1980 was the year the Canadian health-care system and I got a face-full of each other, largely because the system spent considerable time on my own face.
That summer, only weeks before I turned eight years old, I was diagnosed with a cataract in my left eye and informed that I would require surgery at the Halifax Infirmary, located on Queen Street in Nova Scotia’s provincial capital of Halifax. But I wouldn’t be staying at the infirmary site – for the nights leading up to the surgery and the recovery period afterwards, I’d be staying at the Izaak Walton Killam Hospital for Children, which had been open for the previous decade on nearby University Avenue.
So I prepared myself for my first-ever extended hospital stay, which would incorporate my eighth birthday on September 25, 1980 (the actual party was held a few days before we headed for Halifax). My third-grade classmates made handmade get-well cards for me, many of them decorated with pictures of Muppets and a few saying encouraging things like “I hope you will not go blind.”
To this day, I don’t understand why I didn’t grasp the severity of the situation. Maybe it was because it was only happening to one eye, my left, which hadn’t registered much (if any) sight during my first eight years of life. (As I’ve explained on the introductory page of this blog, it’s still blind today.) Perhaps it was the confidence my parents instilled in me. Or maybe it was the patience and generosity showed by the nurses, medical staff and volunteers at the IWK during my time there in the last couple of weeks of September 1980.
They understood when they came into my room late at night and caught me singing songs and reading jokes from a book about The Muppet Show that my mother picked up at the train station in Truro. (I’m reading that book in the above-left photo; it was taken roughly one day after a nurse caught me singing West Side Story’s “I Feel Pretty,” used in this first-season Muppet Show sketch. “You do?!?” she chortled. Little Adam’s face turned bright red in milliseconds. He wouldn’t watch the actual West Side Story until early in 2017. I doubt these things are unrelated.)
They baked me a cake for my entirely-in-the-hospital birthday party (above, right) and allowed me to take over the IWK playroom later that day for a one-boy, three-character reenactment of several Muppet Show skits. I was already most of the way there, since my folks had gotten me a Fisher-Price Kermit the Frog plush for my birthday. I still don’t know how I managed to fit a Spider-Man hand puppet into several skits originally designed for The Great Gonzo, with the green, googly-eyed “Snappy the Alligator” sock puppet my mother had made for us earlier in 1980 substituting for several other Muppets. But I don’t think anybody cared about puppet continuity at that point; they were kind enough to indulge the little boy gearing up for his eye surgery, and that’s all they cared about.
They even put up with my reluctance to eat most of the hospital food (I was entirely too persnickety at that point of my life). And, in a display of patience that astounds me to this day, they didn’t punish me on the night before my surgery when, unable to find the washroom in the middle of the night, I panicked and urinated in the wastebasket in my hospital room. I tried to pass it off as the smell of the “stinky egg sandwiches” that I refused to eat and had deposited in said wastebasket hours earlier; the nurse on duty that night, who had probably seen and heard it all during her time at the IWK, was much wiser.
(That story is probably a little more pungent than you’re used to reading on my blog. To make up for that, here’s a picture of eight-year-old me, mugging for the camera on a giant Winnie-the-Pooh outside my hospital room. That should improve your general disposition. I hope. Sorry, no refunds.)
Off to the Halifax Infirmary I went on September 29, 1980 to get that cataract removed. I was pretty calm until they injected me with anesthesia in the OR; not being a fan of needles at that age, I informed the doctor on duty, “I’m writing a book about this, and that part’s not going to be in it!” And then I conked out. (This blog post is the closest I ever came to the “book” being written.)
Like so many kids that go into the hospital for any reason, I didn’t realize just how lucky I was. I wouldn’t learn until many years later that far more severe circumstances surrounded many of the thousands of children that have entered the IWK since it opened in 1970, and since it was officially linked, in both the administrative and physical sense, to Halifax’s Grace Maternity Hospital in 1996 to become the IWK Grace Hospital, renamed the IWK Health Centre in 2001.
Many of these stories are still available at the IWK Foundation’s YouTube channel, which you’ll find here. And you’ll also see many of them on an annual basis during the IWK Telethon, launched by CBC Halifax as part of the Children’s Miracle Network in 1985 and picked up by ATV (later CTV Atlantic) a decade later due to a labour dispute involving CBC employees. The private network still runs the telethon today and is gearing up for the 33rd edition of this Maritime-wide televised fundraiser on Saturday, June 3 and Sunday, June 4.
How much does the IWK matter to Atlantic Canadians? Every August, at the Louisdale arena complex serving my native Richmond County, hundreds of people gather for the annual IWK Pig Roast. No, I’m not making this up – since 2007, community members, backed by over 250 local businesses and the Municipality of Richmond County, gather at the Richmond Arena for a full day’s worth of live entertainment, ticket draws, silent auctions, and of course, the centerpiece of the whole thing, an outdoor pig roast that sends hundreds home happy with a bellyful of BBQ’d pork and the knowledge that they’ve done something to help children, and families, in need. They’ve raised over $70,000 for the IWK Health Centre in the event’s first decade of operation, and I expect that tradition to continue for a long time.
And, I have to say, that type of community spirit would put a smile on the face of the little boy singing Muppet songs in his IWK hospital bed 37 years ago. (Even if he was too persnickety to eat pork back then.)
You see, even at that young age, little Adam knew that “IWK” stood for a real person’s name, Izaak Walton Killam. He would not discover until many years later that Killam was a well-known Canadian financier, originally a Yarmouth paperboy and later one of the wealthiest men in Canada. And little Adam was also decades away from learning that Killam’s widow Dorothy left the funds for the hospital’s construction in her will, with the specific instructions that they were to be used to build a health centre for Atlantic Canadian children.
Names aside, eight-year-old Adam’s memories have stuck with him to this day. And even as an adult with little experience inside the IWK after his 1980 hospital stay, he knows that the staff have carried on their legacy of ensuring that “IWK” also stands for “Infused With Kindness.”