POLIO - WHEN AND WHERE
September 5, 1953. I was 19 and a student nurse in Tisdale's St. Therese Hospital. I had been working nights (12:00 - 8:00 a.m.) for 4 or 5 days, and was not yet getting enough sleep. I was about to have a weekend off. I think that if I had realized what was happening to me, the results of the virus attack wouldn't have been so profound.
Friday: Got 3 or 4 hours sleep before I had to catch the train that would take me home, 30 miles away. Got home and went to bed (upstairs) because I wasn't feeling good. I thought, and mom thought, I was coming down with a flu, or maybe just a cold.
Saturday: Got up for breakfast - but spent most of the day in bed. Spent less time in
Sunday: bed - possibly feeling a little better. Dad drove me to the station, so I could catch the train back to Tisdale. Mom said maybe I should stay in bed for another day or 2. I told her that I was feeling much better, and besides, if you're sick, what's a better place to be than near a hospital? I got off the train in Tisdale in cold wind and rain. I faced the wind for about a mile before I reached the residence. I had to walk up 3 flights of stairs to my room. I was exhausted and cold and went straight to bed, as I wouldn't have to go on duty until midnight. That evening my roommate was concerned (joked "maybe you have polio"). I had a high fever. By 8:00 or 9:00, she had convinced me to see my doctor. That meant walking down 4 flights of stairs in the residence, (during the lest flight down, I was sure my knees were going to give out), through a tunnel and up 1 flight in the hospital. My doctor was called. The spinal tap proved negative - I was given gamma globulin and admitted. Within an hour or two I couldn't move.
Since then, I recognize some of the things I shouldn't have done:
I stayed in Tisdale Hospital for 6 - 8 weeks without treatment. I stayed in bed constantly. Finally there was room for me in Saskatoon City Hospital - the infamous Isolation Ward. A strong wind would make little mounds of finely sifted snow build up in the corners. It was not uncommon to see mice. Treatment was having your limbs wrapped in hot, wet woolly cloths. These felt good at first, because it was usually cold in the ward. But when they began to cool off at the edges, they itched terribly, and weren't usually removed as soon as they cooled off. A real nightmare. In the early part of December I was finally allowed to sit on the edge of my bed. Can you imagine the dizziness?
This little wooden annex to the hospital was built in such a way that the Nurses' Station was some distance from most of the patients. One couldn't hear ones own buzzer sound. (All hospital buzzers in the 1950's made an audible sound when used.) We couldn't hear voices of staff, and often went an hour or more without seeing anyone. One large ward contained about 8 beds. I think any of us felt better being in that ward. Some of the wards held 2 beds, and at least 2 of them held 1! That simply seemed to be the room you spent the first 6 or 8 days in. I consider my days in that room as the worst in my life. I was afraid - in a strange place - no family or friends - nurses rarely came in. Those who did were heavily gowned and masked. In my case, this was 2 months after the onslaught and even I knew I was no longer contagious. I suppose they couldn't make exceptions - the same rules had to apply to all patients.
Long before I left Tisdale Hospital, I had become very spoilt. If I couldn't sleep at 3:30 or 4:00 in the morning, the nurse on duty would bring me warm milk and crackers. I really looked forward to that. Then suddenly I was in Saskatoon amongst strangers - and certainly no such preferential treatment. Boy, did I suffer!!!
In January, 1954 we were all moved to St. Paul's Isolation Ward. These were letter days. Although this building too was a wood annex attached to the hospital by a tunnel, it was remarkably more comfortable than the one we just left. In fact, many of us were encouraged by the fact that we could wheel through the tunnel and down the steep ramp to the canteen in the basement of the hospital. Some of the young men considered this quite a sporting event, which certainly wasn't discouraged by the staff because it was definitely therapeutic in many ways.
At St. Paul's, treatment began in earnest. No more hot packs, but lost of physio. All of the Therapists that I was involved with were from Europe. Down on the mats, stretch those joints which had been dormant for too long. Exercise. Squeeze. Push. Pull. Up. Down. 1-2-3-4. (or in the words of a favourite Austrian woman, "Hup, one, two, three".) Of course, several patients here were in either iron lungs or on rocking beds. Therapy for them was quite different.
By about March many of us began attending the Physical Restoration Centre (the PRC) or "Rehab". We traveled by "Bunny Bus" - term used in those days because the vehicles were funded by Easter Seals, and since the majority of the passengers were children, the name was appropriate. Unfortunaly, the name stuck; to this day the buses are referred to by a few people as "Bunny Buses". I was fitted with 2 long leg braves, we walked between parallel bars, then with crutches, had as swimming program, walked indoors, outdoors, up and down "curbs" and eventually, stairs. We also had Occupational Therapy, and recreational periods. Ping pong was popular with both staff and clients.
The Rehab Centre was attended by all ages - from preschool who were too young even to use wheelchairs, to adults of 40 or 50. These were people who had Cerebral Palsy (Easter Seals) and those who were recovering from the effects of polio (March of Dimes). There were 3 class-rooms of as many as 24 students each. Some students took 4, maybe 5, years of school there.
By June I was deemed ready for discharge from St. Paul's. A vocational rehab program would be set up for me as soon as possible. In November w e got a call from my "social worker" saying that everything was set up and I was to go to Saskatoon, to a room and board place. For about a month I attended a "workshop", where my aptitude tests. All tests were written or visual/verbal. A week later I was told that his findings showed that I should be a teacher!) By January 1955, I was back in the classroom, and eventually to Business College.
In my life, the years from 1955 to 1958 were all right. It was a time of rediscovery, making new friends, testing our physical endurance in terms of tasks and social activities. Relearning many things. - like driving a car for instance. Coping. Leaning how to cope with stress and tiredness. We were pioneers. There were no guidelines. No advice columns. In the late '40's, a Social Club was formed in Saskatchewan called the Handicapped Civilians's Association. It was strictly a social club. It was the vehicle by which many of us began our voluntarism and advocacy. In the "50"s we were still coping with inaccessibility and negative attitudes. We've come a long way.
During those first 5 years we all formed lasting and strong friendships. When a young adult is wrenched from her community and environment, and is forces to choose a different life-style - different career and social activities - one makes friendships with her comrades. In 1958 I got married; by 1969 we had 4 children. I got my first paying job as relief dispatcher in July, 1979, and a par-time clerical position in October, 1988.
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