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My Father Survived the Polio Epidemic and Spanish Flu — Here’s What I Learned From Him

Sep 1, 2020

Dear Dad,

We’ve been apart since 1999. 

I feel like a war correspondent, writing from “somewhere in the North Atlantic.” 

Indeed, I do not know exactly where we are at this point in time because we’ve never sailed these seas before. It’s all new and very scary, so I thought I’d write to see if due to your medical experience you might guide me. 


Frank Blanchet has learned a lot about parenting over the years. Read about how his challenging job led to some pretty big revelations here


The first wave hit four months ago and the storm is rising in intensity. People are dying at a rate that is perhaps unprecedented in modern times, but I know that you were on the tail end of the Spanish Flu. 

In fact, you had several colleagues who were orphaned by that pandemic didn’t you?  

I’m sure you studied epidemiology in medical school. I remember you talking about it. I heard words like “herd immunity” and “mask wearing.” 

Your face behind a surgical mask looked as familiar to me as it did without. You smiled with your eyes as you removed the mask at the end of a hard day. We’d drive home and often you still wore your OR scrubs, which were covered in blood.

You were very reluctant to answer questions about whose blood it was or whether the patient had survived the surgery. 

You were less reluctant to talk if you had just delivered a baby. 

We had a lot to learn then, just as we do now. AIDS for instance had not reared its ugly head and we thought that our vaccines had conquered most of the world’s killer diseases. In fact, they quite likely had for a time at least. 

Do you remember the Polio epidemic?  

"AIDS for instance had not reared its ugly head and we thought that our vaccines had conquered most of the world’s killer diseases."

Movie theatres and swimming pools were closed and you were careful about where you took us. 

Mom was petrified because she had been a victim as a child. She told us about being paralyzed in one arm. She took pains to hide it from her parents by wearing long-sleeved sweaters. 

She was afraid she might end up in an iron lung. Many younger people today have never heard of this device, that appeared and sounded draconian, but nevertheless saved the lives of those kids who could not breathe on their own. 

You explained to me that it was similar to the hypobaric chambers that I learned about from SCUBA diving. It created a vacuum which expanded the chest wall and forced air into the lungs, then the pressure reversed so that all air was expelled from the chest. The patient saw the world through a mirror that was mounted above his or her head. 


Read about how one father learned to finally let go a little during this pandemic here.


Visitors could sit behind the head so their children could see them. I understand they must have been fairly noisy and I can only imagine the initial terror of a young child when placed inside. I’m not sure if they had sufficient sedatives to ease the transition into the apparatus the way they do now when they have to intubate someone with COVID and place them on a respirator. 

You had young patients who were in the “lungs” for a time. I can only imagine the comfort they experienced when your face smiled at them from the mirror. You had a great bedside manner and I watched you calm many an anxious patient or parent. Your face inspired confidence and even love. 

I was an anxious child but I remember how you gave me confidence in the face of that which was frightening. I recall the time my brother had an epileptic seizure at breakfast before school. He collapsed at the table. I immediately tried to run back upstairs but you called me back firmly, made me sit beside you as he convulsed on the floor in front of us. 

You talked me through it.

“This is nothing to be afraid of, Frank. It looks scary only because you haven’t seen it before. It’s a seizure. Although he is making horrible faces, he cannot harm you. He is not angry and is totally helpless and he needs our help. We turn him this way so he will not aspirate bodily fluids. Now in a second he will hold his breath for a while and he may even turn blue, but he is not suffocating!”

"I was an anxious child but I remember how you gave me confidence in the face of that which was frightening."

I recall that even as you were saying this it happened and it was terrifying, but I knew you were right beside me. Then he relaxed and let out a long breath. I pointed out with alarm that there was bloody froth coming from his mouth.

“That’s because he’s bitten his tongue. People will tell you that you should force something into the mouth to prevent this but that’s just what you don’t do. He’s starting to come out of it now, but he won’t know where he is or what happened so that’s why we’re both going to talk to him. You must reassure him that all is well and that it was just a seizure and that we are taking good care of him. It may take a while for him to become fully conscious but you must not let your fear spread. You must believe that this will happen just like I’m telling you.”

“Dad I’m shaking and I’m afraid!”

“That’s normal too, but you can still do the right things and be shaking. You never abandon a patient who is in trouble. There, look he’s opening his eyes. Now start talking to him”. 

I said hi and fought back tears. I looked at Dad and he smiled and said to keep talking.

“Tell him where he is” you prompted. I did.

Sure enough his eyes had opened and I could see they were getting clearer by the second. He eventually asked questions and asked for a drink of juice, which mom got for him.


Feel like you didn't sign up for this pandemic? This mother can relate. Read her story here.


And that was that. You told me to go up and get dressed for school. As I headed upstairs you called:

“Frank?”
“Yeah?”
“You did well. Remember what you’ve learned.”

I remember what I learned that morning Dad, under your tutelage. In fact, just recalling this one incident has calmed me. I suppose I’ll face what we all must face with faith.  Faith in science and faith in the love that is sent to us.

Your loving and grateful son,

Frank

Article Author Frank Blanchet
Frank Blanchet

Frank Blanchet is a freelance writer and street musician who lives with his wife and guitars in Brighton, Ontario. Raised in Toronto, he has had many adventures including teaching in Australia and in a one-room schoolhouse on an island in the St. Lawrence River.

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