Bertha Lowen may be slight of stature, but what she lacks in size she makes up for with a personality as large as life, which, considering she’s celebrating her 103rd birthday, is no small accomplishment.
Born Aug. 30, 1915, about 50 km from Winnipeg, Lowen was the fifth of 11 children and the second eldest daughter, however, two siblings passed away during childhood.
“Back in those days, girls only finished grade seven in school, then stayed home to help mother,” recalled Lowen, while sitting surrounded by birthday cards at her kitchen table.
The cards, says Lowen, began coming in at the start of the month. “My (great-great) nephew says I should celebrate the whole month long at this point,” she says with a chuckle.
With her glasses perched on the bridge of her nose, Lowen looks across the dozens of birthday cards displayed in her kitchen and recalls the decades of her life she spent helping others.
“I’ve seen life,” said the centenarian. “I could tell you all sorts of stories!”
Raised on the Canadian prairies during the years after the First World War, which inspired a need for nurses across the nation, Lowen says it was her childhood spent caring for her siblings that prepared her for what was to come.
“I’d always liked nursing,” said Lowen. “As a little kid, my dolls were always sick and I took care of them.”
So, having had to drop out of school to help her mom raise the family at nine, Lowen returned to high school at 25 to earn her diploma.
Fully immersing herself in the classroom environment, Lowen says even though she was a grown up compared to her 15-year-old classmates, she got along well with everyone.
“Oh, we had fun together,” recalled Lowen of her bygone classmates. “I had such a ball (even though) I was the same age as the teacher.”
Although she’d taken a home nursing course in Toronto that taught resourcefulness, it was the high school diploma Lowen needed to gain acceptance to the St. Boniface School of Nursing. A year behind Lottie, her younger sister of five years, Lowen graduated from one of Canada’s first nursing schools in 1945, and then went abroad as a missionary nurse to Cuba for a year.
After returning from Cuba, Lowen then followed her parents to B.C. in 1948. “We lived in Abbotsford first, then moved to Chilliwack (in 1953).” And it was in Chilliwack that Lowen was able to find her true calling.
“I decided to quit nursing and go in for teacher training,” said Lowen. “I enjoyed it, but I wanted no more sickness!” But even when trying, Lowen couldn’t hide her passion for helping others.
While in school at the University of British Columbia, Lowen remembers the moment when she was called into the school nurses’s office.
Offered a tuition bursary, Lowen was propositioned with the choice of continuing on with becoming a teacher, or using her existing skills to make a detour into public health, which she was told would be much different from the sort of nursing she was used to.
She chose to stay a nurse.
“I so loved public health,” she said with a smile. “I’ve seen everything in public health: I’ve seen murders and I saw life as it was—real.”
From Agassiz to Prince Rupert, and from Silver Creek to Squamish, Lowen travelled the province as a public health nurse.
“I had so many different duties,” she recalled. But during the nearly two decades she spent as a public health nurse in the Fraser Valley and throughout B.C., Lowen says the most important part of her job was listening.
“I learned so much about how to communicate with people and really just listen. I learned that’s the way in life (to get what you want). You want to win friends? You have to be willing to listen (to what they have to say).
“I liken friendship to a butterfly,” said Lowen, holding out her aged hand with an open palm. If you hold your hand open and let it come, you can enjoy its beauty. But if you clasp too tightly to hold on to it, you’ve broken the butterfly. You cannot force a friendship, or any relationship.”
And it was that line of thinking that Lowen used during her career as a public health nurse: by the end of one of her regional positions, she had visited every home in the district and, over the course of her career, helped a variety of families overcome child-rearing obstacles even though she never became a mother herself.
“I changed my mind instead of my name,” she said when asked if she ever married. “But I delivered babies and was at 500-plus births.
“There was this one time, the doctor and dad were fighting (about something), and the doctor didn’t know she was having twins, so I delivered the second baby,” recalled Lowen, who is proud of her still-clear memory.
During her time as a public health nurse, not only was Lowen able to witness humanity at its best and worst, she was also able to be part of a relatively new health movement: although Canada saw its first group of public health nurses in 1916, it wasn’t until 1921 that the country saw its first health unit in Saanich, on Vancouver Island.
However, in the almost-100 years since its inception, public health has made some incredible strides in community-based health initiatives, such as a reduction in the spread of disease and germs due to the promotion of handwashing; increased public awareness surrounding safe sex and sexually transmitted infections; a decline in deaths related to coronary heart disease or strokes; the knowledge that tobacco is a health hazard; safer and healthier dietary advice; and universal policy implementation.
“I truly loved public health, it was always so exciting.”
Having retired decades ago to help care for her mother in her final years, Lowen looks back on her time as a public health nurse with true fondness.
“I can remember all these things from when I was working, good things,” said Lowen. “Some of my favourite memories are from (my years as a) health nurse (in Chilliwack).”