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Belleoram to Bombay

First of a two-part series Matilda Emma Padhi was born on Nov. 3, 1933 in what was then the independent country of Newfoundland. She was still a baby when Newfoundland gave up its independence and reverted to colonial status under Great Britain. Such events likely mattered little in her native fishing village of Belleoram, where her father, John Whatley, owned a store and the livelihood of most residents centred around the deep, blue waters of Fortune Bay. Belleoram harbour was sheltered by a natural breakwater, and Emma would have carried two striking images of her birthplace with her throughout her life: St. Lawrence Anglican Church, perched on a hill behind the town, and the imposing rock face of Iron Skull Mountain across the water. Emma’s mother, Irene, would later give birth to two sons. “She used to talk about how they were poor, and they didn’t have a lot of money, and they would eat a lot of wild meat,” says Sarah Railton, Emma’s granddaughter, who lives in British Columbia. “She valued community, the relationships she kept. I really feel that all is rooted in the maritime energy she carried, and that kind of open-door policy that friends are always welcome.” From such modest beginnings, Emma would go on to spread her compassion, faith and an irrepressible sense of humour from Halifax to Saskatoon and then halfway around the world to India. When she died in Calgary on Jan. 3, she left behind an adoring legion of family and friends who will never forget her larger-than-life personality. Emma moved to Halifax as soon as she graduated high school, when Newfoundland was on the cusp of voting to join Canada. There, she worked in the Moirs chocolate factory before deciding she wanted to become a nurse. She entered the Halifax infirmary School of Nursing in 1950, and lived in a dorm where she nurtured many lifelong friendships. According to friends and former classmates, she had no fear of the doctors or the nuns and didn’t hesitate to speak her mind. The nuns apparently liked her spunk, as she was the only one who had a key to the linen cupboard — a rare privilege. In 1954, she headed west to Saskatoon, where she worked in a sanatorium, and became head nurse at St. Paul’s Hospital. It was here she met her husband-to-be, Dr. Radhakrishna (Rad) Padhi. They were married in 1956. Rad became a cardiac surgeon, but his native country soon beckoned. He left by ship in 1960 to get things settled. Emma followed in November of 1961, with two toddlers in tow and another on the way. Emma flew from Halifax to London, and then to Egypt. In Cairo, the authorities took her passport and sent her to a hotel. She worried all night that she might never get her passport back. The next day was the last leg of her journey. Boarding the inaugural United Arab Airlines flight from Cairo to Mumbai — then Bombay — she soon realized she was the only adult female on the plane. The flight was late arriving, and Rad waited anxiously, wondering if he should even have booked her on the flight. There were no screens displaying arrivals and departures in those days. Hours later, Emma of Belleoram finally arrived in in India, where Jawaharial Nehru— the first prime minister of the fledgling democracy — was still in power. “My Nana’s stories of India abounded,” says Sarah. “She loved the culture, loved the people, loved the food. She would wear the kaftans.” Their first destination in India was Wanlesswadi, southeast of Mumbai. They worked at a medical centre which also served as a TB sanatorium and a leprosy hospital, with a capacity of 500 beds. Rad soon realized there was an acute need for heart surgery in the region. On April 13, 1962, Emma assisted her husband by running the bypass machine for the first successful open-heart surgery in Wanlesswadi. As news grew of their successes, the hospital got busier and attracted heart surgeons from the U.S. who brought along much needed equipment. In less than a year after arriving in India, Emma was not only assisting in surgery, but also running the lab and the hospital kitchen. “One of my fondest memories was of my mom working in a clinic she had set up in a building behind our house,” says Pam Railton, Sarah’s mother and Emma’s eldest, who lives in Saskatchewan. “Every morning, she and a nurse she hired would make porridge and mix powdered milk for the underprivileged children in the area. They would come with their tin cup and bowl and line up. It always amazed me how long the line was.” Emma told Pam the morning meal guaranteed they had at least one meal that day. “Once a week she would give them vitamins and, whenever possible, vaccinations.” Pam says she asked her mother recently how she supported the project. “Turns out she bought silk scarves and linens in India and sent them to a friend in Kingston (Ontario) who would sell them and send her the money, and she would buy whatever she needed to run the clinic. Mom said the line seemed long to me because it was — there were often up to 200 children waiting.“ Emma and Rad continued to work beside each other in India for six years, but soon decided that Canada was in their future once again. Tuesday: Back to the Dominion Peter Jackson, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Telegram



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