Pioneer or Settler?

Chapter 2

I skipped a day, it was just too hot yesterday to sit in front of this screen reminiscing about all things childhood. But I am back today and the advantage of “hind-sight” has really been front and centre in my reminiscing. I was also dealing with lots of comments from others regarding childhood polio issues so to alleviate some of those concerns let me say, between 1950 and 1954 there were almost 40,000 cases of polio in Canada. At the time the total population of Canada was just over 15,000,000, small compared to the 35 million of today. So when you consider my experience, and that of 80 other kids, this social experiment was miniscule. However, the outcomes and process had far reaching affects from both a healthcare point of view and a policy development perspective.

This was during a period were very few regulations existed on how Canada was to be run or the existence of a universal healthcare system. I did have a remark made in the Post-Polio Coffee House Community group on Facebook questioning why I would spend so much time in a hospital. It is a good question but also highlights the difference between a pioneer and a settler. This comment came from someone I have crossed paths with in the past and, I believe, had polio a year before me, but couldn’t understand why I would have spend that much time in a hospital for polio kids.

Winnipeg did have a Shriners Children’s Hospital. That particular hospital had undergone a 1949 reincarnation to bring it up to the medical standards of the day. The Shriners could house 40 kids, in 1953 (the year I contracted polio) there were over 2300 cases of polio in Manitoba so competition for bed space was fierce (sounding familiar) and a lot of educational funding could be pumped into a facility providing specialized services for the medical emergency of the day, in this case polio. For polio kids that was the growth of orthopaedic surgery, a relatively new area of “specialized” medicine driven, in big part, by injured vets following WW2.

So when you do the math, there was a lot of competition to attract polio kids. With polio kids orthopaedic surgeons had a build in clientele they could try new surgical procedures on while timing those surgeries with the physical changes associated with growth spurts. No sense in performing a “trial” surgery on a bone that was still growing. Cause and effect, why tighten or cut a tendon before certain growth processes had happened.

Many of these survivors were kids from small farming communities spread around Manitoba. My father had been one of those vets who left farming and small town life behind following the war. He moved from the family farm into Winnipeg for a number of reason including having contracted tuberculosis in 1947. He spend a year in a Manitoba tuberculosis facility and returning to all of the crop dust, etc associated with running a farm made moving into the “big” city of Winnipeg in 1953 a better option. Three months later I contracted my polio. There is no doubt that small towns play a much bigger role when it comes to sense of “community” so needs were met by the locals. You know the old adage “it takes a village” and that was very true then. I know many of those “kids” retired folk now who never left their community, that was their home and they were settlers.

1955 Black and white picture of my on underarm crutches with my dad right behind me.  Santa is off to the right so I assume this was some kind of Christmas event.
My dad just over my left shoulder 1955, Santa behind the right shoulder

Cities lacked that sense of community, the sheer numbers just didn’t allow for that level of care. My parents were, almost gypsy in the way we moved around. My dad followed career opportunities of the day so moving to Calgary meant a career step up. He was offered a position, due in big part to his brother (my Uncle Pete) who was already in Calgary, working for the City of Calgary, transportation system. He became a bus driver and the opportunity for services for me at the Junior Red Cross was an added bonus.

It was also an early opportunity for me to play a role in the advancement of healthcare while being a “pioneer”. The Children’s of that day was an orthopaedic training centre and polio kids were excellent candidates. That particular type of medicine allowed the evolving speciality of orthopaedic surgery to practice various techniques based on the physical growth of a skeletal frame. Many of these surgeries had to be performed at various growth stages.

No sense in doing a “leg lengthening” on, say, a nine year old when you had no idea how long that leg would be by the time growth spurts were over or by the time they were, say, 15.. These surgeons now had ten years (sometimes a little more) to monitor the success of a surgical procedure or a timely manner in which to do it. My hip fusion didn’t happen until I was 15 because my growth wasn’t ready for it. You don’t screw a bunch of screws and plates into the body if the femur is going to grow another 2″ following the surgery.

However that fusion was the last piece of surgery that allowed me to be brace free and wear GWG jeans. Following the surgery I was in what was called a hip spica cast (from chest to foot with a connecting rod holding the legs in the proper alignment. Not exactly the kind of thing you could go home in so, yes, eight years to perfect (I’ve lost count) but between 14 and 18 surgeries from tendon lengthening to ankle fusions to hip fusion. Almost sixty years later and I still have that device. My doctor was so pissed, two years after the original surgery, and I was in a small car accident but thrown forward in the front seat hard enough to rips those screws out and have the plate push its way through my skin.

Fusion rod, screwed into the femur and with the three pronged end put into the joint area so bone material could be used to fill in the gap of the hip joint. Done with a 3 degree tilt

Myself, and 80 other kids, were pioneers, not settler. It took me that long but since then I have lived in Vancouver, Toronto, Montreal, Halifax, Victoria and now back in Calgary for retirement. I have always worked, had a number of differing careers from driving taxi in Toronto to being a mental health therapist in a Calgary hospital to a government policy analyst for the BC government. I have watched or participated in the development of policies, healthcare and disability rights. I am not married to any type of ideology except my attachment to “belief systems” based on Aaron Beck’s theory of developing beliefs . I am a generalist at heart. Now I have become a new type of pioneer, that disabled senior who has lived far beyond his best before date so now dealing with that.

More to come


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