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Martha Codner, the soul of Yellowknife’s ER, passes away

Martha Codner, right, with husband Patrick and daughter Kendra
Martha Codner, right, with husband Patrick and daughter Kendra. Photo supplied by Jessie Teed

Martha Codner, who gave her life to nursing in Yellowknife and became the face of the city’s emergency room for generations, has passed away at the age of 67.

Anyone visiting the ER in the past 40 years almost certainly passed through Martha’s care. Even if you forgot, Martha’s memory never faded – a talent for which she became a hospital icon.

“In the 18 years I worked with her, she was never wrong about who someone was, a phone number, or who someone was related to,” said former colleague Bovina Beaudoin.

Martha’s extraordinary ability reached such mythical status that it gained a name. Any colleague at Stanton Territorial Hospital could describe the Cod Scan.

“A patient could walk in and Martha, in a glance, could suggest or know what was wrong and why they were there,” said Jill Kendall, who worked with Martha for a decade.

“She knew it because she knew everyone, their health histories, their family health history, and their chart numbers like the back of her hand, because she took care of so many people in her career.”

Susan MacInnis, who learned the ropes of nursing under Martha’s guidance in the 1990s, recalled a patient coming in with a stomach complaint. They received an immediate Cod Scan.

“You should check the gall bladder, because back in ’81, her mother presented the same way and that’s what it was,” Martha told her colleagues after a quick glance.

“Sure enough, she was bang-on right,” MacInnis said.

“How do you even remember that?”

Giving people hope

Born in Middle Musquodoboit, Nova Scotia, on December 16, 1955, Martha moved to Yellowknife on the recommendation of a friend after completing nursing school in Dartmouth in the late 1970s.

With a mother who served as a nurse and sisters working in healthcare, her future may have been predestined. Friends felt that if she hadn’t been a nurse, she might easily have been a doctor.

Martha Codner as a baby. Photo supplied by Jessie Teed
Martha as a baby. Photo supplied by Jessie Teed
Martha Codner, left, as a young nurse in Yellowknife. Photo supplied by Jessie Teed
Martha, left, as a young nurse in Yellowknife. Photo supplied by Jessie Teed

By 1979, she was on the medicine ward at the first of three different Stanton hospitals in which she would work.

When she retired in 2016, she had given 38 years to those hospitals, almost all of them in the emergency room.

“Martha was Stanton,” said MacInnis, who had also moved north from Nova Scotia and found in Martha a kindred spirit.

“When you finish nursing school you just have the basics, the bare minimum, and you’ve got to get experience to excel. Martha taught all of us most of the stuff we know as nurses,” she said.

“For me, Martha was like a security blanket.”

While Martha’s apparent photographic memory was a skill you couldn’t teach, nurses strove to match her ability to set patients at ease.

“She had the remarkable power to make someone smile, laugh, and most importantly, feel heard and genuinely cared for,” Kendall wrote in a tribute, “and could do this with patients when they were at their most vulnerable. She gave a lot of people hope in some dark times.”

“Martha would talk to a rock if she thought the rock needed some help,” said Beaudoin.

“She took time with people, and that’s why people would call and ask specifically if Martha was working.”

“People used to come in looking for her,” added MacInnis, “just to tell her something about their life, like their daughter had a baby or their mom passed away.”

Courtney Howard, a Yellowknife ER physician, described a friend who could not forget the hug Martha gave her when her husband had just been diagnosed with cancer.

“They tell us as medical trainees that when people come to the ER they are scared, and that makes them vulnerable. It is easy to be so preoccupied with tending to someone’s illness that you don’t care for the person who has it,” Howard wrote in a tribute.

“Martha looked people in the eye, acknowledged tough stuff, and met it with connection, care and humour. The impact that approach makes over decades is huge – Martha was the kind of person who knits a community together.”

Codmother to a hospital

That extended to her community of colleagues, too.

“She was 100 percent the glue of Stanton,” said Beaudoin.

Kendall described the relief of hearing Martha turn up early as usual at the crack of dawn, brightening the final hour of an overnight shift.

“She guided us, the ER department, and her patients. When the Codmother said something, we listened and trusted what she said,” she wrote.

“She taught us younger nurses – and even the young physicians – the tricks of the trade, what works and what doesn’t, where to find anything and who to call.”

MacInnis said Martha understood the impact residential schools were having in the North and worked hard to educate colleagues, well before that trauma was commonly discussed. Meanwhile, she added, Martha never missed an opportunity to help a colleague in need.

