“Call the Nurse: True Stories of a Country Nurse on a Scottish Isle,” by Mary J. MacLeod, is a delightful memoir chronicling her time as a district nurse in the Hebrides, an archipelago off of the northwest coast of Scotland.
After succumbing to the charms of island life during a holiday getaway, MacLeod moves there with her husband and two young boys (two older children were already grown) to escape the chaos of city living. It’s the 1970s, but modern luxuries like indoor plumbing and electricity were not yet common on the remote Scottish islands. Despite these inconveniences and many daily challenges, she remains enamored with the land and its people.Author photo: The author is wearing the MacLeod dress tartan.
MacLeod paints colorful depictions of the warm and stoic island inhabitants, many of whom she befriends along the way. Each chapter is a story unto itself, but follows a loose timeline and brings back some of the “regular” island characters we meet. We come to know Archie and Mary well, crofter neighbors who prove endearing, especially with Mary’s unintentional, but humorous frequent misuse of words. (“She’s hypodermic, isn’t she?” Mary says about a woman who’s shivering from the cold.) We’re introduced to patients of all kinds, from elderly men with leg ulcers to a women in premature labor during an intense storm, to a bull stuck beneath a boulder.
MacLeod wears many hats. She’s a first responder, a consultant, an interventionist, a case manager and a social worker, to name a few. Many of her healthcare adventures require the help of friendly islanders that jump into action with no more than a few words. When MacLeod decides that a helicopter lift to the hospital is the only option for a decompensating patient with pneumonia, several men and women give a hand, carrying the patient on a sled to the only spot nearby where the helicopter could land.
“By then the men had arrived with hot water bottles and ropes … We strapped two pillows at her back and a man got behind to hold her up. Blankets tucked around her, with the hot water bottles inside, kept her reasonably warm. Off we went! One man on each side to hold her, one to hold her feet, John carrying the oygen and myself generally hovering. Puffing and struggling, the men still had breath for some mild ribaldry and a lot of laughter.”
One character plays an integral role throughout each story: The island itself and the natural elements that the island is bound to. MacLeod strikes a brilliant, scenic portrait in her detailed descriptions of the land, sea and sky.
“The mountains were starkly and pristinely white, except where the peaks were too sheer for the snow to settle, and granite cliffs rising vertically from the sea looked naked with their steep sides shining wetly in the glaucous light.”
One of the book’s few shortcomings is its abrupt ending; an epilogue in which the author expresses a longing to see the islands again. Why did she leave? What was it like to say goodbye to a simple but awe-inspiring way of life?
Still, “Call the Nurse” is a narrative treat, a warm “cuppie” of tea by the fire and a tribute to an amusing, kind and generous community. Maybe it’s the simple Hebridean culture, maybe it’s the decade during which the stories take place, but “Call The Nurse” unearths nostalgia for nursing unmarred by double documentation and excessive regulation. She echoes the sentiment: being a nurse is not just something we do. It’s who we are.