On Returning to School

“School is a building which has four walls with the future inside” – Lon Watters

It is that time of year again where kids walk that precarious line between the disappointment of summers end and the excitement of returning to school where they will meet up with friends they haven’t seen all summer. For me, as an 8 year old in 1958, I hoped for a call from my doctors office to book me into “Grand Rounds”. In those pre-universal health days the Junior Red Cross (now the Alberta Children’s Hospital) performed what was referred to as “medical rounds” every Tuesday on the main floor of the hospital. Medical rounds were really nothing more than a 15 minute “how you doing” appointment. However, every so often, you were booked for “Grand Rounds”, which meant you were being reviewed by a collective of doctor to determine if you would be a good candidate for a new surgical procedure and meant being admitted.

To me this was like going home at the end of the summer. I had a very progressive (given the times) doctor, Dr. Vince Murphy, a pioneer in the evolving specialty of orthopaedic surgery. He was a WW2 RCAF fighter pilot who returned from the war to pursue his career in rebuilding people rather than bombing, strafing them. He was also a leader in the development of sports medicine which is why he was the official doctor for the Calgary Stampeders for almost forty years.

So whenever that August call came for my parents to bring me for Grand Rounds I already knew what to expect, another stint in the hospital. There was nothing “dignified” about Grand Rounds but what would an 8 year old know (or care) about dignity. It involved putting on a loin cloth and laying on an examination table while a handful of orthopaedic surgeons jiggled this limb or pushed that muscle group using all kinds of jargon I didn’t understand while the latest batch of residences stood behind glancing over top of the “real” doctors. I would lie there reading a comic book while twisting and turning as directed. That was Grand Rounds and new surgical procedures were discussed. Murphy liked me since I was always ready to go along with anything, my parents got a break because it was one less kid to worry about through the school year (I had five siblings) while the hospital staff shuddered because that “hellion” was coming back.

All that mattered to me was I was heading back to in-patient status. That was the organization of my childhood but also my access to school. Schools of those days didn’t have to accept students with disabilities so any educational opportunities for disabled students (particularly polio survivors) tended to happen in hospitals or some other institutional like setting. The Children’s had their own “recognized” school program, many years later named after a well known doctor, the Gordon Townsend School. It also wasn’t unusual to have more than one surgical procedure in a series so a lot could happen in a school year. I had over a dozen surgeries by the time I aged out of the place but went from double leg braces complete with hip band to just crutches by the time I was sixteen, all so I could wear the new fashion of GWG jeans. Such a shallow early beginning but all fertile fallow for an evolving belief system as well.

So while so many other kids mourned the end of summer while anxiously awaiting the return to school, I looked forward to returning to what I called home and my polio family. As I have said before, in the hospital we were just kids but in the community we were “disabled” first and kids second. People have no idea how far we have come in such a short period (60+ years is really a short period on the continuum of history). My school year was built around surgeries, so many others were built around hockey practice.



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