From Hearst to Sick Kids to wheelchair racing and more
Hearst is the name of the place where I was born. Just below James Bay in Northern Ontario, it had, and still has, about two thousand people. Some time around the beginning of the school year in 1952 I was conceived. Friday, May 1, 1953 about 3:00 AM I was born. The youngest of five kids, I wasn’t quite what my parents had in mind.
Now, the real question is this; why bother writing about myself?
Well, that’s easy: nobody else will. I think it makes more sense for me to tell the story from my point of view. Hospital records and school reports give the facts, but that’s not the whole story.
No one knows for sure what happened or why, but some time after I was conceived, a few DNA molecules were having a coffee break when their call came. These little DNA guys were responsible for the matter of tendons, joints and muscles. They must have arrived soon after the call, or left while on duty, but in either case, it is only the arms, legs and hips they missed out on. The rest they got OK.
The result was called “arthrogryposis”, but no one knew that until later, when the doctors in Toronto decided it was not a severe case of clubfeet and hands. Once club feet are fixed, that is it, finished, over and done with, but me, I needed to have the same operation performed several times on the same joint since the tendons kept on deforming their growth.
The first my parents knew of it was when I was born. Mum, at thirty-three with four regular kids ranging from 4 to 10 years of age, had no reason to suspect anything. These days they could have known early on in the pregnancy if something wasn’t going according to plan. Even if they had, I’m sure things would have turned out all the same.
Exactly what happened in the days just after my birth is not very clear. I have collected various stories from the relatives who where there at the time. and seen letters from many whom were not there. The consistent threads follow: after I was born every one agreed my parents had just received a real big problem. The doctors believed there were mental as well as the more than conspicuous physical defects. Unfortunately for my family at the time, they were not able to see that except for a rather bad physical condition related to my limbs, I was a very healthy screaming infant that any family would like to have turn up at three in the morning. The doctors and the priest knew, though, that my parents were not in a position to handle thousands of dollars in medical bills. Pressure was apparently exerted on my father to immediately put me into an institution for the mentally impaired with an expected short life span. Not take me home. Don’t tell Mum about this but rather that she lost her baby! This type of talk went on for apparently two days. On Monday, May 4, I was baptized by the same priest who was recommending my abandonment.
However, before that ceremonious event occurred, an infinitely more solemn incident took place. Sometime late Saturday night or Sunday morning, my mum decided she had been long enough without seeing me. At the time they had told her she needed her rest. Apparently she found a night nurse, who, unaware of the doctors orders not to let my mother see me, brought me to her. Of course she was perplexed, but not paralyzed.
I was, after all, her son. As the story is told, there was a clothesline right outside my mother’s window. As she held me for the first time, she noticed my reaction to its squeaking. She knew, as only mothers can know something, that the difficulties were only physical, I was mentally alert. After the Baptismal certificate, the next article in writing I have seen to shed light on those days is a note my mother wrote to herself on both sides of a four by five envelope. It reads at once like a good bye letter as well as an everything will be better in the future.
James Andrew born on May 1st 1953, on a Friday at 3 A.M. Weighed 7 lbs & 14 oz. Dr. V.J.Sadosky & Miss Bourgeois R.N. attended in St. Paul Hospital, Hearst, Ontario. “Jimmy was Baptized in St. Paul Hospital on May 4, at 4 P.M. 1953, God parents are Rolly (Mum’s brother) and Frances Sigouin (his wife). They were not present so Grandma Flood and Alf Sigouin (Mum’s brother) stood for them. Rev. Father Grenier Baptized Jimmy, Daddy and Mummy also present. Jimmy left for treatment to Toronto in Sick Children’s Hospital on May 11th at 10:30 A.M. with Grandma Flood, he then weighed 8 lbs 3 oz., he was a lovely baby & healthy, but he was crippled & had to go for treatment. Mrs. Pellow & Georgie Clark (long time friends of the family) drove him to Kap (Kapuskasing) & then Grandma and Jimmy had their first airplane ride together, & had a grand trip. Arrived in Toronto at 5:05 p.m. They were met by Margaret & Francis (Dad’s sister and brother), took them to St. Martyrs church for blessings and prayers and the old priest put the relic on Jimmy and asked us all to pray and say novena, and if it’s the will of God, to make him better.
Then they took him to the hospital arrived at 6:00 p.m., was examined for 3 hrs and put in his bed for a rest for 2 days before starting treatment.
We miss him very much, but maybe before too long we’ll have him with us. And we’ll love him more than ever. Mummy and Daddy.
Sick Kids became my first home. [This is the first letter, of hundreds, from Alice Boxill, that I found in an Old Spice box that my mother gave me years later.]
Sometimes details are difficult to track down. One such item is that of Christmas ’53. Throughout my childhood I remember being told that I had spent my first Christmas in the hospital. The first two years in the hospital, no time out: this was the first story. Then the idea that I had never missed a Christmas at home started to develop. In any case, although Hearst is where I was born, I lived there only 11 days. When I first went home for a lengthy stay, it was to Stratford, Ontario, where my dad got a job with the Chamber of Commerce. The family wanted to be closer to Sick Kids. His job was to try to convince industry to settle in Stratford. Stratford was a little place that was on C.N. rail line, fairly close to Toronto and all its prosperity. It was also a lot closer to the hospital, which made getting me back and forth and visiting hospital a lot easier. So Stratford became my second home, and obviously the most important one. It was a very pretty, very calm small town of about 25,000 nice, civilized, fairly reserved Anglo-Saxons Canadians. But somehow my boisterous, extroverted, no nonsense Irish-French family fit right in.
