Review: Beyond institution to personal stories

From the Halifax Chronicle-Herald
Sun. Nov 15 – 4:45 AM

Children’s hospitals are often the scene of many of life’s most important lessons. Whether it’s a difficult birth, an asthma attack, or an intricate heart operation, almost everyone has a personal story about their experiences at places like the Izaak Walton Killam Health Centre, Halifax’s renowned children’s and maternity care hospital.

Writing a history of such an institution should, at its best, be about capturing those personal stories and weaving them into the narrative of the hospital’s institutional growth and evolution.

Yet producing compelling, authentic institutional histories is often fraught with challenges. When books are commissioned to commemorate anniversaries, many will expect a hymn of praise, populated by heroes and heroines achieving great things together. As the story moves closer to the present, any skeletons are often left in the closet. Many such publications, such as the 2004 official history of the Montreal Children’s Hospital, can become little more than celebratory promotional ventures.

Stephen Kimber’s IWK: A Century of Caring for Families is one of the few that succeeds in surmounting the obvious limitations of the genre. While the book is a commissioned work, the author has produced an engaging, sound, and surprisingly frank account of one of Halifax’s most respected public institutions. He builds the tale upon fascinating personal vignettes, told well in a most readable, conversational style. Buried in the book one can also find a few controversial episodes presented in a balanced and sensible fashion.

Kimber brings his flair for writing and a deft touch to the IWK story. As might be expected, the Rogers Communications Chair at the University of King’s College takes an unabashedly journalistic approach.

Right from the outset, Kimber personalizes the book by relating the harrowing story of his son Michael’s emergency visit during one Christmas Eve where he was first diagnosed as hypoglycemic.

Almost every chapter in IWK begins with a similar “hook” to entice the reader. It’s virtually a tour de force of his journalistic skills demonstrating, once again, why he is regarded as one of Atlantic Canada’s best popular writers.

“Giving voice to other people’s stories,” is how Kimber described the art of writing a compelling narrative during a recent interview. Sitting in his book-filled, lived-in university office stacked high with student papers, he looks every inch the rumpled, seasoned professor. “Everybody had an IWK story,” he says, “but the real trick was finding the narrative thread and trying to see it through their eyes.”

This IWK history is full of larger-than-life figures. It is here that Kimber hits his stride with a graphic and revealing portrayal of Dr. Benge Atlee and his notorious regime at the Grace Maternity Hospital from the early 1920s to 1958.

Widely praised for his pioneering initiatives in introducing the “early riser” maternity program and promoting natural childbirth, he also comes off as a pompous chief of medicine with a condescending attitude toward the very women he devoted his life to serving in the maternity ward. Warts and all, that story’s all there.

When asked about his favourite IWK story, Kimber quickly offers up that of Carol Young and her miracle child, “Baby Charles.” It’s a prime example of the truly profound, life-changing experiences often connected with children’s hospitals. After volunteering her services to the IWK, Carol admits a severely disabled and chronically ill, abandoned child into her life. In the chapter, We Found Each Other, Kimber recounts the poignant story of how Carol and her husband John adopt the baby as their own, only to see him pass away in February 1989 at age 11.

Supporters of the IWK will look for a “tipping point” in the 100-year event-filled history of the IWK. And perhaps the most significant, in recent times, was the arrival of Dr. Richard Goldbloom. As a fast rising pediatrician at the Montreal Children’s Hospital, hiring him away in 1967 for the newly merged IWK was quite a coup for Halifax. His decision to leave Montreal for Halifax, it turns out, was heavily influenced by Ruth, his New Waterford-born wife, who later became the driving force behind the Pier 21 National Immigration Museum.

From that time forward, it’s abundantly clear, the IWK of today began to take shape.

A few quibbles might be raised about this official IWK history. While the personal stories greatly enhance the narrative, some might find the structure of the chapters a bit jarring, jumping back and forth from traditional chapters to detailed case studies. Academic historians will likely carp about the somewhat jumbled chronology and the anecdotal nature of the research. Its treatment of the recent decades is also, rather predictably, more laudatory than his frank assessment of earlier years.

None of these comments, however, should detract from what is a fascinating and entertaining book.

Kimber’s IWK will stand as a model for other institutional histories. He succeeds in telling the full story, bringing to life the everyday experiences of doctors, patients, nurses and even laundry workers. One of those priceless nuggets is Richard Goldbloom’s pithy observation back in 1967 that “Killam” is a strange name for a hospital. That certainly explains why “IWK” emerged as not only the popular name for the hospital, but also the title of the book.

Paul W. Bennett is Director of Schoolhouse Consulting, Halifax, and author of The Grammar School: Striving for Excellence in a Public School World.