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On the Front Line: Remembering A Medical Student

November 12, 2017

 

Neil MacLean and I have several things in common. We both come from Pictou County. I grew up in Merigomish and he on Big Island. Although our homes are 15 kilometres apart, we are neighbours by rural standards. We were both born in January, and like him, I chose to pursue a career in medicine at Dalhousie University.

 

What separates us is time; I began medical school in 2010, almost 100 years after Neil. In 1915, during his second year of medical school, Neil served as a stretcher-bearer in the 25th (Nova Scotia Rifles) Battalion, volunteering in the effort in the First World War.

 

Fast-forward to current day. Fresh and eager medical students at Dalhousie decide which extracurricular activities to participate in. There is a special interest group for everything one can imagine: intramural sports, student politics, choir, band and the list goes on. While medical students today are faced with the decisions regarding which societies to join, Neil had to decide whether he would join the war. I imagine what the dialogue on campus during the First World War would have been like: “Are you going? Are you signing up?”

 

War time at Dal

 

When Britain declared war on Germany, Dalhousie began training its students for Canada’s military. A shooting gallery and a drill hall were established on campus. Dalhousie created an overseas stationary hospital, Stationary Hospital No. 7, which was originally located in England and served to care for injured Canadian soldiers returning from battle. As the war progressed and needs changed, the hospital moved to France. Staff was composed of Dalhousie medical professors, students and nurses, totalling 162 people. As Neil was not advanced enough in his studies to join the Medical Corps, he served as a stretcher-bearer. His primary duty was to transport casualties to the Advanced Dressing Station for treatment.

 

When I was in first year medical school, I was learning how to take a clinical history and perform a physical exam. I was feeling that green anxiety of a new medical student: “Am I doing it right?” Neil’s concerns would have been different: “When will this war be over? Will we win? Will I die?”

 

In my first month of medical school, I fretted at the possibility of fainting in anatomy lab while working with cadavers. Neil would have been exposed to death on a daily basis. Although death is something inherent in the field of medicine, I can’t imagine how such intensity would have affected a young medical student. So many soldiers did (and still do) return with “shell shock,” which is now known as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Other soldiers, like Neil, didn’t return at all. 

 

Neil was supposed to come home to Nova Scotia in December of 1916 to receive more training. But in September of that year, he was killed in action at Courcellette during the Battle of the Somme. This battle led to more than a million casualties, one of the most bloody military operations in history. Neil’s obituary was published in the Dalhousie Gazette, a newspaper that is still in print at the university today.

 

The MacLean's Losses

 

James and Hector, Neil’s brothers, fought in the 85th battalion in the North Nova Scotia Highlanders. Elizabeth, Neil’s sister, was a nurse in the war. His two brothers, like him, died in war, but his sister survived and moved to Western Canada to a homestead. Neil’s parents lost three of their children to the war.

 

My neighbour, John MacLean, is Neil’s grandnephew. He and his father shared with me old photographs and stories of Neil and his family. Neil’s eldest brother had bought Neil a horse and was raising it for him. It would be tamed and ready for Neil when he would start his family practice in Pictou County, which tragically never happened. As for Neil, his body was never recovered and his name remains on the Vimy Memorial.

 

Though working in the health-care field today has its challenges, they pale in comparison to those faced by Neil and many others like him. On Remembrance Day, let us take the time to reflect and to remember those who made the ultimate sacrifice.

 

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