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Hospital Work

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Although serving in a hospital was not easy work, some men felt called to volunteer. Nick Neufeld, for example, worked actively behind the scenes to make sure he was assigned to hospital work.


“It may be of interest that when I received my call in 1943 I immediately wrote to both the board and to Dr. Schulz, director of psychiatric services in Manitoba, expressing my desire to serve my country, and my willingness to take on duties at the Mental Hospital. At my interview, Judge Adamson had my letter at hand and quoted from it. He seemed favourably impressed when I told him that I had already contacted Dr. Schulz.”


The judge assigned Neufeld to the mental institution in Brandon, Manitoba.


“There were about 20 of us COs at Brandon at our maximum, although there were fewer when I first arrived. To a large extent the work was similar to that which any ward aid would do: dressing, feeding, cleaning, and entertaining the patients…. I worked in the Male Hospital , a small ward with bedridden patients and under relatively close supervision by medical and nursing staff.”


Neufeld, like most other COs serving in hospitals, also worked in the tuberculosis ward. Tuberculosis was a dangerous infectious disease, so workers had to be careful.


“I worked in the TB ward, a semi-isolated ward with mental patients infected with TB. We attendants wore launderable whites on this ward, and wore surgical masks when in close contact with the patients, as when we were feeding them. These patients had special diets, and I remember making gallons of eggnog for them. One Eskimo patient, less than five feet tall and speaking no English, once embraced me in what I thought was friendly fashion, and then with astonishing strength held me close to him and bit me on the chest. I carried the bruise of his tooth marks on my epidermis [skin] for about a month, to the amusement of my fellow workers.”


COs at the Manitoba School in Portage la Prairie


Unlike the insane asylums of the nineteenth century, Manitoba 's mental hospitals attempted to treat the patients instead of just isolating them.


“Patients were divided into two groups: those undergoing active therapy to cure their illness, and those considered to be chronic cases, not amenable to treatment. Insulin shock was used as treatment on one ward. Insulin was used to reduce blood sugar levels until the patient went into shock. Then the patient received a lemon-flavoured sugar syrup to restore him. All this was done under strict medical supervision. Night staff on this ward of about twenty beds had to be particularly vigilant. Patients might rarely relapse into an insulin-induced coma, and this had to be forestalled by administering a drink of the syrup. It was the duty of the night attendant to make half-hourly rounds of all the sleeping patients and check their pulse rate and respiration…. Incidentally, the improvement in the condition of some patients undergoing this therapy was little short of miraculous.” [ASM, 133-137]


Insulin shock therapy was part of the twentieth-century revolution in the understanding and treatment of mental diseases. Until the early 1900s, people with mental problems were usually locked away and given little to no therapy. In the 1930s, new methods began to emerge. Doctors knew that, for some reason, head trauma, convulsions, and high fever were sometimes useful in treating those with mental illness.


Two Canadian doctors discovered insulin in 1921. Then and now, the most common use for insulin was for treating diabetes. European doctors found that a large dose of insulin would also cause a superficial coma in the patient. This was found to be very effective for treating schizophrenics. Initial studies showed that more than 70% of patients improved. It was also popular because it was less painful than chemical convulsions and electroconvulsive shock therapy. Today, doctors do not use these methods. Instead, they use drugs and gentler forms of therapy.

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