TB memoir: Sick father, kind benefactor

Marian Mustard passed away on December 25. She was a fascinating woman, according to this obituary which appeared in The Toronto Star on January 13, 2003.

There he was, staring benevolently down at me from his ornate frame on the wall of the West Park Healthcare Centre in northwest Toronto. It was a portrait of Sir William James Gage, a Canadian philanthropist and textbook publisher.

An old broad of 70, I was sitting in my wheelchair, listening to my CD of Jimmy Buffet, and enjoying the surprise and the irony of ‘meeting’ this long dead gentleman. He was connected with an early event in my life, and a recent one as well.

Father got tuberculosis
The early event occurred in Toronto, where I grew up in what I think of as happy poverty. My mother always insisted on describing it as ‘almost poor’. In those years being ‘almost poor’ meant that my father, who had hung on through the thirties by using hiwits and his barber shears, managed to feed and clothe us. We lived in a large partitioned room behind his rented barbershop.

In 1937 he was diagnosed with tuberculosis. He was 27 years of age and until then, young and vigorous. He had fathered four children, ranging in age from one to seven, before being sent to the sanitarium in Hamilton Ontario. It was believed that five years of fresh air and rest would cure him.

Making ends meet
This left my mother in a now ‘very poor’ situation. But she survived it, scrounging food and paying the rent with a $50 monthly government cheque, ‘the Mother’s Allowance’.

I remember my mother always full of ideas on how to ‘manage to make ends meet’. This wonderful expression I learned from her example, meant ‘getting on with it’.
She was a woman who kept her dignity, and her sanity, even when we children became ill with Scarlet Fever. I remember how much she hated the big red quarantine sign that was posted on the front door of a house where we had moved.   

Rats chewed newspaper
That sign kept all but a kind milkman away from our porch for a month. Neighbours knew of my father¹s condition and, now, with this added sickness, shunned us. I was seven and resentful. But my mother explained it was reasonable for them to fear contagion. And because my father was ill and had gone to the sanitarium, we would have to live in the ugly, worn-down house until he returned.

We were forbidden to go near the basement door. My grandmother, who came to live with us to help out, agreed with our mother that if any of us did, we would be invaded by the rats that lived down there.

So, each night these stalwart women would barricade the door by shoving newspapers stuffed with broken glass into the crevices. Then, just as regularly the next morning, the papers would be chewed and torn. (I assumed that the poor rats were hungry too!)

Then, a miracle
It was the miracle that occurred in 1938 that made me certain we had won a reward, or something equally wonderful. We four kids were to spend two glorious weeks with our mother at a summer camp on Lake Simcoe, and away from the rats-in-the-basement house.

In 1937, precautions against inheriting TB meant a mandatory monthly trip by streetcar to the Gage Institute in downtown Toronto. There, we were x-rayed to ensure that it had not appeared in our young lungs, or in our mother.

Freed of this worry, we were then invited to Samaritan Camp. Our good fortune was the result of an amazingly resourceful and philanthropic group of volunteer women. They were led and inspired by Julia Stewart, a tuberculosis health nurse.

Kindness of counsellors
I felt such excitement on those summer days each year, as we children impatiently awaited the volunteers who would drive us up to the camp, near Jackson’s Point on Lake Simcoe.
Those memorable summers of my young life are best remembered when I recall icy, cold milk in a tin cup and the two jelly beans after our afternoon rest and before our half hour swim in the lake.

I also remember the kindness of the camp counsellors. They helped me understand my father’s illness and why he was away from our family. He spent five and a half years away from us. All that time, we children were not allowed to visit; only my mother could. On his return in 1942, he was a stranger to us-and he must have felt the same about us.

He was rejected for military service, of course, and returned to work as a barber. He died of a heart attack when he was only 56. Doctors told my mother TB had weakened his heart.

TB was common
Few of us today remember the ravages of TB and how it affected so many, both the afflicted sent to sanitariums, and their families left behind. In the late 1800’s tuberculosis was known as ‘the White Plague’.

