Growing Up as the Cardiac Monitor

“One of the most interesting things about science fiction and fantasy is the way that the genres can offer different perspectives on matters to do with the body, the mind, medical technology, and the way we live our lives.” – Tansy Rayner Roberts

It feels odd using an opening quote that reflects the subject matter of today’s writing by someone who was born 28 years after me. That is when I have to remind myself that I am closer to the light than the light switch, aging is built on denial. Tansy Roberts is an Australian fantasy writer but when you have been around as long as myself, life is all about fantasy.

Following a fresh air wheel to Safeway to pick up a prescription I stopped in Barb Scott Park to sip my can of Motts Caesar (extra spicy, it isn’t) but it did allow me a few rays. It also gave me the opportunity to leave a five cent can in the recycle bin so some less fortunate will have more to cash in at the recycle centre. Trust me, I’m no saint but I will try and do the “little things” that will help those less fortunate but, as I said, I am no saint.

Got home (my apartment is warmer than outside) but had the urge to watch “Grease” as a small reminder of Olivia Newton-John. I know I should have been writing however I needed to just be mind dead for a couple of hours, it worked while stirring up old childhood memories. I get a lot of questions about the reality of growing up in the polio kids hospital here in Calgary so it is time to share a bit of that story. Not a lot of people fully understand just how far healthcare has come so here’s a bit of fact (which fits in well with the opening quote).

I spend almost eight years in that hospital before I was sixteen. At sixteen you would “age out” (too old to be considered a patient profile anymore) and you moved into the community. A community that knew nothing about disabled members of society, due in big part, to a couple of facts. The state of healthcare: 1. if you had a congenital disability (meaning a condition that happened before you were 4 years old) you would generally die (advancements in antibiotics changed all of that) or 2. most disabled were “warehoused” in facilities. Kind of “out of sight, out of mind”. The returning WW2 vets changed all of that and in 1948 a group of vets established the Canadian Paraplegic Association. The polio kids of the 50’s got on that highway as we aged out of the hospital in the mid 60’s.

People have to understand what a hospital was in those days. We didn’t have the technology we have come to dependent on in todays world of healthcare. There were no “cardiac monitors” or specialized breathing machines except the old iron lungs, there was just “us” and staff. Also polio weren’t the only kids there. Other medical topics were being challenged. This was the early days of “shunt” development for hydrocephalic kids, kids with rheumatic fever who would swell up like balloons due to the condition, kids with Perthes Disease (a hip displacement involving months in a frame while stuck in bed), just to name a few but the polio kids really ruled the roost at the time.

You certainly didn’t see the technology we now have (making the Roberts quote even more timely). However we were a family, a family that was focused on the need to be adaptive to survive, a family that “absorbed” the ability to be empathetic. We looked after each other that way. For the record, parents could only visit two times a week (Wednesday from 2:30pm until 3:30 and Sunday 2:00pm until 3:30, no siblings, they were just the kids I would wave at down in the parking lot as they headed for the playground) so those entitled assholes complaining about pandemic related social isolation, get over yourself. I was going to try and be polite but politeness and $3.60 will get me on the Calgary transit, even then the politeness is a benefit.

In the Junior Red Cross we weren’t “crippled children” (contrary to the name of the place), we were simply children and members of the hospital family. We watched out for each other. Again, I was no saint but I did watch out for my “brood” the way the Grease character, Danny, did. With the work being done on the development of shunts it was not uncommon for some of them to clog up. I was a 10 year old cardiac monitor who went to the nurses station before going to play in the solarium to tell the nurse there was blood all over Bobby’s pillow and he was pretty still. After getting back from playing in the solarium, the pillow was new and the bed was empty. The concept of death was just another aspect of healthcare of the day. No “crisis” counselling or grief work, we just waited to see who would be the new “roommate”. All of this went into the foundations of my belief system of today. You learn early that people die in hospitals, you are not there for a “resort”.

I have so many childhood friends that will always be “childhood” because they left in body bags. It was a very different world and many of us romanticize that, I do. I was (big strong man) in tears watching Grease, not because of the subject matter but because I was romanticizing the memories of the time. So I will cut it off here for now with an acknowledgement.

One of the new “young turks” of today is a policy person I know, Jason Ribeiro, a good guy that I have met a few times but follow on Twitter regularly. He is a representative of the future. The development of future policy development rest on the likes of him. He turned 33 this past week and when I think of where I was at that age, it’s like comparing Jimmy Hoffa with Gandhi. Hope you had a good one. Watch for his political commentaries on CTV (I think). It is the policy makers, not the politicians that hold our future in their hands.


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