Stratford was, in the fifties, starting to develop the theatre. The Shakespearean Theatre, like every other city called Stratford seems to have, quickly became well known in Canada and the northern United States. Tourists would come from April to the end of October to watch the plays in the newly built theatre. The theatre is at the top of a nice long hill with a great winding road that ended up at the river’s edge. The river was called the Avon.
The Avon had several little islands, a few smaller rivers that fed into it, and a lot of wooden and stone arch bridges. It wasn’t too wide, pretty straight, and it required a good wind to work up any waves. So the water was very calm; great for canoes and row boats. The only motorized boats were the police boats and a small ferry, first the Juliet I, then the bigger Juliet II, followed by the bigger and faster Juliet III. After that they were all the Juliet III. People did swim in the river too: normally after they tipped their canoes. Fishing was possible, typically when there was really nothing else to do. Mostly ugly catfish were caught, useless except for the practice. My folks bought a house on the corner of William and James Streets. The stucco one, not the brick one with a long driveway up the side of the house. 250 William Street, Stratford, Ontario. James Street is a little two block street that started at what was a country road and ended at William Street, the prettiest street in town, which ran the length of the river. Most places would have called it River Street. Not Stratford. On the other side of William Street, between it and the river, was a long park where I spent a lot of my childhood. We played war there, hiding behind tall trees, shouting “bang bang” or “rata tata tata tat, you’re dead. We had teams. You didn’t win or lose, the street lights just came on which told every one of the family rule of time to go home.
A little old lady who liked a clean garden without kids in it lived across the street. She liked to watch out for the swans and ducks on the river, and she made it her business to call the Fire Department when a duck got frozen in the river at the onset of winter. People would take her the birds that their cats had half killed. She was that kind of neighbour. I don’t remember if she had a husband; she was the one who got all the attention. Once she had a big cage made out of snow fence. Inside there was a swan that had a broken wing. He lost an argument with a car. The city was going to kill it. She took it and got it back in shape after a few months.
The other side of the river was another park, except for the arena was directly across the river from our house. The arena is where the Stratford Hockey team always lost to London and Kitchener/Waterloo. A terrible fate.
Arron’s Esso Service Station was up at the end of James Street . What a place! Arron’s was the local pop, chips and candy store. He also sold gas. His air pumps never worked for bicycle tires, and his dinger cord never worked either. His garage had two bays that were filled with pop cases and chip boxes. The inside part was filled with freezers that were always filled with different coloured popsicles, little ice cream cups with wooden spoons stuck to the side. Before Arron closed his Esso and started sailing the Juliets up and down the river, his place was the place to go to get the snacks. After he closed it was a long walk to the next store.
So back to our house on the corner of William and James Streets. 250 William Street. A white stucco, two story with lots of windows on three sides. The stucco was the type with lots of pieces of glass stuck in it all over the place. The house sparkled in the sun and invisible in the snow storms. The windows were only along three sides since the fourth side was only three feet from the neighbour’s house. Not much sense have lots of windows that look out at a red brick wall. On the William Street side there was a veranda. Down several wooden slippery-when-wet stairs there was a cement walk that went along a bit, then down to the sidewalk. On the corner was a big tree. The yard was large on the side and back of the house. At the back of the yard there was an old garage. Between it and the neighbour’s solid fence, there was a two-foot hide out, where we ate our pop and chips from Arron’s or hid from our parents. . Mum would get fruit from them. Near the back door of the house was a sand box that was well used by all the kids in the neighbourhood. When I had casts, mum would lay me at the edge on the grass and let me play in the sand with a bunch of trucks and cars and soon I’d be joined by one friend or another.
Our house was a typical Stratford house of the older variety. Going in the back door, straight a head, was a closet filled with what most people call junk. The entry to the kitchen was through a door that formed a corner with the closet. Along the wall to the left were the windows that looked out on the backyard. The next wall was an interior wall of windows that looked into what was an extension built on after the house was made. This was the bedroom of my oldest brother, Dick, and I felt it was the nicest room in the house. The other walls of his bedroom were all windows. Under the windows in the kitchen side was the long hot water radiator that did its best. The kitchen was filled with normal family clutter. The shiny chrome legged kitchen table matched the red vinyl covered chairs. No matter what we did, we couldn’t scratch that arborite table top.
So, except me, everything was altogether normal. We were a pretty typical post war baby boom small town hard working child raising family. The stories and events that follow are either as I remember, or as told to me. [Click here to see the scrapbook my sister Elyse did when she was in grade 12, and I was 8 years old.]
They’re all true, as far as I know.
Clear memories, ones that come from within your own head and not put there by other people’s stories, memories like these of my early childhood at 250 William Street are hard to come by. There are glimmers of events, flashes of scenes, but not much solid. The time was filled with trips to and from the hospital, check up after check up, operation after operation to help correct the damage that too short tendons and muscles were doing to my growing bones. My sister Elyse wrote in a school scrap book about me that by the time I was nine, half of my life had been spent in the hospital. Maybe all the medicine I received killed the memory, or maybe the memories were worth forgetting. In any case, I will talk about the memories that have stayed.
My Aunt Margaret and Uncle Mel arrived one day to visit. They lived in Toronto, but way up at Finch and Younge Streets, which at the time, were out in the country. Most of us kids who had family living far away preferred not having many visitors. It only reminded us of what was out there. Of course, when I say “most of the kids”, I mean the regular patients who were there for more than a broken leg or tonsils or something ordinary. Anyway, one day my aunt and uncle arrived to visit. I left the play area where all my friends were and sat on the bed and “visited”. It was fun because they brought me a model airplane. It was red and white, and didn’t require glue. Mel helped me put it together since my right arm was in a cast, and the left arm didn’t do that kind of work. Specialization! After the plane was properly built, Mel left for a cigarette, and Aunt Margaret flew the plane! Just as I asked, too. I made the sounds though. She said she couldn’t make good plane sounds. When Mel came back from the smoking room they walked me down to the play room and said good-bye. The other kids loved that airplane as much as I did.
