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Abbotsford’s Maggie Reith experienced rewarding career as a flight nurse

Local veterans join nation in celebrating Royal Canadian Air Force 100th anniversary
Maggie Reith (right) while she was a nurse with the RCAF. (Submitted photo)

This is the second in a four-part series celebrating 100 years of the Royal Canadian Air Force.

When Canadians think of veterans, they might imagine those in a military uniform, but there are also people like Maggie Reith who chose an unconventional career to serve as a flight nurse with the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF).

“Flight nursing is a very different occupation,” Reith says of her career in the RCAF from 1971 to 1977.

Reith was raised in Scarborough, Ont. and had an interest in medicine and psychiatry. Her father served in the RCAF during the Second World War and was part of the D-Day landing contingent. Her grandfather also served with the RCAF.

Reith didn’t consider becoming a flight nurse until she met her neighbour’s girlfriend, Sharon. As a young woman who was not completely set on a career, she was inspired by Sharon’s delightful personality and occupation as an air evacuation flight nurse.

When the time came to make some life choices, Reith chose to follow the same path as Sharon.

“I didn’t know where else to apply, so I thought maybe I would apply to the same hospital Sharon did. And that’s what I did,” Reith said.

That hospital was the three-year registered nurse program at Kingston Psychiatric Hospital. Upon successful completion of the program, Reith worked in acute psychiatry care for a year, which she describes as “soul-gutting work.” A then 21-year-old Reith applied to the Air Force and was accepted.

Reith’s first posting was to CFB Borden, Ont., as a base staff nurse at the hospital. She also received her basic military training there. After a year and a half in Borden, she was eager to move out to the West Coast. Moose Jaw, Sask. was as far west as she got at the time. It turned out to be a blessing in disguise because during her year in Moose Jaw, she met her future husband, Jim Reith.

A multi-year post turned into a shortened duration when the Air Force was short a flight nurse in Comox, B.C. and Reith gladly leaped at the opportunity. Reith worked in the hospital in Comox to keep people healthy, with jobs such as completing routine medicals and immunizations. She also took on the role as the female personal adviser for the base, which included handling issues among young females trying to integrate into male-dominant trades. Some of the superior officers were reluctant to accept women. But the highlight for Reith was working with the 442 Transport and Rescue Squadron in the air.

Over the course of three years, Reith – alongside a small group of doctors and other nurses – did all the air evacuations in B.C.

“It is a different medical world,” Reith said. “You have got to know a lot of things about barometric pressure changes and the effect on the body.”

Although it was a dangerous job, Reith had full trust in the pilots, describing them as “remarkable.” She also knew how skilled they were to fly in less-than-ideal conditions, which they did often.

Through blizzards and the rain, the Air Force landed on slippery runways, beaches, school yards, and any open area to help patients across the province. Typically, one nurse and one medical assistant would do the evacuation flight from a local hospital, and doctors were only present if the situation was critical. From there, they would keep the patient stable as they were flown to a larger medical facility, such as hospitals in Vancouver or Victoria.

“Every single flight if you made it there without making the patient’s condition worse, that was pretty fulfilling,” Reith said.

They flew at low altitudes in order to not cause pressure changes in the cabin that would impact the patient. Back then, the pressurization in the cabin was not to the same degree as a commercial aircraft. Flight nurses also had to do everything with palpation as the aircraft was too loud to use any auditory equipment.

Reith knew she was in for a challenging career when her first air evacuation had five patients. From that point on, she did everything from plane crashes to car accidents, and even from a ship still sailing in the ocean.

“You never knew what you were going to get,” Reith said.

She knew that, as thrilling as it was, she wasn’t going to spend her whole career as a flight nurse. She married Jim while she was a flight nurse and they moved back to Moose Jaw to continue his career after she departed the Air Force. Reith continued to work as an on-call nurse and did home care work as the family continued to move posts through the years.

Reith is retired and has settled in Abbotsford. She attended a 100th anniversary dinner for the RCAF in April. Although she always recognizes the lives that have been lost through war, she was reminded at the anniversary how fortunate she was to serve during peacetime. Other veterans were not so lucky.

Reith also keeps in contact with her nursing school graduation class. The group started once-a-month Sunday Zoom calls during COVID-19 and have continued to do so.

Although Reith does not have contact with Sharon anymore, she is grateful for the direction she provided in her life. Regarding her six years as a veteran, Reith holds fond memories.

“Was it a rewarding time? Yes, absolutely.”

READ MORE: Abbotsford’s Jim Reith enjoyed aviation career that included being a fighter pilot and Snowbird

About the Author: Ryleigh Mulvihill

I have been a multimedia journalist with The Abbotsford News since February of 2024.
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