Dr. Elizabeth (Betty) Bridgman was born in 1924 in the hills above Fujo, a small town near Chungking, China. Her father, Rev. Charles Bridgman from Winona, Ontario, went to Chengdu in 1912 as an evangelical missionary for the Methodist Church of Canada and served there for 37 years. Her mother Margaret went to China as a single nurse missionary with the Methodist Church in 1916, and worked in Penshan and Jenshan caring for women in villages. They were married in Fujo, where her mother more often than not had to take complete charge of medical cases at the mission station.
Betty’s older sister Jean would become a missionary to India with the United Church of Canada, and her brother Donald was a Flight Officer posted to the RAF during WWII, tragically losing his life following a raid over Germany in 1943. He had anticipated studying medicine after the war, the suggestion being that he might join Betty in mission work. Betty completed her primary and secondary schooling at the Canadian School in West China and at Vaughan Road Collegiate Institute in Toronto. She had apparently decided on a career as a medical missionary by the age of five. Thus Betty comes by her desire for travel, adventure and service to others through family tradition.
Betty studied Medicine at the University of Toronto, graduating with an M.D. Degree in 1949, then interned for two years at the Vancouver General and Shaughnessy Hospitals in B.C. before earning a Diploma in Tropical Medicine and Hygiene at the University of London, England. She had been confirmed as a medical missionary to Angola with the United Church of Canada, and on May 30, 1952 traveled from London to Lisbon for eight months of Portuguese language training. Betty set sail for Lobito on February 20, 1953 and was met by Rev. Amy Schauffler, who traveled with her by train to Bela Vista to visit the Dondi Mission, and from there to Chissamba where she was stationed for the next 24 years. By April she had started learning the Umbundu language and had begun working at the 140-bed Chissamba Hospital. Most mornings would find her in the surgical ward, with ward visits, out-patient visits and teaching occupying the afternoons. In addition she regularly visited two other mission hospitals where there was no physician, conducting medical consultations, treatments and surgeries, while supervising the work of the Angolan nurses who carried on the work in between her visits.= For 8 months in 1957-58, Betty filled in for Dr. George Burgess at the Dondi Hospital and its seven associated hospitals while he and his family were on furlough. When Dr. Walter Strangway retired in 1967 she assumed his responsibilities in addition to her own, and was quoted as saying: “When you are the only doctor, you do everything, and you hope and pray that God will help you do it right .
Among her many accomplishments while at Chissamba was the construction of a Children’s Ward at the Hospital, which she dedicated in honour of her brother Donald.Â
By August 1975, due to the increasing civil strife in the country, most missionaries had left Angola. Dr. Bridgman and her compatriot nurse Edith Radley decided to remain at their post at the Hospital, and to continue to care for the sick and wounded, regardless of political affiliation, for in Dr. Bridgman’s words, as a Christian and as a Medical Doctor, she felt that she could not act otherwise. But in October 1976, Dr. Bridgman and Miss Radley were taken by government forces to the closest city and placed under house arrest, before being transferred to a Luanda prison where they were held for three months. On January 19, 1977 they were deported by the authorities, driven to the airport and put on a plane for Lisbon, with tickets to Montreal.
After a year in Canada with family and friends and speaking in churches and schools, Betty went to Quebec to study French. She and Edith had chosen, as their second assignment, to work at the Institut MÃ©dical Evangelique (IME) at Kimpese, Zaire (now Democratic Republic of Congo). They arrived at IME on July 26, 1978. Betty was put in charge of Obstetrical and Gynaecological services, and subsequently of the General Surgery, as well as being periodically on call for any part of the hospital. She taught in the nurse’s training school, and for three years was director of the Kivuvu Leprosarium. In addition to the medical work at IME, Betty was involved in refugee relief work and helped to provide frontline support to Angolans fleeing the fighting; many of whom arrived sick, hungry, and destitute. For their medical and humanitarian work, Betty and Edith were appointed to receive the Order of Canada on December 18, 1978 but as they were in Congo at the time, their investiture took place on October 21, 1981.
Dr. Bridgman left the Congo on July 23, 1989 and began her year-long deputation work for the United Church of Canada in February 1990. She retired to her family home in Winona, Ontario where she served as a Regional Representative for the Angola Memorial Scholarship Fund, and as a representative to Presbytery for Fifty United Church. She pursued her interests in gardening, walking, and church activities while her travels took her across Canada, the UK, China, India, parts of South America, and Denmark, including several return visits to Angola. She continues to meet annually with her classmates from her China days, and takes an active interest in church and community while enjoying the company of family, friends, and nature.