Hospitals provide you with a lot of time on your back looking up at ceilings. The ceilings in our ward were the type made of white squares, each about a foot by a foot. They were filled with holes. Perfect round deep holes. They had no pattern. We knew this after years of looking; no two edges where ever the same. Each ceiling tile was like a snow flake. Original. When were little kids, the nurses would tell us they could see us through those holes in the ceiling. Of course, when we got older, we knew it wasn’t true. Anyway, the rooms had speakers in them that the nurses would use to talk to each other. At night, when we were all supposed to be sound asleep, the speaker would start up: “David, Gary and Jimmy, get back into bed.” We would always be surprised that they knew that at least some of us were out of bed. Even if they got two out of three, it was probably because they forgot that David was tied to the bed so that he wouldn’t fall out while trying to climb over the rails. Often, he would be the most able of the boys in the room, so the nurses would make it difficult for him to get out of bed. If he did get out his bed, he would help the others of us get out theirs. New nurses on the night shift might forget or not know who to watch out for. Every time we were in, it would be a different kid who was more able anyway.
The hospital was also very concerned all the kids were happy and in good spirits. I remember many times when a real big guy called Whipper Billy Watson would come in around Christmas time. We would see him on TV every Saturday morning wrestling beating the brains out of who ever would dare to take him on. We always knew he’d win. He’d visit every room and talk to each kid. During the visits, he would blow up balloons with one breath, but the nurses would tie the knots, because he said his fingers were too big for that kind of work. The kids who were in for normal stuff thought it was great seeing a TV wrestling star. But when he came into a room where one of us regulars was stationed and said hello to us by name. He always knew my name, and the nurses said that it wasn’t one of them who had told him. I believe it, too. One time I followed him into the next room, and he knew two of the kids names just like that.
All of the nurses were great too. There were some who would come and visit at night after their shift was long over. Sometimes they would come by late at night with their boy friends who wanted to be introduced to the kids they talked about all the time. They would sneak in treats and we’d have a sort of picnic in the visitors lounge so as to not wake up any one. Sometimes the nurses who were on duty would come down and have a visit too!
Being back in Stratford after a spell in the hospital was always a comfort and a relief. Although hospital was nice, and they did all they could to make it comfortable, it wasn’t home. A life with less restrictions and more freedom was what the doctor ordered after a two or three month stay in the hospital. What each visit at home was like would depend on the state of affairs, that is to say, how many casts did I have on? Where were they? Could I walk? Was I stuck in a wheelchair? Or a banana cart? ( Like a wheelchair, but you had to lie down all the time. It’s a way of getting around if you’re stuck in a body cast.)
Then there would be the visits. All the friends who I hadn’t seen in a long time would come visiting. Again, depending on my condition, visiting could mean anything from going for a walk or playing outside, or sitting around a table playing with Lego or putting jigsaw puzzles together.
One friend who would always be there first thing in the morning would be Tony French. Tony was a kid my age who lived across the street on James Street. It is told by each of my brothers and sisters and parents that Tony would come every day, even when I was away, to ask if I was going to come out to play. They would tell him that I had gone to the hospital and would be there for a long time, and that as soon as I got home they would tell him. The next day, or sometimes the same day but later on, Tony would come and ask for me again. It wasn’t that Tony was slow or anything, it is just that little kids like Tony had no idea of what was meant by later, or a week, or a long time. So the day he came over to ask if I could come out to play, and he found me home, well, what a surprise it was to him. He would come running in to my room, and want to know everything that happened. We had a great time together.
One thing that we loved was riding our tricycles. We had to wait until I had a particular operation on my left hip that made it possible, but once that occurred, there was no stopping us. Dad got me a regular trike, and it turned out I could make it work just fine. Well, I could make it go using only my left leg. The right knee didn’t bend enough, and it was not possible to adjust it to make it work. So, that means that with one leg, you can get half as much power as with two legs. When the left leg was at the bottom of the push, it had to wait for the peddle to arrive at the top to get another push. Slowing down was tricky too, and corners were a real challenge. Coming down James Street on Tony’s side towards William, there was a telephone pole right at the corner stuck in the sidewalk. That telephone pole caused me more problems! I would hit it while trying to get around the corner. Needless to say I was going much too fast for the corner. Probably I should be happy the pole was there. At least it wasn’t moving at thirty miles an hour like the cars were that it was stopping me from hitting. Going around corners and stopping were hazardous to my skin on the elbows and knees. By nature, the one legged approach was certainly the root of the problem. But one leg was better than pushing with the feet on the ground, and was certainly better than walking up to Arron’s all the time. We had attached bags to the handle bar to put our stuff in and take places. That way, when we got where we were going, there would still be some left.
We spent a great deal of time trying to wear out the tires on our model cars. This we did by tying a string to the cars and pulling them with the trikes. When that wasn’t working fast enough we would fill the cars with stones to make them heavier. Trying to make the cars spin out without tipping over was part of the challenge.
I remember one birthday. I have no idea of how old I was. Tony was walking across the street with his present for me. I was so excited. I ran out to greet him, and we went in together to play with the other kids. When the time came to open presents I tore into them with usual panic. Tony’s was a book. A Lassie book. Anyway, when he left, he took it with him. It was the first party he had ever been to and no one explained the rules. I had experience from the hospital, so I knew better. When Mrs. French saw Tony come home with the opened book in his hand she marched him back across the street. So, Tony, not knowing what was going on, started crying his eyes out. On the other side of the street, I discovered that my friend Tony had taken my new book and started to cry own my eyes out. Well, it was quite a scene. Two little kids each crying away while their mothers tried to sort things out my mother traded Tony an old Lassie book with a different story for the new one. Tony was happy. Jimmy was happy. It was all forgiven.