“She saw all these nurses through babies, divorces and deaths in their families. It didn’t matter, she dropped everything and she was there for us.”

Martha Codner, in white at the front, in Stanton's ER. Photo supplied by Jessie Teed
Martha, in white at the front, in Stanton’s emergency department. Photo supplied by Jessie Teed
Martha Codner with colleagues Susan Murdock, back left, and Nancy Lee Othmer. Photo supplied by Jessie Teed
Martha with colleagues Susan Murdock, back left, and Nancy Lee Othmer. Photo supplied by Jessie Teed

When five staff left at once, Martha arranged for the Yellowknife Co-Op to bake a cake that resembled an airline route map, showing the destinations to which all five were headed.

Beaudoin remembers Martha pointing to the cake and telling the departing nurses: “That’s there for a reason: find your way back, now, when you’re done over there.”

‘She didn’t hold back’

With Martha’s compassion came an East Coast sense of humour that could astonish an unwary physician and collapse a room of nurses into tears.

“There are a lot of salty stories we can’t tell. She could have been a stand-up comedian, hands down. She was like a Melissa McCarthy,” MacInnis said.

Rhonda Merko, who first met Martha when she went to hospital with torn knee ligaments in the early 1990s, became so close that she considered Martha almost a sister. Their two families would eat together almost nightly, at times, and travelled together. To her, Martha’s wit was a form of her honesty.

“Whatever her feelings were, she would share them. Martha was Martha and whatever she wanted to say, she would say it,” Merko said.

“She didn’t hold back, and that’s what I loved about her. You knew she wasn’t going to bullshit you.”

It never got Martha into trouble, Beaudoin said, because she was already “an institution within the institution.”

“Her life was devoted to Stanton, and I mean that in every sense of the word.  It was always, always patient first. That was her driving force, that we’re here to care for people.”

Patrick and Martha Codner. Photo supplied by Jessie Teed
Patrick and Martha Codner. Photo supplied by Jessie Teed

The only two things that could compete with nursing for Martha’s attention were her husband, Patrick, whom she met at the Yellowknife Legion in the early 1980s, and her daughter, Kendra.

“She liked hosting and having people over, sitting around fire pits when they had a cabin out at Prelude East, cooking meals, eating chips and snacks,” recalled Jessie Teed, who grew up with Kendra and knew Martha for a little over 20 years.

“She was extremely proud of her daughter. She was not shy to tell people how proud she was.”

“Her stories could keep you going for hours at a fire,” added Beaudoin. “Kendra was her pride and joy, anybody who was within ear’s reach knew that one.”

In Cod we trust

For years after her supposed retirement, Martha kept reappearing at Stanton hospital in some role or other, unable to fully leave.

In the fall of 2022, a hospital setting became her home after a diagnosis of pancreatic cancer a year earlier.

Even then, Teed recalled, Martha acted as a caregiver, taking time to walk her bedside guests through exercises designed to calm them and gather their thoughts.

“She was a nurse through and through,” Teed said.

“She was the type of person that always made you feel welcome,” said Merko. “It didn’t matter where she was or what she was doing.”

The NWT government is currently searching for a name to give the old Stanton building, a new hospital having opened in 2019. MacInnis and Teed have each submitted Martha’s name for consideration.

“She gave her whole life to Stanton,” said MacInnis. “She gave it her all.”

Martha passed away on Friday. A celebration of life will be held from 6:30pm on Saturday, January 28 at Yellowknife’s Multiplex DND gym. Donations in lieu of flowers can be made to the Stanton Territorial Hospital Foundation’s cancer care fund, and a GoFundMe page has been established.

On Facebook, Kendall and friends have changed their profile pictures to a simple image that states, in Martha’s memory: “In Cod we trust.”

She was “all the fun you could squeeze from your coolest aunt, as devilish as you’d want in a partner in crime, the best chocolate peanut butter ball maker, and a bottomless sea of wisdom,” Kendall wrote, “rolled up into one of the best nurses I had the privilege to work with and call my friend.”

Howard added: “She held the name and medical history of half of the territory in her head, and the community in her heart.”

Beaudoin described nurses who haven’t worked in the North for 20 years reaching out to former colleagues on hearing of Martha’s passing.

“Stanton would not have been Stanton emergency without Martha Codner,” she said.

“Martha has left her mark on nursing, and on people. It’s an indelible mark.”