(Doctor Helen Huston and journalist Byron Christopher)
September 25, 2018
It’s been a strange relationship to say the least.
The good doctor and I have known each other for nearly four decades. We don’t always agree on everything dear to her — religion, for example — and I reckon she doesn’t care much for my line of work, journalism.
Yet, we keep in touch.
We phone and get together now and then, the meetings always spiked with laughs and love.
Here’s our story …
March, 1981 was a busy month. France and the USSR conducted nuclear tests … U.S. President Ronald Reagan was shot and wounded in an assassination attempt … Kim Carnes released her hit single ‘Bette Davis Eyes’ … and the Buffalo Sabres set an NHL record by scoring 9 goals in one period [versus Toronto].
March 1981 was also the time I travelled to the other side of the world … on assignment.
I was 31, she was 53.
Doctor Helen Huston [pronounced Houston, like the city in Texas] and I met at a missionary hospital complex, above the clouds on the side of a mountain in the small Central Asian country of Nepal.
Huston was born and raised in Alberta. The daughter of a preacher was a well-known — dare I say famous — medical missionary working in the Gorkha region of Western Nepal. Her new home was tucked in the foothills of the world’s tallest mountains, the Himalayas.
Click on ALL images in this post to enlarge them. Like this one …
THE MAGAZINE STORY ON HUSTON
I signed a contract with Today [the old Star Weekly] to do a feature story on Huston. Two other magazines were interested — Reader’s Digest and Western Living — but I chose Today because it had the best circulation — millions.
It was my first magazine article.
I wrote Doctor Huston that I was travelling to Nepal to do a story on her. But she didn’t respond. Red flag. Communication by silence signalled the missionary wasn’t keen, perhaps not even remotely interested …
Turns out, it was both.
What the heck. I rolled the dice and took off for Nepal anyway. I flew out of Edmonton, landed in Toronto, then on to Germany and India … finally touching down in fabled Kathmandu, the capital of Nepal.
After passing through Customs there, I was reunited with the German engineer I’d shared seats with on the flight from New Delhi. “Ha!” he said with a smile, pulling some contraband from his trousers, “Check this out, Canadian … I smuggled this in.” It was a porn video tape.
And here I was, carrying cassette tapes for interviews with a woman described as “Canada’s Mother Teresa.” Life sure has its ironies.
AMP PIPAL, NEPAL
After a long hike under a blistering hot sun — when I lost 10 pounds I couldn’t spare — Helen Huston and I met at her modest lodgings near the hospital, the one above the clouds. The doctor shared the top floor of a two-story brick and mud house with a nurse from New Zealand.
The eyes shout what the lips fear to say, I’m told, and I could tell immediately that Huston was nervous about me being there. Even so, she was professional, gracious and thoughtful. There was a quiet class about this pretty woman.
As I suspected, the good doctor talked a lot about Jesus and why she became a missionary. She wanted to serve the Lord, she said, and make the world a better place. Ain’t nothing wrong with that.
Huston eventually ‘warmed up.’ We shared meals, a few laughs and went on tours of her hospital.
Late one evening, over tea and biscuits on her balcony that overlooked a star-lit majestic Himalayan mountain range, the Albertan talked about the difficulties of operating a hospital in the sticks of Nepal. There were oh so many roadblocks.
One was that there were no roads to her facility. The only way in and out were small, well-worn paths from centuries of trekking by Nepalis, some living in thatched-roof huts in villages more than 100 kilometres away.
In rural Nepal, distance is not measured by miles nor kilometres, but by time. You’ll hear locals say, “They’re from two or three days’ walk away.” In this part of the world, clocks and watches become odometers.
The hospital complex — primitive as it was — had saved many lives. God only knows the number.
And so the keen interest by Today Magazine in the story of a Canadian doctor who helped make it all possible. I say ‘helped’ in deference to Doctor Huston who claims Jesus has been with her every step of the way — and that He, not her, deserves the credit.
‘Doctor Helen’ was also known in foreign aid circles as a ‘female Albert Schweitzer.’ Her eyes rolled when I brought that up.
During Christmas 1981, the piece came out in Today, and it was a fairly big deal. Canadians from coast to coast read it. The article gave Huston — and international development [foreign aid] — respect and recognition.
Mind you, we’re talking early 80s here … well before the Internet, email, Twitter and all that stuff. I mailed Huston several ‘hard copies’ of the magazine. However, she took months to read the story … because she feared Jesus and God had not been given proper credit.
Turns out, Jesus and company weren’t given much credit.
In addition to Today, I produced some short radio documentaries for CBC [Edmonton] and CKUA [Alberta], a lengthy piece for the Canadian Press, plus some write-ups for rural newspapers.
Here’s the four-page Today story Doctor Huston didn’t care for. Again, click on the pages to enlarge them.
Want to get the feeling you’re ‘there’ as you read it? Click here to listen to music straight out of Nepal: [Wait for the tune to download … it runs about 6 minutes.]
In early 1982, in Camrose, a small city southeast of Edmonton, I discovered firsthand that the Today article had annoyed Huston.
It happened at a special ceremony to honour her. The community had set aside a special day for the now ‘famous’ missionary. The local United Church — Huston’s house of worship at the time — was packed with people who gave the doctor a standing ovation when she was introduced.
