Nurses on the front-line facing polio

It wasn't until Dr. Jonas Salk's vaccine was perfected in 1954 that poliomyelitis was virtually eradicated from the western world. Before that it was a terrifying and dreaded disease that seemed to come out of nowhere to attack children. An early epidemic in 1927/1928 led to the establishment of a polio hospital in Edmonton, but Alberta was still one of the hardest hit provinces in the 1935 epidemic.

Doreen Olmsted who was nursing in Saskatchewan explains: I was working on the neurology ward then. They came to us, and it was absolutely horrible. I remember people coming in, babies, some of the dying. We really weren't prepared at all. The wards weren't set up properly. Instead of having them together in a room, they were all separated. There were a lot of private rooms there. The iron lungs were being used, the old iron lungs, all that stuff. That was scary. There were some very sad cases there.

The mechanical device that came to be known as the iron lung wasn't invented until 1930 and not widely used until seven or eight years later. When chest paralysis occurred, the iron lung breathed for the patient, very often a young one, either by use of a motor or a hand pump system. The main problem in the beginning was getting the huge piece of equipment manufactured (and paid for) when an epidemic suddenly required many of them at once.

During the last epidemic in Alberta (1953-1954), nurses found themselves learning how to use the machine. It created a lot of heavy work for them as it involved complete body care and hygiene for immobilized patients. Caring for these patients also meant exposing themselves to the disease. Another problem that came up during the use of all these life-saving machines was that they ran on electricity--power failures were a nightmare for the patients and the hospital staff. Since the iron lungs had to be operated manually in an emergency, the nurses were generally told to run to the polio ward if the lights went out.

Jean Shafto remembers that polio patients were brought in to the Banff Hospital: Then we had polio patients, because in the early '50s when the polio epidemic came, they had mineral spring waters there and a physiotherapy department, and we had an iron lung.

Approximately fourteen hundred people were affected by polio in Alberta, including the nurses who contracted the disease while looking after their young patients. The residual effects are still being felt today, fifty years after recovery. Post-polio syndrome, involving muscle weakness and joint pain, has become widely known.
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