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Ruth KettnerBy MYRON LOVE
Ruth Kettner recalls the moment three years ago when her daughter (and oldest child), Faye Hellner, first told her that the family (Faye and her three younger brothers, Dr. Bill – who is a dentist , Bruce and Dr. Joel) had decided to commemorate their mother’s 90th birthday by establishing the Ruth Kettner Child Life Education Endowment Fund at the Children’s Hospital.


“I had told my children that I didn’t want a big party,” she remembers. “I was at a play with my daughter and one of my granddaughters when, at intermission, Faye told me about the endowment fund. It brought tears to my eyes.”
The response was overwhelming, she says. Donations poured in from people whose children the founder of the Children’s Hospital Child Life Department had looked after years before.
“I didn’t recognize a lot of their names,” she says. “I generally only knew children by their first names.
“I phoned and thanked every donor personally. I was deeply touched.”
The endowment fund, she notes, pays for Child Life program workers to attend professional development conferences anywhere in the world. “For conferences in Canada and the United States, the fund allows up to five Child Life workers to attend,” she points out. “For conferences elsewhere that are more expensive to attend, perhaps only one staff person would be able to go.”
Kettner founded not only the Children’s Hospital program, she was also in on the ground floor of the equivalent program at the St. Boniface Hospital. She was hired for the Child Life Department at Children’s Hospital in 1970 and became director in 1971. She retired in 1987.
During that time, she introduced many innovations to the program - including the creation of CHTV, a closed-circuit television channel that entertains children in the hospital with age-appropriate programming; the use of medical puppets to teach young patients about various medical procedures; and numerous psychosocial programs in the hospital over the years - programs such as outreach to help well children learn about the hospital and orientation programs for children waiting for surgery.
Growing up on Corydon Avenue in the 1920s and 30s, being a career woman was the farthest thing from the former Ruth Wiseman’s mind. In 1942, at the age of 19, she married Dr. Max Kettner, soon to be a math and physics professor at the University of Manitoba.  Ruth eventually settled into a life as a wife, mother and homemaker on Luxton in the North End.
In the mid-1960s, with her children  in their teens, Ruth Kettner decided on a “career change”. With her family’s support, she enrolled in the Childhood Education program at the Manitoba Institute of Technology (the precursor to Red River College).
After graduation, she responded to an ad for a “play lady” for a new program at the St. Boniface Hospital. “They wanted someone who would play with the children who were patients in the hospital,” she recalls.
But that is not how Kettner defined the work. Right from the beginning, she had other ideas. She saw herself as an advocate for the patients.
“The children’s ward was on the hospital’s eighth floor,” she remembers. “The doctors would work their way up the floors, leaving children who had had to fast while waiting for tests to wait a long time. I began putting in complaints right away and soon got results.”
After six months at St. B., she was recruited to work in the new Child Life Department at the Children’s Hospital and, within a year, the director of the program (who had hired her) left his position and she was promoted to head the department.
As she viewed it, one of the goals for her and her staff was to provide children in the hospital with a positive and growing experience during their hospital stay. “We made an effort to explain to the children, according to their age levels, everything they were going through,” she says.
“I also saw it as our role to observe the children and help the doctors understand what the children were going through emotionally.”
One big problem early on, she remembers, was how medical students dealt with dying young patients. “There was a case of one child who was dying,” she recalls. “I was sitting with him. The medical student  who was handling his case looked in briefly, waved and hurried away. The child was left with the impression that the young doctor was mad at him.”
Kettner quickly tracked the doctor down, spoke to him about the situation and the importance of his actually visiting the patients. The doctor was afraid that he wouldn’t know what to say.
Kettner began to advocate for two new courses to be added to the medical school curriculum – courses on death and dying and on communication skills. After two years of lobbying, she says, Dr. Victor Chernick, who was head of pediatrics, assigned her to teach the courses.
“Even though I had no medical training,” she says, “I was designated an associate professor in the faculty. I set up my classes so that I taught ten students at a time, sitting in a circle so that we would all be facing each other.”
 Kettner retired in 1987, largely because her husband had just retired. Shortly after retirement, they found themselves at the annual RV show at the Convention Centre and, on a whim, decided to buy an RV. They spent the next several years spending three months a year on the road – until Max Kettner’s health began to deteriorate. He passed away in 2008.
Ruth Kettner has received several awards over the years. She was honoured in 1977 when she received the Queen Elizabeth II Silver Jubilee Medal. In 1978, she was the YWCA Woman of the Year. In 2004 she was honoured with the Child Life Council Distinguished Service Award.
Today, at 93, she still lives on her own and keeps active with visits three times a week to the Reh Fit Centre. She also belongs to a writing group that meets weekly at her Osborne Village area apartment.
“It’s important to keep active physically and socially,” says the proud baba of 13 grandchildren and 17 great grandchildren.

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#1 Mrs.Cindy Newfield 2017-05-11 22:15
I was very honored to sit by you at lunch today at the art gallery. Your life's work is an inspiration to many people. I look forward to making a donation to the Child life Endowment fund in your name.
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