In 1953, we saw the hor­rors of po­lio first­hand, treat­ing the af­flicted at Royal Alexandra In­fir­mary, Jean Jenny writes.

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It was 1953 and I was a sec­ond-year nurs­ing stu­dent when I was sud­denly sent to do a three­month stint at the Royal Alexandra In­fir­mary, Mon­treal’s iso­la­tion hos­pi­tal. Nor­mally, stu­dents ro­tated to spe­cialty clin­i­cal ar­eas dur­ing their fi­nal year only, but this was the time of the last great po­liomyeli­tis (po­lio) epi­demic.

The city was over­whelmed with cases, and the “Alex” needed help to cope with the in­flux of pa­tients.

I was given lit­tle time to pre­pare, and soon found my­self and my trunk mov­ing into the nurses’ res­i­dence. The in­fir­mary was in the Pointe St. Charles area of the city, near the har­bour and docks, and the neigh­bour­hood was con­sid­ered un­savoury, to say the least. If we had to take a trol­ley into town, a porter from the hos­pi­tal es­corted us to the street­car stop.

In those days, most cases of se­ri­ous con­ta­gious dis­ease were ad­mit­ted to the iso­la­tion hos­pi­tal. There was no treat­ment ex­cept sup­port­ive care. There was lit­tle im­mu­niza­tion for child­hood dis­eases.

Po­lio was a se­ri­ous dis­ease, and epi­demics pe­ri­od­i­cally rav­aged North Amer­ica. As kids, we all knew some­one who had been a vic­tim, of­ten stig­ma­tized be­cause of a par­tial paral­y­sis of a limb or, even worse, doomed to wear a heavy metal and leather brace to sup­port the af­fected limb. I re­mem­ber in high school vis­it­ing one of my un­for­tu­nate class­mates who was con­fined to an iron lung in the lo­cal hos­pi­tal, and who died within the year. Af­ter the visit, I couldn’t eat my din­ner, hor­ri­fied by Shirley’s fate, locked up in that tin can un­til she died.

At the Alex, many of the wards nor­mally de­voted to measles, mumps, scar­let fever and pneu­mo­nia had been va­cated and turned into po­lio wards for men, women or chil­dren. We were given a brief and fear­ful in­tro­duc­tion to the dis­ease, then quickly set­tled into the most gru­elling regime of my nurs­ing ed­u­ca­tion ex­pe­ri­ence.

There was no cure for po­lio in those days, and a high death rate. The pre­vail­ing treat­ment for the painful spas­tic limbs char­ac­ter­is­tic of the dis­ease was the “Sis­ter Kenny” treat­ment, con­sist­ing of the ap­pli­ca­tion of hot packs, fol­lowed by pas­sive move­ment and stretch­ing ex­er­cises.

This was usu­ally very painful for the pa­tients. In be­tween the sched­ule of packs, one had to care for the per­son, who usu­ally had a high fever, was in great pain and scared, and suf­fer­ing some de­gree of mus­cu­lar im­pair­ment. We all had far more to do than we had time for, and my days and nights rapidly de­vel­oped night­mar­ish over­tones — like the dreams in which you are run­ning as fast as you can, but never seem to get any­where.

The pack­ing ther­apy it­self was ex­haust­ing work, con­sist­ing of boil­ing up large heavy flan­nel cloths in vats, then wring­ing them out with a pair of wooden stupe wringers, or rolling them through a prim­i­tive wringer ap­pa­ra­tus. Then the limb was hastily wrapped in the flan­nels, and cov­ered with rub­ber sheets to pre­serve the heat as long as pos­si­ble. The pa­tients hated the treat­ment, and grew to dread the sight of us.

The worst cases were the poor souls who had con­tracted “bul­bar” po­lio, in which the dis­ease af­fected their abil­ity to swal­low, talk, move and breathe. The only way many of these could sur­vive was in a Drinker res­pi­ra­tor — the afore­men­tioned iron lung. In­vented by Philip Drinker in the 1920s in Bri­tain, the iron lung worked on the prin­ci­ple of in­ter­mit­tent neg­a­tive pres­sure ven­ti­la­tion, which repli­cated the res­pi­ra­tory move­ments of the pa­tient’s di­aphragm and lungs.

