DOVER-FOXCROFT, Maine — Mother Theresa once said, “It is not how much you do, but how much love you put in the doing” that counts.
Peggy Seneca, 64, of Dover-Foxcroft embraced that saying during her 42-year career in nursing, from working as a nursing supervisor at Mayo Regional Hospital in Dover-Foxcroft to devoting time in remote clinics in Labrador.
Seneca, who retired last summer, was an ambassador of good will, a nurse who quickly established friendships wherever she served.
“People often asked me why I didn’t become a doctor,” Seneca said this week. Her reply to that question has always been the same, she said.
“I loved the way the nurse comes at the patient.” The skills she learned as a nurse worked better for her and her patients, especially for those in the isolated fishing communities where there were no diagnostic tools such as X-rays. Nurses had to really listen to the patient or lead the patient in their questioning in order to make a proper diagnosis, she said.
Seneca was encouraged to read as a young child and one of the books she read was written by Sir Wilfred Grenfell, a missionary who brought medicine to the coast of Labrador in the late 1800s. During winter, Grenfell wrote about the medical needs of these isolated residents. In the summer months, he would travel by schooner to the outposts in Newfoundland and Labrador where he conducted medical clinics.
“I read this guy’s stories and I always wanted to work for Grenfell,” Seneca said. So she provided her services at two of those Grenfell Regional Health Services stations during her career.
In 1984, Seneca took a two-month leave of absence from her supervisor’s position at Mayo Regional Hospital and went to the island of Black Tickle, then considered to be one of the most isolated and desolate outposts on the coast of Labrador.
She fell in love with the community, but especially the people. “I was totally hooked. It was my utopia. It was something I was meant to do. I loved it,” Seneca said. “I promised the people I would return after my stay, and I did.”
Not long after her first trip to Black Tickle, Seneca raised enough money to send the residents a piano, a gift that was well received.
A few years later, Seneca once again left her warm, comfortable surroundings in Piscataquis County and gave a five-year commitment to serve Port Hope Simpson, another remote area south of Black Tickle.
After completing her commitment, Seneca moved to Dover-Foxcroft but never lost contact with her friends in Labrador. She has entertained families from that area in her home and has returned for visits over the years. In fact, she and her husband will now summer in the Bay Roberts area of Newfoundland in their Bayliner boat.
What amazes Seneca is that after all these years, people will come up to her at stops in Labrador and ask if she is “Nurse Peggy.”
On one such visit in 1996, Seneca stopped to visit a nurse friend who told her some Port Hope Simpson residents were in the hospital. Seneca went to visit them. As she was entering an elevator, a man standing inside said, “Peggy?” After finding out the man was “Richie,” an orphan she and others had “adopted” while at the clinic many years earlier, there was an exchange of hugs and tears, she recalled. Seneca said Richie was scheduled for back surgery and was nervous about the operation, so she stayed through his admission and at his bedside that evening and returned in the morning to check on him.
Another encounter Seneca recalled came a few years later when she and her husband, Dan, were driving from Quebec to Labrador City on a stretch of remote road not unlike the Golden Road in Maine, she said. The only human habitat on the road was a dormitory, restaurant and gas station about mid-way, she said, so they stopped for lunch.
“We sat down and ordered, and after I ordered, a woman turned around and said, ‘Are you Nurse Peggy?’” Seneca recalled that she cried out, “Yes, and who are you?” The woman had been 8 years old when Seneca served her community in Port Hope Simpson. “I knew it was you when you walked in, but I just needed to hear you speak,” the woman told Seneca.
A nurse touches the lives of so many, and those whose lives have been touched don’t forget, according to Seneca. “You find them everywhere,” she said.
Seneca too, has found that her life has been touched by many people and she has an endless supply of good memories, especially from those remote communities she served.
“I’ll never forget hearing Richie playing on the piano,” Seneca said. She recalled returning to Black Tickle the year after the piano arrived, and hearing music come from the local church. Investigating, Seneca said she found Richie inside, playing Mozart by ear on the piano. Those are memories, provided through her nursing career, that she will never forget.
“My ace, the part that I love the most, is sharing the humanity with the people, either me as the nurse or me as an equal to that person, and that meant a lot to the patients as well, and that to me is where the real joy is.”