All of our neighbours knew that if they ever heard someone yelling at the top of their lungs, “Come here, somebody”, it was me. And I had a real good set of lungs. The reason was that if I ever fell down, I couldn’t get up. So I would look around to see if there was “somebody” in sight, and if not I’d start yelling. It normally didn’t take too long for some one to hear me. Some poor unsuspecting person, having a quiet cup of tea in the afternoon, would suddenly be disturbed by a yelling kid out on the street. When some one would arrive, they would never be sure what they might find. Usually I went head first. Elbows would immediately come out to protect the head. If I was really moving, the knees got in on the action too. A normal fall would cut open an elbow. Not usually the same one. A bad fall was two elbows and a knee. A real bad fall was elbows and knees and the wind knocked out. Twice a day was average. Any time, any type of road, sidewalk, lawn, anything, didn’t matter. If the person who came out was used to the routine things would go OK. If the person who came out had never done this before, well, it could slow me down half an hour. They’d insist on taking me in and cleaning up those nasty cuts, putting huge ugly unnecessary bandages and red stuff all over the place to disinfect the cuts and bruises. By the time I would get home, mum would figure I was hit by a car. Usually I’d have a Kleenex to put on the cut until it stopped bleeding, and that would be that. If the lady who loved to take care of the animals ever got out before mum, I could be hours.
Imagine this: me, Tony, and another kid on the way to Arron’s. I could walk as fast as they could, no problem. The three of us talking about something or other, then suddenly, bwop! Jim’s flat on the ground. The other two are already several steps ahead before they realize I’ve dropped out of the conversation. Calmly they turn around and start walking back to me. I have rolled to a sitting position and have checked out the damages. One of them puts his hands under my shoulders, and up. Find the Kleenex and away we go. It would take a really bad fall to abort a trip to Arron’s.
Life was filled with challenges and obstacles being over come or bypassed. I learned to walk three or four different times. Each time I had a different hip-leg-foot arrangement that required a completely different style of walking. Writing, or printing, or simply holding a pencil; this I learned how to do several times as well. One time the wrist was straight: another time bent but the thumb up more. After each operation a new method was discovered and practiced. And there were still things I couldn’t figure out how to do: getting up when I fell; putting on socks; tying shoes; cutting meat; getting things from higher than shoulder height or from below the knees. Perhaps some could have been solved if we wanted to use the “aids” that you could buy and depend on and be stranded or useless with out them if they were lost or broken. We tended to do without them!
With me, as with most kids, going to school for the first time was a major event in my life. I have many memories from my school experiences.
September was well into its first week when mum realized the fact that school was starting soon. She was in a sweat about how I would cope with the situation. She was worried about how I would hold up my hand to answer or ask questions. She was worried about how I would get my coat on in winter, even though it was still summer. She was worried about everything, worried sick.
Dad on the other hand remained quite silent on the matter, that is when mum was not around. In private, though, it was a different story. He would be trying to figure out solutions to the things mum was worried sick over. He made something resembling a school desk and I would have to sit in it and try out his various solutions to problems that I didn’t even know existed. Surely other kids didn’t go through all this, I thought. Finally dad decided that if I put my right elbow on the desk, and raised my left elbow on my right hand, and hoped the teacher was looking my way, then everything should be OK. There was no solution to the winter coat and boots and all the other winter stuff required. He decided that I would just bring a note to explain everything.
The first day arrived at last. I was getting anxious to get to this place that everyone was so worried about. The whole house was up bright and early, and my brothers and sisters received their last minute instructions about what to do and say and not do and not say. They had all been through it before and even so were receiving instructions like that. I couldn’t imagine what kind of talking to I was going to get. I had to wait for mine. So into the car we went. Dad didn’t usually drive everybody to school, but the first day of school was special. First to the high-school to drop off Dick and Elyse, then to Saint Aloysius for Diane, John and me. When we got there he gave John and Diane a brief talking to and they were gone. And there I sat, seat belted into the middle of the front seat of the two coloured Monarch. (We always used seat belts!) I knew dad wanted to have this little time alone, man to man, as it were.
Well, it wasn’t what I thought it would be. He went over the different things we worked out about the desks, walking in line and making the water fountain work: most people turn the handle, but it works just as well by pushing. I was much more interested in getting outside to play with all those kids out in the yard who had already escaped their parents’ last minute instructions. The last thing I heard as I was closing the door was, “Be good! Good luck, Jimmy”.
Just as I started to play with some kids a really loud bell started making its noise. Then it stopped. Then it started again. It must have been a code, all the kids who were older started inside. So us new “students” did the same. By now I had found John and was going in with him. The last of the parents were leaving.
There was this rather large lady dressed in black standing at the door. She said hello to John. John said “Hello, Mother”. That was pretty strange. We just said “bye” to mum and now he was saying “hello, Mother” to this lady. I had seen them around before, but never this close. I certainly never spoke to one. As soon as we passed her I asked John why he called her “mother”, but I guess I said it too loud. He gave me a dirty look and said he’d tell me at home. We were all being directed down this hall that had rooms on both sides. The rooms all looked the same. Then we came into this really big room with circles and lines drawn on the floor. The floor was made of the same type of wood that our hall was made of. There were chairs at the front and another lady in black was directing us to sit down. I asked John what the room was and he said it was the gym. “What did you say? They call this a Jim?” “Yes, a gym, but not your kind of gym. It’s short for gymnasium.”