Almost everyone in the country had a family member, or knew of someone, who had died of the disease. Little was understood about infection, especially what many called ‘heredity infection’.

And there were few funds for health projects. People with the disease were left to deal with it on their own.

That’s when William Gage took a step that was to have a profound effect on the care of tuberculosis patients in Toronto, and eventually on my own family. I couldn’t have known during my summer camp days, that, sixty years later, I would again be the beneficiary of Sir William’s fight against tuberculosis.

TB campaign
During my recuperation from hip surgery, I went to West Park Healthcare Centre, a rehabilitation hospital in Toronto. I had the good fortune to buy and read a small book by Godfrey L. Gale, called “The Changing Years: The Story of Toronto Hospital and the Fight against Tuberculosis”.  

According to Dr. Gale’s account, in 1898, Gage formed an organization to collect funds for   sanatoria for those suffering from TB. The Weston Sanitarium, as West Park was then called, was one of them.

Sir William Osler
During Gage’s campaign, a letter arrived from Sir William Osler, at that time Professor of Medicine at Johns Hopkins in Baltimore.

He wrote “I enclose my cheque for twenty five dollars, and you can put me down as an annual subscriber for that amount, as I feel nothing which has started in Canada will do more practical good”.

It was a difficult task for Gage and others. It took many years of frustration, prejudice and withdrawn promises. But eventually, he bought a 40-acre farm near Weston, northwest of Toronto. Construction began on the sanatorium, with the first patient admitted in 1904.

Now, that facility has become a rehabilitation hospital, the West Park Healthcare Centre. I arrived here as a patient some sixty years after those memorable summer days at the lake.

Discovered painting
This extraordinary physiotherapy hospital has often been referred to as “the best kept secret of Toronto” and it was here I recuperated from a total hip replacement.

During the wheelchair stage of my recovery, I went exploring. That’s when I discovered the painting of Sir William James Gage. Besides his fight for services for tuberculosis patients, he was a successful textbook publisher.
At West Park, there are many fine print artworks hanging on the walls of the main floor and elsewhere. They were made possible through donations to The War Amps of Canada. As an artist, I believe that beautiful paintings and prints are a necessary part of a hospital’s décor.

The award-winning architecture of the buildings is stunning with a great sense of space, both inside and out. Unusually large windows display gardens with mature trees and shrubbery beckoning me to wheel through automatic doors into a park-like setting where patients and visitors enjoy using wide pathways. 

Vibrant, caring place
West Park’s a caring place of healing. All who enter a hospital ill and frightened must hope they will find themselves comforted and cared for by sympathetic, understanding professionals.

That was true for me in April 2001, when I had the opportunity to discover, first hand, what transpires in this vibrant rehab hospital. I was grateful and impressed with the staff of 3B, the unit where I, and my roommate, Linda, struggled through the first difficult days. We were both in need of the extraordinary understanding and care that our nurses and doctors provided.

Listening to ballads
At the hospital, each morning between the hours of four and six when I watched the clock for my pain medication, I would listen to Jimmy Buffet’s ballads:

“Follow in my wake, you’ve not that much at stake
For I have plowed the seas and smoothed the troubled waters”
This became a very important part of my personal therapy of positive thinking, which I’ve long believed helps the mind to heal the body. I hadn’t known of Jimmy Buffet, or his music until my son and his wife introduced us, but he certainly ‘smoothed the troubled waters’ for me through many difficult hours.  
So, here I am, an old broad of seventy. I intend to ‘get on with it’, as my mother showed me, and to become an older broad of eighty, or, who knows, perhaps ninety!

Marian Mustard is a painter and attended the Ontario College of Art. For 30 years, she was Art Director and Editorial Designer for several publications, including Chatelaine, Flare, MacLean’s, l’Actualite, The Financial Post and City and Country Home. She lives in Toronto.