We Don’t Know What We Know Until We Realize

Cognitive psychology has shown that the mind best understands facts when they are woven into a conceptual fabric, such as a narrative, mental map, or intuitive theory. Disconnected facts in the mind are like unlinked pages on the Web: They might as well not exist. – Steven Pinker

I have spent the last five days trying to process the “firing” of Dr. Verna Yiu, as the CEO of Alberta Health Services (AHS). What kind of government fires a CEO five years into her contract during a pandemic that still isn’t showing any indication of disappearing? How shallow of a thinker do you have to be not to understand the danger this threat to our healthcare system, already under extreme pressure, is a decision based solely on ideology, totally ignores science, reeks of ethical absence while threatening the physical well being of every Albertan out there. There is just so much wrong here but, hey, maybe that’s me taking things to seriously again. After all if I haven’t learnt following 45 years of “near kept” promises and that promises are easier to spout than to keep, then I’m the problem.

However, after watching, Premier Kenney’s sad attempt in his plea to remain leader, it became pretty clear that semantics out-weights substance in todays world. Kenney offered absolutely nothing substantive but packed his plea with dog-whistle buzzwords, fear and hate-mongering, a good indication that the ability to apply critical thinking has evaporated in Alberta. Now is not the time to be screwing around with such a fragile healthcare system.

As a polio survivor I grew up in a healthcare system under development. In many way we have become the victims of our own success. We were building a system based on another time of extreme societal change. The WW2 veterans ignited the need for a more accessible community, they had given so much they weren’t going to be happy sitting in an extended care centre for the rest of their lives. They paved the way in the late 40’s for the future acceptance of a large number of polio survivors.

The large number of polio kids opened the door for one of the largest unplanned social experiments of the 20th century (in my mind), the development of an inclusive community. It took me forty years of looking back to recognize certain patterns, not only my life, but society in general. Patterns that either made one an agent of change or, conversely, created a level of complacency required to shut out the empathy so badly needed in todays world. Many of these things took forty years to be fully recognized but the results are there today starting with the mass migration from the farms (rural) to the cities (urban). Today we continue to see that rift between that urban mentality versus the needs of the rural communities.

Black and white picture of the Junior Red Cross Hospital for Crippled Children (1956) with a nurse walking a young polio survivor around the yet to be landscaped facility that was home to so many polio survivors in the 50's, with caption reading "This was home".
This was home

My parents immigrated to Calgary from Winnipeg so I could receive treatment for the after-mass of my polio. There was no “actual” healthcare in place in that time period. However the growing needs of veterans left with life altering physical health issues (like spinal cord injuries, amputations, sensory issues like loss of vision and, in some cases, auditory impairments) created pathways to self-determination. This type of groundwork not only enhanced the future quality of life issues but highlighted the service needs for a tsunami of kids surviving the major polio epidemics of the early fifties. In Canada a little over 30,000 kids contracted polio between 1950 and 1955 with little or no types of supports. It was in the fifties that the real push began for some form of planned healthcare.

The community of the day wasn’t designed for the disabled. However with the vets having had five post war years to organize, while probably unbeknownst to them, began paving the road to independence for polio kids on their way to adulthood. This was in a period of Canadian history when the disabled were either “warehoused” in institutions or sent home to die. And nine times out of ten, it wasn’t the trauma that killed you, it was an infection. Antibiotics was another young component of healthcare. It was 1945 before a trio of scientists won the Nobel Prize in Medicine for their achievements with the first “mass produced” antibiotic and the creation of the healthcare system we see today came into being. A lot of that system was based on the treatment of the day for disabled kids.

Despite my many years of describing my childhood as “normal”, it has taken me years to accept that growing up in a polio hospital, was anything but normal. We were the sample group for developing, not only a healthcare system, but test subjects for the evolving speciality of orthopaedic surgery. By the time I was sixteen I had spent eight years in hospital and subjected myself to almost as many surgeries. To me, the development of this system, was like the development of a family. I have polio survivors in my life today that are more of a family than my own siblings. Polio kids greased the wheels for a more inclusive community and a more humane healthcare system. It didn’t happen over night, which is why I see this governments current erosion of a system that took a good twenty years to develop slowly being undone for ideological purposes, nothing to do with science or health.

A grey scale picture of an individual trudging forward in what appears to be a stormy day with the message "Nothing is more important than empathy for another human being's suffering.  Not a career, not wealth, not intelligence.  Certainly not status.  We have to feel for one another if we are going to survive with dignity." - quote of Audrey Hepburn.  Captioned "Empathy"

I recently received a message from a voice of my past whom I had lost touch with almost fifty years ago. Another polio survivor and we were pretty close back then. His room was one where a number of us would gather in on Saturday’s after we had completed our “house hold” chores. Yes, in the effort to be as normal as possible, we all had some type of chore scheduled for Saturdays. I spend a lot of time as a twelve year old on my hands and knees scrubbing speeding wheelchair tire marks off the floor. We all had chores and, besides formal education, the evolving healthcare was being designed to “normalize” life, not create oddities.

After the Saturday chore we would head down to Tom’s room and ask him to practice his trumpet for us. Tom’s reach out to me brought this memory out. Saturday’s were also the day when another fellow patient, a severely burnt young kid, had his dressings changed. The staff would prepare the tub room by giving it a (for the time) good thorough sterilization cleaning. They would take this young fellow into the tub room, immerse him and start unwrapping him. The trumpet would help filter out his screams. I was about twelve and now realize that, developmentally, I was beginning to experience “empathy”, I was just too young to realize it. As far as emotional milestones, our ability to experience empathy begins around the time puberty kicks in. The limbic system kicks the prefrontal cortex into high gear and the brain chemistry takes us to new levels, levels we don’t always recognize but do help to understand those “terrible teen” years. So, yes, sound, certain songs, even certain aroma’s (olfactory memories) can cause a long buried memory to come pouring out. To this day I’m not sure if it was “drowning out the suffering” or a sense of empathy that was going unnoticed. We were kids but we were kids who played a pretty pivotal role in the development of the healthcare system.

Universal healthcare didn’t come into being until 1967 and in, what seems like the traditional way of doing things in Canada, it wasn’t until 1984 that the Canada Health Act came into effect. To me, that is another example of how little people really understand “ripple effects”. The government of Alberta amended the, then, School Act in 1959 to guarantee access to education for ALL Alberta kids regardless of disability. However it wasn’t until 1976 that the National Building Code addressed the “physical” access to a school by incorporating “early” access standards in regulations. So we could access the (abstract) part of education but we couldn’t access (concrete) a school house for another, almost, twenty years.

Polio kids followed the path initially paved by veterans by being the subjects of an evolving healthcare system. It wasn’t easy but we did it. Fifty plus years later I sit here in total frustration watching a bunch of ideologists dismantle a system build on the backs of the marginalized. So I ask you, do you want to hold onto what we have developed (while making it better, something I fully believe can be done if we all drop this sense of entitlement that has permeated our society over the past thirty years) or do we want to return to the days of “warehousing” those individuals whose appearance makes you uncomfortable. Without empathy there is no dignity…

I cannot sit back while our healthcare and education systems are being demonized and a handful of healthcare hero’s are painted as the bad guys by a government who have no realization of who don’t know what they don’t know.

More to come…


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