St. Albert is no stranger to disease, having lost countless lives to smallpox, typhoid, the measles and other plagues over the years. But unless you’re pushing 60, you probably don’t remember a time when local residents died in droves from an epidemic.
One of the last major epidemics here was polio in the 1950s. Dr. Jim Bell of the Grandin Medical Clinic says the disease put his mother, father and younger brother in the hospital at the same time when he was three. At the time, there was no vaccine or cure for it.
“It was a nasty virus,” he says, one that killed or crippled people from about half a dozen families in his neighbourhood. His own father was permanently paralyzed from the waist down by it.
“That was kind of the horror,” Bell says.
Sickness and disease shaped much of St. Albert’s history. Today, thanks to decades of work by dedicated doctors, Albertans can live free from many of the plagues of the past.
The age of plagues
Father Albert Lacombe arrived in St. Albert at a time of transition in medicine, says Tim Foran, British North America curator at the Canadian Museum of History. Prior to and for many years after his arrival, the Métis and the First Nations were the local health care experts.
“They had all sorts of painkillers,” Foran says, and were known as excellent midwives and bone-setters. All Lacombe had, in contrast, were some homeopathic remedies he carried in a portable kit. Both the Hudson’s Bay Corp. and early settlers relied on Alberta’s indigenous people for health care in those early years.
By the time Lacombe left St. Albert, modern medicine had started to rise to the fore in the form of the Grey Nuns from Quebec, who brought with them new drugs and techniques such as sanitizing equipment and quarantining sick patients, Foran says.
Black Robe’s Vision says the Grey Nuns received their first patient just months after they arrived in 1863 in the form of a nearly hundred-year-old man who had been rejected by his family. The Grey Nuns soon gained a reputation as skilled bone-setters, nurses and dentists, and made frequent house-calls. By 1870, they had built an 80-foot by 40-foot addition to the St. Albert convent for $10,000 that would become central Alberta’s first hospital.
It was money well spent, given the many plagues stalking the land at the time. From 1870 to 1890, the Grey Nuns would have to grapple with waves of whooping cough, erysipelas, scarlet fever, influenza and typhoid, Black Robe’s Vision reports.
One of their biggest challenges was smallpox, which the nuns had to help some 692 families with during an outbreak in 1870, reports Dennis Slater, a historian with the Alberta Health Services Archives who studied Alberta’s epidemics.
Lacombe witnessed the horror firsthand, and describes the effects of smallpox in his memoirs.
“The pattern is at first very feverish,” he writes. The skin becomes red and covered with pimples that form scabs filled with infectious matter, after which the flesh rots and falls off in fragments.
“Worms swim in the parts most affected … While enduring the torments of this cruel agony, the sufferer ceases to breathe, alone in a poor shed with no other assistance than what I can afford.”
Those that smallpox didn’t kill were left blind or permanently disfigured by it. The 1870 outbreak infected two-thirds of St. Albert’s population and killed 311 in four months, St. Albert Our Story reports.
The Musée reports that a Dr. McDonald arrived in St. Albert on Dec. 31 to help with the outbreak. He was the first professional doctor ever to visit the community.
Getting professional care
Infectious disease continued to ravage St. Albert in the next few decades in the form of smallpox, scarlet fever and the Spanish flu, St. Albert Our Story reports. Measles alone would kill enough children to give this community the second highest infant mortality rate in Alberta.
But this period also saw the development of major medical advances outside of St. Albert, such as antibiotics, insulin and mobile X-ray machines, notes historian Robert Lampard. The First World War also coincided with the development and mass use of vaccines to prevent smallpox, typhoid and diphtheria, and created a huge cadre of veterans, wounded and not, who demanded better health care.
It also marked the start of provincial interest in public health with the 1907 Public Health Act. This lead to St. Albert appointing its first medical officer of health in 1919: Dr. Arthur Giroux.
Giroux was a skilled violin player and hunter, and would often pack a gun with him on house-calls throughout the Sturgeon region to shoot passing pheasants, Black Robe’s Vision reports. In addition to treating illness amongst the poor, he also worked to combat infectious disease by improving sanitation around St. Albert.
Bell says that health care was pretty basic in the 1960s, as there wasn’t the huge variety of drugs we have available today. Kidney dialysis was revolutionary, organ transplants were a pipe-dream, and cholesterol and osteoporosis weren’t even on the radar of most doctors, unlike the threat of infectious disease, which was still a major concern.
“A lot of what we do today is stuff we weren’t even taught in medical school,” Bell says.
The 1960s saw the arrival of one of the biggest medical leaps in St. Albert’s hi the Sturgeon General Hospital.
Area residents started lobbying the province for a local hospital as early as 1962, Black Robe’s Vision reports. The province finally agreed to create the Sturgeon General Hospital District in 1965, and the hospital officially opened Aug. 5, 1969.
Dr. Finlay “Fin” Fairfield says it was a huge development for local medicine. Whereas before all he could do for many patients was ship them off to Edmonton, now he could perform treatments and surgeries in town. It also made his new Grandin Medical Clinic exceptionally busy.
“That’s really what got medical care in St. Albert on the map,” Fairfield says.
But budget cuts and St. Albert’s booming population meant that the hospital was overloaded by 1972, Gazette reporter Susan Jones writes. Fairfield says the hospital also “leaked like a sieve” so badly that they had to put out buckets in the emergency room whenever it rained. It was woefully inadequate for the city’s needs.
The current Sturgeon Community Hospital was built as a replacement in 1992. Its predecessor was demolished in 1997.
A new age of medicine
Today, the Sturgeon is a fully operational hospital that can handle virtually any case, says intensive care unit physician Dr. Gabriel Suen – something that was not true just 15 years ago.
Whereas St. Albert had just one doctor and a few nuns in 1870, it now has close to 500 doctors and 3,200 support staffers working out of the Sturgeon, reports Alberta Health Services.
Fairfield says medical science has made amazing advances in his career, allowing for life-saving treatments that would have been impossible when he started his practice in the 1960s.
“They won’t let you die anymore!” he jokes.
Today, infectious diseases like polio have been virtually eradicated, Bell says. Even if you do get such a disease, modern medicine can either cure you or keep you alive long enough for your body to fight it off.
“Your odds of recovering from this stuff would way better than it was before,” he says.
Instead of infectious disease, doctors now spend most of their time managing chronic illnesses such as diabetes that occur as a result of our now longer life-spans, Bell says.
Suen says he suspects that the next big thing in medicine will be treatment regimes customized for a person’s genes.
For his part, Bell says doctors may have swung too far towards technology and away from basic lifestyle advice when it comes to patient care.
“Thirty years from now, we’re going to look back on what medicine we’re practicing today and we’re going to say, boy, we really got carried away with medications.”
Links to the past
In celebration of Canada’s upcoming 150th, the Gazette will examine one element of St. Albert that’s 150 years old (give or take a few decades) on the last Wednesday of each month from now until June 2017.
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