Isolated But Not Alone

The process of isolating patients with communicable diseases has varied widely over the years at Royal Columbian Hospital. In 1862 even before the original Royal Columbian Hospital was finished, the Board of Managers had to build a small separate building to house a couple of smallpox patients. There were, at different times, a number of separate isolation hospitals in different parts of the city such as Poplar Island and the area at 8th Street and 8th Avenue near the Douglas Road cemetery. They dealt primarily with smallpox, but patients with any communicable disease could have been cared for there.

In 1908 three isolation cottages were added to the 1889 hospital building for patients with infectious diseases, including scarlet fever and tuberculosis. The 1912 hospital has an isolation ward as part of the main hospital rather than having a separate building for that purpose. However, by 1940 there was no isolation ward at all at RCH and patients had to be sent to Vancouver due to the lack of facilities in New Westminster. Ald. W. Cook lobbied in November 1940 for the Dominion government to contribute toward an isolation ward at least for the army cases in the military wing.

In 1943, the scarlet fever isolation building was renovated and brought back into service. The interior of the building was redecorated, the electric wiring system overhauled, the exterior painted and extra fire escapes added. By the 1960s, there was an isolation ward on the ground floor toward the rear of the old 1912 section of the hospital.

In 1964 an 18-year old young man suffering an infectious disease was admitted to that isolation ward. Thinking back to that time, he now has only vague impressions of the admission process, or the ward outside his room. During the first 24 hours, he was too ill to pay much attention to what was happening, but as he began to feel better, he wondered what was happening outside his room in the general ward. He could hear muffled voices, a child crying, the rattle of equipment, but not much else. Finally the day came that the nurses told him that he had visitors. Some school chums had come to see him, but visiting a patient in isolation wasn’t like seeing any other patient. The patient sat in his room in front of the open window, while his friends or family sat or stood outside on the other side of a wire fence. This way they could see and hear each other without any possibility of transmission of the disease. The system worked well during the summer months, but when it was rainy or cold and snowy it had some pretty obvious problems.

Visiting patients in the isolation ward of Royal Columbian hospital can be an uncomfortable ordeal. To prevent contact with patients with infectious or contagious diseases, visitors are kept outside the building and away from the windows by a wire fence. Among new facilities included in current plans for expansion of the hospital is a new isolation ward with an indoor visiting room. Source: The Columbian Oct 29, 1964

Today, technology makes everything different. Patients in isolation now can still be in constant touch with the outside world via TV, internet, email, etc. – things we all take for granted. But back in 1964, it was an exciting step in his recovery when our 18-year-old patient was told he could have his transistor radio brought in as long as it was in a plastic case that could be properly cleaned, and not a leather case. The disposable earphones provided by the hospital weren’t as good as his own, but now he could listen to the hit parade, his favourite programs, and the news and begin to feel once more part of the world outside the hospital walls. Anything else (books, paper, pens etc.) that was brought in for him had to be destroyed when he was discharged so that there was no chance of “taking the disease out” with him when he returned home.

Today there are isolation beds right in the middle of intensive care wards – the barrier now being differences in air pressure rather than solid walls and wire fences, but the concept remains the same. Give the best care possible to the ill patient, while protecting the general population from whatever has caused the disease.

Explore posts in the same categories: Departments & Services, Diseases & Epidemics, Nursing

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One Comment on “Isolated But Not Alone”

  1. rch150 Says:

    The following comment by Olive Kerr, graduate nurse, 1913 was published in “People Making History, RCH 1862 – 1987”.

    “The isolation building was down near Brunette Street and I was scared stiff…two of us worked 12 hour shifts…meals were brought down to us and we did not leave the building for six weeks. When the patient was discharged we cleaned the unit, had a disinfectant bath and a day off before returning to duty.

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