That didn’t sound anything like my name. Then that fat lady came in and walked on to something at the front of gym at the same time I noticed it was there. I asked John what that was. He said it was a stage. At least that doesn’t sound like Jimmy. She started talking and her voice boomed out, from a place that seemed to be right over my head. I figured I’d ask John about that later. The first thing she said was “Welcome to Saint Aloysius.” Then she said she was Mother Anacleta. This was all very strange, but I figured I’d save up all these questions until we got home. She said she was going to call out names and those called were to go with the teacher standing at the back of the gym. As soon as she said “gym”, boy did I jump, but John grabbed me and sat me down. My name was about tenth on the list, but it sure sounded strange backwards: FLOOD, Jim. When she finished her list I got up and went to the back of the gym with some other kids. At the back another lady in black asked us to follow her. I supposed she was going to tell us to call her mother something or other. As soon as we got into one of those rooms she said to call her Sister Deborah. There were kids crying all over the place. Sister Deborah tried to calm them all down. It was the first time that many of them had been away from their own mother and she wasn’t much like anybody’s mother. Then this Sister Deborah, who could have been someone’s sister, said she was going to call our names and we were to sit in the seats in order as soon as she called our name. This time it wasn’t backwards. I went over and sat behind a Fitzpatrick or something close to that. When all of us were sitting in our seats she started welcoming us to her class.
I was just thinking about how long we may have been there when another bell went off. The teacher was telling us what that bell meant. She said it was a warning bell indicating that the class time was almost over. She said that soon another bell would ring and that we would be able to get a drink of water or go to the washroom. Then the bell rang. Several us got up to get a drink. I wanted to try out pushing the handle. Anyway, she said that there would be no break today because the school day was going to be over soon. Sister Deborah started to pass around a sheet of paper for each kid in the class. When I got mine I tried to read it, but it was written long hand. That Fitzpatrick kid had the same thing on his. It looked exactly the same, too. She must have spent a long time writing those notes so they all looked alike. Sister Deborah said it was a note to our parents. As soon as she said that I remembered I had a note from my parents to her. I decided to wait “till everyone had left before I gave it to her.
Then another bell rang and Sister Deborah said that we could all go and to be sure to get a good night’s sleep. When the last kid was out I went up to her table and told her I had a note to her from my mother. She asked to see it, but I guess I handed her the note she passed out to us. She said something or other, so I gave her the other note. I waited while she read it, then she said I could go. I told her she had my note, but she gave me the wrong one. I figured I’d just forget about it, since probably Diane and John already had notes from their teachers too. I left and found Diane and John waiting for me just outside the door. We left and made the five minute walk to the bus stop.
Mum was full of questions about my first day at a real school. I had been to kindergarten school, but that was never like real school: sitting in desks and paying attention to the teacher was not high on the list of things we did in kindergarten. Mum wanted to know about everything from the moment I left “till I got back. I didn’t mind answering at all. It was fun, and she seemed to really want to know. But when she was finished I went to find John; there was some things I had to know about. He was upstairs in his room looking over the list of things he had to buy for school.
“John, I gotta ask you something. Whatchya doing?” I guess he knew what I wanted; as soon as I got into his room he started telling me about the big lady and why we had to call her “mother” all the time. He told me about the “gym” and what they did there, and why her voice was so loud over my head, but that lost me. I asked him if Sister Deborah and Mother Anacleta lived in the same place, and what they called each other even when no one else was around. Then I asked him about that crazy note the teacher gave me to bring home, and told him what happened to mine. “Don’t worry, mum has been through it lots already.” I asked why she asked so many questions if she’d been through it so many times. He said to get used to it. “Teachers do the same thing, ask lots of questions about things they know all about!” I was getting hungry, so I went back down stairs.
A sandwich. Oh well.
When dad got home from work, usually late, he was never in a mood to fool around. After he had supper, looked at the mail, and watched the news, then you could horse around. I sat at the table as he ate his supper. Lots of questions too! Different than mum’s too. Did our idea to put up my hand work? Were the other students nice? Did I want to be at home, or did I cry like he thought a lot of the other kids probably would? Was I anxious to go back? Did I think I would like it? I tried to answer all the questions the way I thought he would like to hear it.
However, none of the talking about school, and all the other stuff would cause him to forget: school tomorrow, no TV. Hit the books, hit the sack. It made sense for the others, but me? I didn’t have any books, and “Get Smart” and “The Green Hornet” were on! Oh well.
The whole house was up early the next day, but not nearly as excited or anxious. Dad had an early meeting so we had to take the bus. Like I said, a drive the first day, the bus the rest. On the table where I had breakfast was a big pot of porridge, hot toast, milk, jam and juice. There was also something extra. A little book with lines on every page and a red one running up the left of each page. Mum said that I would need it. There was a pencil holder with a few pencils and a ruler and an eraser. This stuff I would need too. This is what that note that I didn’t bring home was all about!
Going to school was not as easy as I hoped. Oh, the schooling part was OK. It was the time between classes that was a lot different from anything I’d ever experienced. Standing in line to get a drink was a real bother. Five minutes between classes and everybody wants a drink. Everybody wants to go to the bathroom. This was a problem. The problem was that I had a real hard time getting the zipper down. And usually it was at the last minute that I realized that I had to go. The original plan was that I would find John, and he would help me. Good plan. He never had his breaks when I did, and he told me to never get him out of class. There were many times I was standing in front of the toilet jumping around trying to get that stupid zipper down. Most of the time I didn’t make it in time. Oh God, a big pee stain again. Before long I started to disguise the pee by what I called “getting wet while washing up” after a pee. I would “accidentally” get water over the front of me, making my shirt and pants wet in spots. It hid it well. I would alternate washing up wet with drinking wet. Those stupid fountains would always get water all over the place! This is what I told everybody. Mum always wanted to attach a big safety pin to the hole on the zipper handle. Never! It was really a good idea, but I hated the idea of walking around with a two inch safety pin, or worse, a diaper pin, attached to my zipper. It wasn’t ’til I had a particular operation on my left wrist that zippers became a problem of the past. At home Mum kept a jar at the top of the basement stairs for those emergencies when making it upstairs would be next to impossible. Later Dad built a downstairs bathroom just inside the back door.
‘Number two’s’ were a real problem. It wasn’t ’til I had that operation on my wrist that I was able to do a proper clean up. Before the operation, it was impossible. I simply had to “hold it” ’til I got home. John refused to have anything to do with it, as did Diane. Diane had a better reason. She wouldn’t be caught dead in a boy’s room, nor would I in the girls. There were occasions when I arrived home in need of a change and a bath. The jar wouldn’t have worked anyway.
There was another part of going to school that I wasn’t ready for. I was used to people watching me a lot when I would go out with my family, but that would only be people who had not seen me before. In school everybody seemed to watch me, even the teachers. After awhile, the kids in my class didn’t pay any attention, in fact, acted just normal. That’s the way I thought it would be. In the hospital, no one ever paid any attention, and besides, there was always somebody worse off than I was.
There was this one kid in class who never paid any special kind of attention to me, he was just normal from the beginning. His name was Gary. We became friends. He was a head taller than everyone else in the class. He was a real nice quiet guy. One day, after school when John and Diane were away at a sports thing, Gary walked home with me. I had walked home before, but he noticed that John and Diane were not around. He offered to come with me. He knew that if I fell I couldn’t get up, and he knew I fell quite a lot. So while we were walking home some guys in the next grade started following and were shouting names at us. I told Gary not to worry about it, because those guys always bothered me like that. So Gary went back to straighten them out. He never would fight with other kids because he was bigger than them, but this time there were three, and they were older, and they were bothering us a lot. He didn’t hurt them, much; mostly their pride, I guess. But he said that they would not bother me again. He was right, too!
When we got home, I was tired and hungry. It was a half hour walk without interruption if I was walking with John and Diane, because they were always anxious to get home. Mum was worried because we were late, but Gary apologized and explained had what happened. Mum was surprised, to say the least, but was happy no one was hurt. When mum asked Gary who he was – that is, who were his parents – it turned out that my parents were friends of his parents. We stayed friends from then on anyway.
Time passed very fast. Pretty soon the stories about Santa started up again. I remember once hearing mum yelling at Elyse to not tell me the truth about Santa. Everyone knew he lived in the North Pole or nearby there. I never got much stuff from my parents: clothes and books. But those notes that Diane helped me write to Santa sure worked. He got me almost everything on the lists. There was always some “Lego” and there was always a jig saw puzzle or two. The puzzles were never opened until I came back from the hospital. Dad really liked train sets, so their was always a few more cars, an engine, and pieces of track. Before dad went to work in Stratford he was a conductor on the trains up in Northern Ontario.
The basement was the train yard. Down those very old stairs to the two four by eight plywood sheets that was our rail line. The cars, engines, tracks and a few light-stands and buildings were in HO scale. The rest was Lego buildings, dinky toys from any scale, cardboard mountains and old soup bowl lakes and rivers. The light for the basement was controlled by a switch on the wall at the top of the stairs or by a switch on the rail line. A simple flick of the switch would turn our world into a night scene of engines with lights, street lamps that worked, Lego yard shops and train stations lit from inside. It was quite a picture. Train sets are the kind of hobby that requires new stuff all the time: things break, wear out, get old. Ours was no exception. But perhaps for different reasons.
Tony French and I had a special sport with the train set that was not usual. We would take apart an engine and put aside the outsides and build another shell out of Lego, or sometimes use the motor by itself. We always thought that they went faster that way. Dad was very careful to build the corners so that you couldn’t tip over the cars at even the fastest speed. What we would do is build houses and put them on the track. The challenge was to try to smash the houses apart without knocking the engine off the track. When the engines were getting old and not working very well, we would make a switch in the track so it would go straight into the wall, not the tunnel. A collision with a solid wall was a good way to speed up the end of an old engine. Another thing we did was put two engines facing each other. After all was finished, we would put them back together and later wonder why they didn’t work so well any more!
The time between the Christmas holidays and the summer holidays were always the longest six months of the year. The time was spent in the coming and going to school habit, getting six layers of clothes on before going out to get the bus. Twenty minutes on the bus plus a five minute walk to school. Getting all the winter clothes on me was clearly the job of John and Diane. Mum was sure that the teachers wouldn’t give it the kind of attention it required, and besides, the teachers had twenty-five other kids to help too! They were not always happy with the task, but did it all the same. That would mean four times a day at school: morning recess, lunch break, afternoon recess, and going home. The recesses were the rule. Every kid in the school had to go outside for the twenty minute recess. It would take about five minutes to get all the winter clothes on: to take off the “indoors only good shoes”, pull the socks back on that had always ended wound up around my big toes, put on the winter shoes, boots, snow pants jacket, hat and mittens that were tied together with a string through the sleeves; do up everything and out to have fun. Fifteen minutes later: take it all off.
Lunch time the same thing all over again. They and I began to hate it a lot. Lunches at the school were a necessity caused by my appearance on the school scene. Usually almost everyone went home for lunch. The farmer’s kids, the ones who lived too far away, or the ones whose mothers worked during the day, these were the ones who had to eat at school. The lunch hour was not enough time for me to get home and eat and get back again. So John and Diane started lunch at school too.
Lunch at school. John and Diane just loved it! The farm kids always ate hot soups out of their thermos, cold drinks out of their other thermos, sandwiches and fruit. They always talked about problems the pigs were having, how many cows had calves that lived, and why the other calves died. Diane just loved talk like that while eating. There wasn’t a proper lunch room. Our lunch-room was the hall. Every lunch time the janitor would drag out a table from the teachers room. Enough chairs for all who were staying were pulled up. The staff room was empty; the teachers all left for lunch, but Mother Anacleta stayed. And right after eating we all had to go outside “till classes started. A terrible storm was the only reason we could stay in. Since Dick and Elyse ate at the canteen at their school, Mum thought that the other three of us also eating at school was a fine idea.
Soon the summer holidays were just around the corner. The summer holidays meant going to the hospital. My doctor started the idea of summer time being used for the hospital and operations, while the school time would be used to get better. There were times when I would miss school for months at a time because the doctor wanted to do another d to have the kids bunched according to who was the doctor.
Five B was the wing of the hospital that overlooked the main entrance on University Avenue. It was like a little city block. All around outer edges of the halls were the patients’ rooms. On the inside were the nurses’ stations, washrooms, small kitchens, and stock rooms. Boys were on one side, girls on the other: lots of rooms to play in and have fun and hide on the nurses. There was a big play room filled with toys, and a TV too! The only real problem was that the nurses’ station was right across from the elevator. That made sneaking up or down the floors really hard. There were stairs, but we always wanted all of us to go, and there was usually someone in a wheelchair. There was always lots to do on five B.
Nurses were a very important part of a stay in the hospital. They were the people you had to get along with. The doctors would be around in the morning for their visits, but the rest of the day it was the nurses. Like the doctors, the nurses were very nice and really wanted to help you. There was one nurse who was very special.
I called her “Blocky”, but her name was Alice Boxill. [This picture was taken at my marriage with Sheila, April 12, 1975.] She wasn’t like the other nurses in many aspects. First, she wasn’t assigned to a floor or ward to work on, and she was able to get the nurses to do things for you. Even the head nurses did what she told them to do. We all thought she looked after the whole place. Her title was “Head of Patient Services”. She was always with me as I was going in for an operation, and she was there when ever I was waking up in the recovery room after. She would tell me stories about the animals that were painted on the walls to help me forget how terrible I felt after surgery. She was the first person we would see when we would arrive for what was called “admitting”. I always admitted everything and it never got me anywhere. Sometimes she would even be at the door when we would drive up the ramp. She would take mum and me away while dad would park the car. He’d show up later. Admitting would always begin with a visit to Dr. Salter’s office.
His office was behind seven or eight little change rooms. Each change room was big enough for a patient, a helper or nurse, and a friend. Then Blocky would leave to tell Dr. Salter that we had arrived. She would then leave for awhile. We had to use the change rooms to get me out of the normal clothes and into one of the hospital gowns that do up at the back. Dr. Salter liked to have us in those so he could get a look at his work. Once you got dressed up in one of those gowns you knew you were in for a real visit. After awhile Dr. Salter would come to get you, leading you through to his office through another door at the other end of the little change room. It was like an elevator with two sets of doors. Waiting would never be more than 15 minutes. Time enough for mum to give you her advice for the next stay in the hospital, and long enough for dad to arrive from parking the car.
Soon enough the inside door would open and Dr. Salter would greet us all. Hello first to mum and dad, then he would shake hands with me and give me a big hello. There were three chairs in front of his desk, a desk covered with papers, x rays, and stuff he got all over the world. We would go in and sit down and Dr. Salter would introduce the other doctors who were interning at the time. There were always interns with Dr. Salter. Then he would want to know what I’d been up to. Was school going OK? What was I having difficulty with? Did the last operation make a big difference? And he’d ask about something we’d spoken about the last time I was in.
Then he’d ask me to walk around, run around, walk backwards, climb the four stairs he had made in the middle of his office, sit down, get up, sit on the floor, and try to get up. Never did get that last bit. He would explain all kinds of things to the other doctors, show them what it was like before a particular operation. Then he would lie me down and start taking measurements. How many degrees could each knee and elbow and shoulder bend. How much had each part grown since the last visit. How much stronger was I. This he would test by getting me to squeeze one of his fingers, then two, then three. Lie me down and get me to push against him with my feet, lift weights with my legs, then at the end, he would give the pillow to one of the other doctors there and get me to hit it as hard as I could. He said they had to earn their keep. Sometimes he would even take out a film they had made earlier to see the progress.
After all of that was finished we would sit down at the desk again and he would ask mum and dad what they felt about the progress, areas they thought needed attention, and he would ask about school. He always wanted to know about school. Since he was the main reason I missed so much, he wanted to be sure I was doing OK.
He would then ask me what I’d like to be able to do that I couldn’t do at the time. Or, straight to the point, he’d ask what would I like operated on next. These matters were never decided ahead of time. He had to see the full effect of the last series of operations to see where to go next. Sometimes an operation had little effect of itself, but it permitted a more serious operation later. Most of the time I’d say, “whatever you think is best.” It might be a left arm or elbow, or both. It might be an ankle or hip.
After all was decided, the three of us would leave and be greeted by Blocky again. She would take us up to 5b and make sure the nurse knew we were there. Getting checked in at a hospital is not the same as a hotel. Tests, tests, tests. Blood samples, pee samples, poop samples, temperature, blood pressure, etc., etc. Everything they tested got recorded, charted, noted and evaluated. Soon after all that, it was to the room. Usually Blocky could get me the same bed by the window looking out onto University Avenue. After everything was taken care of, she’d say “bye for now” to mum and dad and disappear until later. When mum and dad were feeling that I was getting anxious to play with my friends and explore, they would say their good byes too.
