A testament to youth? Reflections on the Polio era in Alberta

Geraldine Huynh is a medical student in the Class of 2020 at the University of Alberta.

 

After “catching the flu” and falling down in his own home, Marion Chomik distinctly remembers in October 1960 the embarrassment of his dad carrying him as a 13-year-old boy into the car to a local hospital in Viking, AB, where he would awake the next day to the shocking realization that he could no longer move his arms or legs.

Marion Chomik was one of the patients I interviewed.

I spent four months researching the “summer plague”, also the acute viral infectious disease known as poliomyelitis. Polio struck suddenly and indiscriminately. Symptoms often began with neck pain and a high fever, but for less than 2% of cases, the intestinal virus would enter the central nervous system leading to paralysis that was permanent and sometimes fatal. As result, the polio wards at the University of Alberta Hospital (UAH) became home to some patients for more than 3 decades during the aftermath of Alberta’s largest outbreak in 1953. I spent hours reading biographies and interviews of UAH physicians, physiologists, nurses and volunteers, but the highlight of my summer were the conversations with polio survivors like Marion who allowed me to enter their world and learn from their extraordinary experiences.

Our conversations were filled with the many challenges that come with such an extensive disease. Each patients story was unique, but elements of their experiences were shared. In addition to the pain and paralysis of the virus, patients faced public fear, stigma, isolation units and separation from loved ones. With no cure, patients also endured painful physical therapy, countless surgeries, and ventilators that rendered the patient mute. In many ways, treatment competed with the disease as an agent of care and suffering. However, to my surprise, the resounding and undeniable tone of my conversations with patients like Marion Chomik was one of hope and gratitude.

Marion fondly recalls meeting his wife, a health care aid at the UAH and his adventures flying to Hawaii, beginning Edmonton’s first personalized computer programming company, and operating a radio station with his close-knit group of friends on the polio wards, affectionately called “the boys”. Although his family came regularly to visit, the goal was always to leave the wards and return home. Marion tirelessly worked to become more and more independent. Through a technique called “frog-breathing”, he no longer needed the assistance of his ventilator to combat his paralyzed diaphragm and through arduous physical exercises and surgeries, he regained some strength and movement in his atrophying muscles and strengthened the functionality he did possess.

For some survivors like Gary McPherson, whose book serves as a source of the quotes, every day was a gift and considered a “borrowed day”1. Some view their time on the polio wards as a time of isolation away from the rest of society. Others hold a mixed view seeing it as a time of “rich, diverse experience” that eventually granted patients, “the support…to be independent and to live with dignity in the community”. The individual experiences of polio patients were so personal, lived and felt, that it is difficult to generalize the stigma, social perceptions of disability and particular challenges they and their families faced.

Arthur Frank, author of the Wounded Storyteller, writes, “the truth of stories is not only what was experienced, but equally what becomes experience in the telling and its reception. The stories we tell about our lives are not necessarily those lives as they were lived, but those stories become our experience of those lives.” For most Canadians, the polio story ended in 1962 with the last serious polio epidemic. For survivors of these epidemics, like Marion Chomik, the effects of this complex disease persist and for some have even manifested into a new disease called post-polio syndrome.

“Professionals bring their personal suffering into their work and ill people discover forms of vocation in illness.” Station 67 and the Aberhart wards became a unique space where the boundaries between health care provider and patient often blurred. Amidst iron lungs, ventilators and rocking beds, patients befriended and even married staff on the wards. For patients, like Marion, “it was what it was”. In response to the numerous tragedies, Lynne Chomik responds, “You dealt with it.” Financial investment and providing treatment and equipment are not equal to offering care. But the friendships, compassion, dedication and commitment of every member of the healthcare providing team: from orderlies to volunteers to family members and physicians allowed many patients to not only cope with such a devastating disease, but thrive. Marion Chomik attributes his ability to adapt to his young age. But perhaps his story and the story of Gary McPherson are a testament not of their youth but to their resiliency, courage and character and to the dedication, support and imagination of their care teams.

Consent was received from Marion Chomik to tell this story. 

2 thoughts on “A testament to youth? Reflections on the Polio era in Alberta

  1. F68.10

    I met a guy recently who told me that he got polio, as well as did many of people in his village, after a doctor vaccinated them in Turkey some 3 or 4 decades ago. Is such a story plausible? What kind of reliable data do we have when it comes to vaccination campaigns in poor countries in the days of yore?

    A member of my family also got polio as a toddler. It indeed triggered a vocation into medicine. Unfortunately, that kind of experience doesn’t guarantee that the former patient will not have a warped view of healthcare and illness when they become a medical doctor. Complicated topic.

    Reply
  2. David

    I showed this article to my mother, who was one of the nurses who sailed from England to Canada to work in the Polio wards during the epidemic.

    She remembers the patients in the iron lungs being unable to talk due to the tubes in their throats. Instead, they would make clicking sounds with their mouths to attract her attention.

    My mother also talked about how the electrical storms would sometimes knock out the power and the nurses would have to crank the iron lungs by hand, sometimes two iron lungs per nurse!

    Amazingly, my mother and her colleagues hadn’t been vaccinated against polio. She believed that she must have had a subclinical infection as a child which gave her immunity.

    Thank you for writing this article, my mother enjoyed reading it and it brought back some distant memories from her time at UAH.

    Reply

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *