficult conditions. It’s a challenge I’m not sure that I’d be ready to handle — especially in the 1970s, before cellphones and most of the modern equipment we have now. While some aspects of her time on the island sound lonely, she and her family were included in the life of the community: dances, recitals, weddings and other happy events, all the things that make life fun.  

Maybe it’s because I have Scottish heritage, because my family name is MacLeod or just because I was hiking in the Scottish islands last year, but I was enchanted by this collection of stories. I hope you like it as well.   

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