You have to come in the hospital as a regular to be able to move around and visit other friends you haven’t seen in a long time. We’d have lots of fun, too; that’s for sure.
For two days after going into the hospital records and files were kept on temperature, blood pressure, and general health. The night of the second day I would have only a very tiny supper and no evening snack. That was a sure sign that I would be having an operation in the morning. I would have already been told, and Dr. Salter would have been by to see me and to be sure that I was well. Sometimes kids get sick for awhile when they first go into a hospital. The reason they took all the tests and kept all the charts was so that they would be sure a patient was in the same basic health going home as he was coming in. Those two days would give me lots of time to visit my old friends and, of course, make new ones.
David was a friend who spent a lot of time in the hospital too. Whenever we were in together we made sure we were in the same room. He was my age, and we always remembered each other, although neither of us could remember when we first met. He had this thing wrong with him, none of us knew just what it was, but there was something wrong. He never had any scars from operations, but his head would be shaven most of the time. I thought his brain was in backward. Every time I saw him he looked thinner and whiter. After I hadn’t seen him for a few times I asked the head nurse. You had to ask head nurses about other patients. The RN’s, or regular nurses, would never admit knowing anything. Anyway, the head nurse said that David was diagnosed as having leukemia. It wasn’t long after that the head nurse told me he had died. It was always very sad on the ward when a kid died.
Normally, kids arrived to 5B and left for home from 5B. If after an operation or procedure the patient didn’t come back to his bed within a day, well, we knew there were problems. We knew that kids from other wards died in the hospital sometimes, especially in the emergency ward intensive care. But when a kid from 5B went down to surgery and didn’t come back, well, that was different. The recovery room would at the most take four or five hours. Most operations were in the morning. If it was a long operation, say 7 – 10 hours, plus a recovery, we would usually see the kid back in the bed by the next morning. If they weren’t back by then, the whole ward would get quiet and calm, and we would just play in our rooms.
You have to learn the ropes. If you knew the hospital the way I did you could practically get anything you wanted. The first rule: get in good with the head nurse. The head nurse was the person in charge. There would be times when even the doctors would change their minds after talking to a head nurse. Second rule: become friends with one of the nurses that was assigned to your room. There were always lots of nurses around, but three or four seemed to be responsible for the same rooms. The nurses were on rotation. Where they rotated to, we didn’t know, but a group of nurses wouldn’t be around for a week or so, and then be back again. So if you were friends with a nurse in each batch that came around, well, it sure made life easier.
Hospitals aren’t all that bad once you get used to them. Oh sure, you get needles all the time, blood taken all the time; you get awakened at four in the morning to be given a sleeping pill. It’s the light they flash into your eyes that wakes you right up. Still, we had fun.
Hospital wheelchair races: now there is a sport. You really have to know what you are doing or you might hurt yourself pretty badly. If you get good at wheelchairs you might try a banana cart. But that is really dangerous. Head first, ouch!
The best time to have wheelchair races was during the rest hour. The rest hour was really two and a half hours long. It was when the student nurses practiced giving needles to oranges, I guess because oranges were much calmer about this kind of activity, while the regular nurses filled out all their forms and reports. There would only be a few RN’s around during the rest time.
The races worked like this: two teams made up of three kids plus a wheelchair with good brakes. Each team chose two members who could run the fastest, being sure the guy left in the chair could work the brakes. Remember, the runners probably had leg or arm casts! Working the brakes was very important. When the teams had their riders chosen and in position, well belted in, the runners from the first team pushed the second teams chair, and vice versa. The rules were simple: start at one end of a hall, and push the other team’s chair about three quarters the way down the hall. We would agree ahead of time where to stop pushing. No bumping the other chair or getting in front of it. Each chair must stay on its own side. The middle was easy to tell because the centre of the floor was clearly marked. If they ever had to get a bed out in a hurry, there had to be a straight run to the elevators or where ever they were going, so the nurses had to keep at least on side of the hall empty at all times.
THREE…TWO…ONE… and charge down the hall. The trick was to be as quiet as possible or the nurses might hear. The four pushers tore down the hall at break neck speeds. The kids in the chairs weren’t allowed to touch the wheels or try to slow the chair in way manner. At the agreed point the pushers stopped, and the challenging part of the race began. This is when stopping became very important. The winner was the team whose chair stopped farther from the wall at the end of the hall. Since the pushers are pushing the other team’s chair you can see the fun in the game. The harder you pushed, the faster the chair went and the harder it was to stop. Hitting the wall at the end was an automatic lose. We made believe the wall wasn’t there, only University Avenue, five floors down! So there you were, heading towards the wall at full speed: wheels locked at exactly the same time or you’d tip over, and that’s cheating. Feet-dragging and grabbing at anything going by was permitted. Sometimes we didn’t get to a full stop before the wall. You can see why the banana carts would be pretty risky!
Copyright by James Flood, 1973, 2011
postscript:> I went on to finish highschool in Charlottetown, PEI; University in Halifax, NS; married Sheila in 1975. We have two great kids, Jamie and Leah. I joined the Baha’i Faith in 1973, Sheila in 1974, moved around the Maritimes a lot, then on to Ontario for 4 years; then Ste-Anne, Guadeloupe FWI for 7 years, Quebec City area for 7 years; lived in Ottawa, ON, for 5 years. In June 2003 we moved to Victoria, BC to get away from winter! I worked in the high-tech fiber-optic world as the Internet/Intranet manager for JDS Uniphase. I got laid off in October 2008 following the financial crash in the United States and started my Consulting business . Take a look and give a call! Then I got a full-time job with BC Assessment as their Senior Web Analyst starting in February 09.