The pa­tient was placed in­side the sealed metal can­is­ter, to­tally en­cased ex­cept for the head. A soft col­lar around the neck pro­tected the vac­uum in the can­is­ter. Along the sides were a se­ries of cuffed port­holes, through which the at­ten­dants could ren­der nurs­ing care. Sus­pended over the supine pa­tient’s face was a mir­ror, through which he or she could glimpse the sur­round­ing en­vi­ron­ment.

The bel­lows, which rhyth­mi­cally pumped in and out to cre­ate the vac­uum, was pow­ered by elec­tric­ity, and in the event of a power fail­ure (not un­com­mon in those days), the bel­lows had to be pumped by hand un­til power was re­stored. Hence, each ven­ti­la­tor had to have its own team of two nurses around the clock, since one nurse could pump for only so long. I re­mem­ber the ter­ror I felt while pump­ing for what seemed hours, know­ing that my ef­forts alone were keep­ing the pa­tient alive.

In­evitably, we came to be very fond of our pa­tients, liv­ing with them night and day, and hear­ing their worst fears and re­grets. Each death — and there were many — felt like a per­sonal fail­ure. Our pa­tients were mostly chil­dren or young adults, and I can still re­mem­ber in­di­vid­u­als. One was a young woman preg­nant with her first child, who needed to be in the res­pi­ra­tor. When she went into labour, we took her out of the Drinker and put her on a chest cuirass-type res­pi­ra­tor, which en­cased her torso only. I had not yet been through the ma­ter­nity ro­ta­tion, and as­sisted with the labour and de­liv­ery in a fog of fear and con­fu­sion. The child sur­vived, but the mother did not. It was a lot to deal with for a 19-year-old, but there was no choice, and we all did what we had to.

We young stu­dents lived in con­stant fear of get­ting the dis­ease, since it was highly com­mu­ni­ca­ble. We knew the symp­toms well, and ev­ery day or night we went to bed ex­hausted, with sore throats, el­e­vated pulses or a stiff neck. Upon awak­en­ing, the first thing we did was move our heads to see if the stiff­ness was there. We had few days off, and when we did, it seemed too much ef­fort to go into town, al­though we badly needed the di­ver­sion. None of our boyfriends had cars, and it was a long street­car ride for even the most ar­dent suitor.

Dur­ing my stay, I came down with a se­vere case of laryn­gi­tis and cough, which I think was caused by stress. My friend, Bev, con­tracted the measles while at the Alex, but we sur­vived un­scathed.

That long, hot sum­mer of fear fi­nally ended for me, and the rest of my nurs­ing ed­u­ca­tion seemed a breeze af­ter my stint in po­lio hell. A few weeks be­fore I grad­u­ated, I re­ceived a call from the direc­tor of the Alexandra, ask­ing me if I would like to come on staff there. I de­clined with thanks, but felt grat­i­fied by the of­fer.

A year later, the po­lio vac­cine de­vel­oped by Jonas Salk came on the mar­ket, and that was the end of the North Amer­i­can po­lio epi­demics and their fear­ful toll on the lives of youth.

I re­mem­ber, in 1956, tak­ing my baby son to the pe­di­a­tri­cian for the first of his se­ries of po­lio shots. I had tears in my eyes, mostly in grat­i­tude that he would for­ever be spared the threat of po­lio, I sup­pose, but partly in grief that it had come too late for so many peo­ple.

Jean Jenny, R.N., BSC. N.ED, M.ED, M.SC.N., is a re­tired pro­fes­sor of nurs­ing, Univer­sity of Ot­tawa. She grad­u­ated from the school of nurs­ing of the Royal Vic­to­ria Hos­pi­tal in Mon­treal in 1954, and em­barked on long and re­ward­ing nurs­ing ca­reer, in­clud­ing clin­i­cal, ad­min­is­tra­tive, teach­ing and re­search.

We were given a brief and fear­ful in­tro­duc­tion to the dis­ease, then quickly set­tled into the most gru­elling regime of my nurs­ing ed­u­ca­tion ex­pe­ri­ence.

Pa­tients who con­tracted “bul­bar” po­lio had trou­ble swal­low­ing, talk­ing, mov­ing and breath­ing. The only way they could sur­vive, says Jean Jenny, was in an iron lung, as shown in April 1955.


Chil­dren line up for po­lio vac­ci­na­tions, April 1955.


An un­named Cana­dian boy be­ing vac­ci­nated in 1959.

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