I was there. I’d been invited by the Mayor’s office.
As luck would have it, I ran into Helen at the front door of the large church. We walked inside together. I could see she was agitated. There was no spark in her eyes and she walked as though she was late for something.
Helen shared that my story was embarrassing because it was about her, not God.
“You’re a great servant of the Lord,” I shot back, “but when it comes to communicating with the media, you’re a failure.” I was pissed.
At that point, I think we had enough of each other.
A RETURN TO CANADA
The years would come and go and I remained a reporter. Helen Huston retired from missionary work, packed her gear and said good-bye to Nepal.
The doctor returned to Canada, renting a small apartment in South Edmonton, not far from the University of Alberta where she had graduated from medical school in 1951.
I’m not sure how who called who, but somehow we connected.
It was odd seeing Doctor Huston living in a flat in a big, modern city. Her walls were decorated with posters of Nepal and photos of herself and her missionary buds.
I’d gone around to take Helen out for tea, but arrived early. The good doctor was busy in the washroom and so to kill time, I checked out all the stuff on her walls.
“Where’s this Order of Canada you got recently?” I shouted. “Now where IS that?,” Helen muttered, making her way to a set of drawers. She began to pull out everything but the kitchen sink before she finally turned and announced, “Here it IS!!”
My God. The Order of Canada and Helen had the prestigious award buried with her blouses, socks and panties. Now, that’s modesty. Most people would have had it on display.
Over the years, we continued to go for ‘spins’ in my car. The woman hadn’t changed one bit, was still going on about Jesus and the good work of missionaries — except the old gal had slowed down. And she wasn’t always sure of her balance [I had to hold her arm].
Helen often ended our meetings with, “Byron, I so wish you’d accept the Lord Jesus Christ into your heart …”
I shot back with, “Let’s hit a bar and have a few drinks.” I was kidding of course. I don’t go to bars.
One time we were at a Tim Hortons [doughnut shop] and when it came our turn to place an order, I shared with the cashier that Helen was my girlfriend. “I like older women,” I explained. Well, well. Helen wasted no time in announcing to everyone in the restaurant that she was NOT my girlfriend.
We enjoyed our meal but not before Helen bowed her head and said grace. You don’t often see that in coffee shops.
We’ve visited quite a bit over the past 20-years or so. Last year, I had Helen out for a meal at a nice restaurant to help celebrate something, can’t remember now the occasion. She noted how clean and quiet the place was.
When our meal was done and we stood outside, I remarked, “Do you realize, Helen, that we were in an Irish PUB?” I know what you’re thinking. Irish pubs aren’t usually quiet.
FALL OF 2018
I last saw Helen on Saturday evening, September 22, 2018. She was sitting on her bed at her new home, the Good Samaritan Care Centre in South Edmonton, a medium-sized complex on a dead-end street in a residential area, just off the Whitemud Freeway.
“Hi Helen,” I said, as she looked up, “It’s been a while …”
Helen shared quarters with a 96-year-old woman. “Her hearing is perfect,” she shared. “Isn’t that remarkable?” I peered beyond the curtain to see her roommate sound asleep.
Helen’s smile lit up the room. But I don’t think it was me. Oh no. I was carrying two large containers of assorted nuts, one of her favourite treats. “Two? … two?” she shouted. “It should hold you off for a day or so,” I said.
I questioned Helen about her health, but she was quick to change the subject — to the health of someone else: Don Hume of Campbellton, New Brunswick.
For the past 10 years or so, the former radio announcer and Helen have been good friends, although they’ve never met. They chat on the phone from time to time. Don also sends Helen cards for her birthday and at Christmas.
The two have a few things in common; one is that they belong to the Baptist Church.
The pair connected after Helen asked where I was from … and was there anyone influential, really special, in my life? I told her that I was from Campbellton — and I was good friends with one of the town’s greatest citizens, Don Hume. I explained that Don was giving, fair … and had founded a youth group called the Speed Demon Soccer Club. I’d played for them.
And in a moment of weakness, I added that Don Hume ‘walked with Christ.’ In modern parlance, Don was far more than a good man … he was a living tribute to all things good in life.
Helen never forgot that.
Twenty minutes into our latest get-together, she again asked about Don. I revealed that Don had some health issues — as we old-timers all do — but that he’s still battling and in good spirits.
Helen suddenly bowed her head and began to pray for my old friend. I did too. When Helen stopped praying, she looked my way and caught me crying.
“One word about this,” I warned her, “… and I’ll have to kill you.”
Being the expert duck-and-dive expert I am, I changed the subject to Edmonton’s unexpected snowfall, meals at her care centre … and our mutual love for fried chicken. I promised to be around within the week with some delicious Mary Browns fried chicken.
I left soon after … but not before snapping this photo of a beaming Helen …
I couldn’t leave without a friendly poke.
Helen had pointed out that she now uses a walker because she loses her balance and falls down. “Here’s your chance,” I offered, “to get drunk. I mean, who would know why you hit the deck?”
Helen turned 91 on September 20, 2018.
The Helen Huston story has been told before, in much more detail — on this blog. You can get to it by clicking here: https://byronchristopher.org/2014/08/22/doctor-helen/
The Author in 1981 …