Chapter 1 – Part 2, The Foundation

Let It Come
Lying alone in your solitary bed,
The arrival of death you do not dread,
You’ve lived a different but confusing life,
Accepting pleasure and the occasional strife,
And had such joy with your now dead wife.

You are alone and feeling ready,
Your soul is clean and your mind is steady,
You have behind you so many years,
Death does nothing to raise your fears,
For your passing on there will be tears.

Those who love know it’s time,
Awaiting fate to ring its chime,
So let the Reaper creep down the hall,
You have no fear of him at all,
From life’s sweet breast you now must fall.

Terry Wiens – March 2005

I began this chapter with what I consider to be my introduction to the outside world based on my first personal experience to the Calgary Stampede at age 12.  That age was really my coming out in the world.  Prior to that my existence had mainly been in a protected medical environment focused on physical development with little thought to cognitive development.  All of those developmental milestones we have come to understand following the introduction of Dr. Spock (and for the trekkie fans this is Dr. Spock, not Mr. Spock) theory’s of childhood development were unintentionally nurtured in a garden tended by nurses.

I raise this due to the fact that the blossoming of my limbic system took place in a very control environment, an institution for polio survivors known as the Alberta Children’s Hospital.  My adolescent years, that period in your development where logic and respect for consequences, are based on the recognition of risk factors took place in a protected environment.  I never had to look at risk factors since they were managed by others.  Something as simple as teaching your child not to bolt across the street before looking both ways was, in fact, introducing risk management concepts to the foundations of belief.  These were seeds never planted in a hospital environment.

My adventures as a twelve year old was like taking a newly opened flower from the greenhouse then dumping it in the wilds to let nature have its way.  You went from nurture to nature quickly with a very distorted concept of risk.  Risk, for me, was epitomized by a surgical suite, not a behavioural action.  I had no concept of personal risk formed by childhood memories.  My understanding of risk came much later in life based on action and consequences.

That brings me to the second concept I wanted to discuss today, memories.  Needless to say growing up in a hospital memories take on a very different look.  I recently read a study regarding early memories and what they are calling “childhood amnesia“.  I can relate to that due to the large holes of time I have in my own memory banks.  I also differentiate between childhood “realizations” and memories.  To me a memory is something that is very clear in my mind and generally triggered by some tactile or olfactory reaction.

A memory is an event.  A realization, on the other hand, is the culmination of a variety of memories that contribute to a belief system.

My one memory of pleasure was as a two year old “walking” through a path of snow higher than I was to get to the outhouse (no indoor plumbing then).  I suspect I hold onto that particular memory because it is the one memory of actually walking before I contracted polio.

I have very few memories of the 1953 move to Winnipeg or much of the four years spend  following that move.  I do have a vivid memory of my spinal tap.  I was just a month past my third birthday.  I can even smell the antiseptic nature of the examination room.  They say memories created by tragedy are the ones we retain the most but also the one’s we tend to modify the most.

I recall how dim and dreary the hospital hallway was despite a warm sunny June day outside.  Olive green was a popular hospital colour back then and those are the colours I remember.  I was put on a rigid wooden examination table padded with the usual Naugahyde covering of the day with cotton stuffing by my mother who was then asked to leave the room.  The nurse, after removing my clothing, brought out a rectangular green, crisp sheet to cover me. It was stiff with starch, cool against the skin and hemmed all the way around with a three by three hemmed square in the middle.

The doctor had laid me on my stomach.  I was crying, in part, because I felt like shit and, in part, because my mother had left the room. I laid there, sobbing, feeling the coolness of this sheet being spread over me. A nurse was holding my hand attempting to comfort me while I stared, through misty vision, at a cold sterile tray holding a large syringe, some gauze and a bottle rubbing alcohol although I had no idea what they were. The crisp sheet was placed over me with the open square over the small of my back and I felt a coldness being rubbed over that area. I saw the doctor’s hand reach for the syringe while he told me to be very still.

Picture of large bore (20 guage) syringe needle used for spinal taps.
Large inflexible spinal tap needle usually sharpened with a hand file prior to using.

Of course, I was still sobbing, so being completely still was a little difficult. The nurse let go of my hand and put her arms over my shoulders while increasing her pressure on my body.  I realize now that this was to hold me still for what was coming. Before I knew what was happening, a piercing heat seemed to invade my lower back and I began to scream so loudly that my mother, half-way down the corridor, could hear me and was unable to do anything about it. To this day, she becomes tearful when we discuss it.

This was the excruciating spinal tap that every polio victim had to endure for a definitive diagnosis.  Healthcare lacked the finesse of todays equipment and those needles were the equivalent of a railroad spike.  These were stainless steel spikes but it was the tool of the time.  The spinal fluid had to be drained and examined to remove as much of the virus as possible.  The sheer pain branded that memory into my mind the same way a hot branding iron marks a cow for life.

That was the beginning of my Visitor realization..  I had a “Visitor” watching over my shoulder that day rubbing their hands in hopeful glee.  Of the 2300 hundred Manitoba polio victims of 1953, 89 died.  The Visitor was there to escort them onto the next phase of whatever awaits us.  The Visitor never got me but has been looking over my shoulder all my life and continues to do so, probably with more glee in my waning years.

By the time I was 16 the Visitor had escorted six of my friends and I have developed an uncaring attitude to this Visitor.  The time for my trip with this Visitor will come, can’t avoid it but that is a realization and not a memory.  The memory is for my lost friends, the realization is the Visitor.

As far as memories there are gaping holes of lost experience from age 3 to 7.  I recall very little of my time in Winnipeg and memory retention didn’t really kicked in until 1957.  From 1957 to almost 1961 I lived in the Children’s Hospital and that is where the memories are strongest.  More ground work to come…




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