Thursday, January 28, 2016

Health in the 1940s

Early in 1943 I had an unexpected interruption in my school year when I came down with chickenpox. I woke up one day with a couple of water blisters on my face, but when my mother looked at them she didn't think it was anything 
serious, and off to school I went. By the next morning the few blisters had multiplied. My mother referred to her copy of The Canadian Mother and Child (a publication put out by the federal government and absolutely essential for every young mother) and realized I had chickenpox; no school for me for the next couple of weeks. It was awful. I missed school, and could hardly wait for my return to class.  After what seemed like an agonizingly long period of time finally returned to Royal Oak, only to find the room almost deserted. I was told the whole class, with few exceptions, had come down with chickenpox. * see footnote.   

Inoculations were still in the future in the 1940s. We were vaccinated against smallpox but, without inoculations which children routinely get today, we came down with many of the childhood diseases, measles, mumps, chickenpox, whooping cough, and even the more serious scarlet fever and diphtheria. I had frequent bouts of tonsillitis, and since there was no way to keep the infection from reoccurring,  the doctor said my tonsils had to come out. 

I was checked  into the Royal Jubilee Hospital in Victoria in the evening, had surgery the next morning and home the following dayI was in a four-bed ward, all occupied by children havintheir tonsils out. Antibiotics were yet to come, and we had probably not even heard the word penicillin. We got sick and it was off to bed, relying on whatever home remedy mother thought best. My grandmother nursed my mother through the great influenza epidemic early in the century, and said she saved her daughter's life by using "steam and having her swallow white of egg".  My father told of his mother having the family wrap an onion in a handkerchief, and holding it against their nose when they went out as protection against the Spanish flu virus. My father had  rheumatic fever during his teens and although he passed the medical to join the air force,  it wasn't until he volunteered to go overseas that they discovered the damage the disease had done to his heart. 

In the late spring the eight year old boy next door came down with scarlet feverHis family was put under quarantine, and had a quarantine sign posted on the front gate. His father was at work in Victoria when it was diagnosed, and was told that if he went home he would have to stay in the house for the duration of the quarantine, or he could stay in the city and continue working. He stayed in Victoria. When the milkman delivered to the house he would pour the bottle of milk into a pan placed on the fence post because he could not approach the front door or leave or pick up a milk bottle at the house.  

I got quite sick at the same time and the doctor came out from Victoria at my mother's request. He said it looked like I was coming down with scarlet fever just like our neighbour, but no rash ever developed so we were not quarantined. I ran very high temperatures for a week or more, but there really wasn't anything that could be done other than cold cloths on the forehead and allow the illness to run its course.  After I recovered, my parents said I had been delirious and complained of loud noises in the room that sounded like a washing machine right beside my bed even though the room was quiet. When I thought I was getting better and  tried to get up, I fainted and my father returned me to my bed.

Somehow we made it through the wartime illnesses and the next major health scare I remember came when we were living in Saskatoon a few years later.  In 1952 there was a polio epidemic. The swimming pools closed early for the season, the opening of schools in September was delayed and we all feared waking up with a stiff neck or a high temperature. There were children from around the province who ended up in the polio isolation wards in the two city hospitals,  and there were many deaths. The Salk vaccine was a major discovery some time later.   

* Some of my classmates caught chicken pox from me but my teacher had exaggerated the situation and I have since heard that not everyone was ill.