It was October 1947. I was two months away from my 12th birthday. I had been home from school for several days because of a sore throat and cold. When I did not seem to be getting better our family doctor prescribed a sulfa drug.
One night my temperature soared and I became delirious. During the night I could no longer sit up or raise my head. By morning I could not even swallow my own saliva. That night marks the dividing line between pre-polio and post-polio in my life.
The doctor came to our home in west Toronto and ordered an ambulance to take me to Riverdale Isolation Hospital. Although this was still during the polio season, he thought that I might have diphtheria.
Once at the hospital, I was made to curl up in a ball while fluid was taken from my spine. I was diagnosed with polio. My parents were told to be prepared to lose their daughter.
I remember my legs hurting and the pain that seemed to come from everywhere. I was very frightened that I might die and began to make bargains with God that I would be “good” if only the pain would go away. I wasn’t able to eat or drink.
Someone brought a bowl into my room that contained a long rubber tube sitting in ice. She inserted it through my nose into my stomach so that I could be fed for the next couple of weeks.
There was a speaker in my room that broadcasted the CBC. When I began to feel better the hospital staff kept me entertained by sticking get-well cards on the wall and bringing me books to read. I began to read Anne of Green Gables, but it was too heavy to hold. Instead I had to switch to a book about ants and their life cycles. Every time I pass an ant hill, I remember what I learned.
My parents were able to visit me, but they had to wear white robes and masks. My mother was pregnant at the time. I was very embarrassed to see her walk into my room with her robe wrapped tightly around her big belly, but I looked forward to seeing her anyway. One of the nurses was particularly kind to me and went to visit my mother for afternoon tea one day.
When the tube was finally removed and I could eat again, I was put in a ward with three young women. I felt grown up talking to them and learning the hospital vocabulary and the names for affected muscles. I still couldn’t sit up but my legs seemed to be better. It was my arms that weren’t working properly.
My speech was nasal, and, although I didn’t realize it at the time, my right facial muscles were paralyzed. That was the most difficult aspect of my experience with polio to accept.
The psychological damage was not overcome until 20 years later, when I underwent intensive psychotherapy while attending Queen’s University as a mature student.
One popular treatment of the time was the “Sister Kenny Treatment”. Hot compresses were wrapped around my arms and shoulders, followed by gentle exercises.
In November I was transferred to the old, red stone Sick Children’s Hospital on College Street. My days there were very busy as there was a program just for children. A “toy lady” came to visit us. That was the name we gave to the occupational therapist. She had all kinds of ways to make us happy.
She tied a long string from the foot to the head of my bed and pinned a large snowman on it for me to colour.
One morning we were all awakened early and the radio was turned on loud so we could listen to the wedding of Princess Elizabeth and Prince Philip. I still have the newspaper clippings that the toy lady helped me make into a scrapbook.
By this time I was confident that I would get better but I realized that it would take time. Not a long time, I believed, but many months. I remember that I was taken into a room several times where I was presented as part of a medical lecture. Once I was a “test item.” I didn’t mind it. To me it was a guessing game for young doctors and I was the central attraction. Even now my respirologist always asks me if his resident can be present during my visits to the Ottawa Civic Hospital.
I was fitted with splints and forced to sleep in them. My upper arms were strapped at a 90 degree angle from my sides and the forearms were raised. The muscles had tightened considerably and it was very painful.
Some days I was taken to a swimming pool in the basement of the hospital and lowered into the water by a large lift. It was in that pool that I took my first steps since polio. I was quite excited but I would have to wait a month before I could try walking on the floor.
Jut before my birthday in early December I was transferred once again to Thistletown Hospital. It was like going to a boarding school. By Christmas I could walk, even without limping. Once in a while I had trouble swallowing and I would start to choke. I did not notice breathing problems.
I did school work every morning in a little classroom. It was there that I learned how to find the area of a triangle. I still had to sleep with my arms tied up. For most of the day I wore a brace that kept my arms away from my sides and made me look like I was about to fly. Once a week a bus took me to Sick Children’s downtown for speech therapy.
On good days that winter we were bundled up and taken on a sleigh ride, driven by Dobbin, the resident horse. Dr. William Mustard came on his rounds every Wednesday. He went to each patient and talked about their progress.
He always had a cheery smile and a twinkle in his eyes. Once he wrote in my autograph book, “may your smile grow straight”. In May he told me that I could finally go home. My mother had to come to the hospital every day to learn how to carry on with my daily exercises.
The next stage in my life was readjusting to my peers who knew nothing about my life during those months. They had all gone on to the next grade in school. When I entered the hospital I had a brother and a sister. When I came back my mother had had another baby girl.
Five days after I came home the baby fell sick with meningitis. She was left deaf in one ear. Visits to the hospital continued for my parents for another month. I returned to the outpatients at Sick Children’s for speech and physiotherapy for another year.
And how did it all come out? I went on through high school, teachers’ college and university, where I studied the teaching of children with learning disabilities and art history. I married at 41 and my career lasted 36 years.
About 15 years ago I began to experience breathing problems and pain in the vocal cords whenever I overused my voice. I have an active retirement. I formed and am president of a knitting guild in Ottawa.
I use a microphone when I speak in public and try to take it easy when walking on slopes. I travel with my husband and do Tai Chi three times a week. I’ve had many experiences in my life since those days that I spent in the hospital but none have left such vivid memories.
--Barbara (Lush) Bondar