I remember the Spring sunshine peering through windows at the back of the old Town Hall on the Main Street in Cowansville, Quebec. The wood floors were glistening as I kept staring down at them, quietly shuffling my feet, fearful to look anywhere else. A local girl sat in a wheelchair with her head down, and the hem of her dress kept lifting each time the breeze from the door opened. I heard my mother tell someone else that the girl in the wheelchair had felt ill for a few days and then she lost control of her legs. Now she sat there with both her legs in a cast after being diagnosed with polio.
I wondered why she wasn’t in a hospital, but I knew expert help was hard to get in rural areas, so you made do with what you got. Soon we were all told to line up, and the slow moving line wound around the large room while mothers stood beside their children almost as nervous as we were.
That was an odour in the air that none of us could place until someone whispered that it smelled like rubbing alcohol. Most of the children had facial expressions of horror not knowing what their fate was as nurses began to call names. There was complete silence as I advanced to the front of that room until one child let out a huge wail and suddenly similar cries filled the town hall until it felt like the whole building was going to explode in pain.
Fear and trembling followed me and then I was instructed to sit down and roll up my sleeve while a large syringe approached my arm. My Mother handed the nurse her written consent cautiously for the brand new Salk vaccine. Terror had gripped our parents who were haunted by the stories of children who were stricken suddenly by cramps and fever, and then Polio. It wasn’t that the inoculations hurt so much, but the anticipation was worse than the reality, and the end result was a lollipop to soothe our experience.
The mandatory vaccines were the result of something called Polio. The government had decided that every child in Canada had to be inoculated, and this was not to be the last of it. Once again we would get inoculations, and then those turned into long tables bearing neat rows of cups half filled with a substance similar to bitter orange juice. Each child drank the elixir and returned to class until the next year when we were given dosed sugar cubes. We baby boomers were lucky enough to live in a time when vaccinations were available, and the only imaginary fault lines running through everyone’s lives after that was fear over Communists, a possible Atomic Blast, and Howdy Doody.
Although we can look back with humour on the inoculation process, it was a deadly serious procedure for those that lived through the height of the polio scare. When Dr. Salk’s miraculous vaccine spelt the end of this hideous disease we could say goodbye to life threatening fevers and once again look forward to summer without the fear of polio–Ray Paquette
From the Carleton Place Canadian– Carleton Place and Beckwith Heritage Museum
Three years later, in the late 50s my Mother could not feel her legs from the waist down and they at first thought she had a form of polio. We found out when my sister died she actually had lymphoma on the spine.
My uncle who is not pictured here died at the age of 19 and they blamed it on a vaccine. We will never know why he died so young.
Clipped from The Ottawa Journal, 06 Sep 1949, Tue, Page 5
Clipped from The Ottawa Journal, 06 Aug 1949, Sat, Page 7
Doug McCarten–I do indeed remember! Although the polio vaccination came too late for me as I had it at 2 years old! Apparently I was within 24 hrs of paralysis…..when I was getting better, I have a vivid memory of visiting the patients who were in Iron Lungs and talking to them in the mirror attached above their head! The room was lit only by the afternoon sun but with the curtains pulled so the light that did enter was muted….