One of my oldest memories is of being in a cold metallic crib, crying my eyes out.
I was in a room in the Emerson Hospital, and my Mom had to leave me for awhile. Dr. Ferry was going to be performing a tonsillectomy on me in the morning. I was just three years old.
The next day, I recall large people looming over me in a strange room. I was lying down, and they were coming at me with something round, and telling me don’t be scared. That just made me more alarmed. I began breathing faster, through the thing, and it smelled strange. It was the smell of rubber and ether. I suddenly felt a huge lurch in my stomach, someone brings a metal pan to my mouth, and I vomit. Evidently ether often had that effect on patients. After that, I didn’t remember anything until I woke up later with a sore throat. The good news was that I could have all the ice cream, pudding, and popsicles I wanted.
That was my first time, post-birth, that I was in the hospital as a child, but it wouldn’t be my last.
So many times, more times than I can remember, I had problems that required a doctor or hospitalization when I was growing up. I had the normal things that many children did at the time - chicken pox, mumps - but I also had an unusual amount of upper and lower respiratory infections, sinus and ear infections, as well as kidney and bladder infections.
The kidney and bladder infections were frequent and often severe. My mother was told to cut me back on salt, to not allow me to sit on cold surfaces, to dress me warmly in winter, and to keep my head covered from cold and wind. I was sometimes on several medicines, including antibiotics. As my urinary tract problems increased, I had more and more catheterizations to obtain the most sterile urine samples possible to determine the cause and course of treatment. I once had a dye injected into my bladder and told to not urinate for as long as possible as they observed my bladder when full, with the dye helping them to see it better. To a child, those procedures were extremely frightening as well as painful1.
There were times I had long hospitalizations that caused me to be out of school for awhile2. I received cards wishing me well from my classmates, which cheered me up. I don’t recall being particularly concerned, my Mom said the doctors kept saying that they didn’t think this was serious, that my organs were functioning well, but just that I was getting infections that caused significant pain. I remember well the pain, the burning, the urgency, the fevers, and the bed rest. And then, there was the bedwetting.
When I was growing up, all the way through high school, I slept very sound and very deep. Nothing would wake me up. I dreamt profusely, dreams-worthy-of-the-Twilight-Zone dreams. The only thing that (sometimes) woke me was a cold, wet bed. The routine went like this: I’d wake up in a swamped bed, everything wet. I’d call for Mom. She would come and I couldn’t look at her, ashamed and wishing more than anything that I didn’t have to call her. When I got old enough, I changed the sheets myself4, but I knew she was often woke up by me opening the old dresser drawers which squeaked at every pull. The old house’s floors creaked, and every sound seemed magnified in the night.
The doctors' predictions turned out to be right. Some time when I was around 11 years old, I stopped wetting the bed. All my fears of never being able to go to camp, or stay over at a friend's house, went away, and I was excited to expand my universe, which I inevitably did. But I never forgot the sicknesses of my childhood. In a way, although there was a brief respite, they have followed me into adulthood. But as I often say, that, that is another story.
1 - No test or procedure, at any hospital, during all the years I was afflicted, ever could give my Mother a definitive reason for my multiple kidney and bladder infections.
2 - At one point, when I was about 10 years old, my physician referred me to specialists at the Victoria Hospital in Winnipeg. They had a whole floor just for children, a pediatric section. There, I met the first black person I had seen - a girl my own age. I felt strange meeting a person so different from myself, but at the same time excited. This was the late 1960s, and I had been watching the news on TV, and knew that the civil rights movement was happening. I believed in it, as young as I was, and wanted to learn more. Thus, she and I became friends in the time I was there, and I was sad to part when the time came. It was also during this time that my Mom tried to soften the separation by giving me a very special gift, a doll I named Sally. She and I became very good friends.
3 - “The Pot” was what our family called a chamber pot. We used took one upstairs every night to use, and it was my responsibility as a child to prepare it with a little water and bleach, and take it up when we went to bed, and dump it and rinse it every morning.
4 - My Mom used old rubber draw sheets from my Grandma Fitzpatrick’s old maternity home days. On top of that she doubled up a white top sheet and covered that around the middle of the bed. That way we didn’t have to change the bottom sheet itself.