A line of curtsies


By Philip Fine 

It was a different time, says Carol Collins Cole, DIP P&OT’54, BSc (P&OT)’55, of her years at McGill, when uniformed waiters still served lunch and dinner to students in residence.

It was also the height of a polio epidemic that would leave an estimated 11,000 Canadians paralyzed. Cole remembers provincial governments from across the country sending new high school graduates to study at McGill—one  of Canada’s only two universities with a physical and occupational therapy program—to learn to care for those crippled by the disease.

Cole studied physiotherapy at the height of a polio epidemic. (Courtesy of Carol Cole)

Cole and a classmate were the first to earn BSc degrees from the School of Physical & Occupational Therapy (SPOT). As a McGill student and then as a graduate working in Montreal, she practised physiotherapy on many, including refugees, veterans, pregnant women, miners and sailors. One miner from Sept-Îles, treated for a broken neck, gave her a gold nugget that she still has today.

Her path to McGill began in Grade 9 in Schenectady, New York, where she befriended a hospitalized teen with polio who had to wear a corset and leg braces. “I wanted to help people who were in that situation to get better,” she says, adding that performing charitable deeds had always been an important part of her family, school and church life.

Cole decided to study physiotherapy. She looked at the program offerings in New York City and Boston, but both required her to study physical education or nursing, or to already have a bachelor’s degree. Once she saw that the SPOT curriculum would allow her to concentrate more closely on physical and occupational therapy, she made up her mind. Soon enough, her grandmother was writing a cheque for her first year’s tuition and she was shipping her trunk to Montreal.

It was September 1950, and, at 5’9” and wearing clothes her mother had sewn, the small-town teen felt intimidated by the backgrounds of some of her new peers when she arrived at her residence, Royal Victoria College (RVC). Amongst them were the daughters of a food magnate and of a former governor general. Such worries quickly dissipated, though, as residence life brought together students from around the world and of different means.

One RVC memory has Cole standing on its Sherbrooke St. steps (now the Schulich School of Music) with her fellow residents and curtsying for an open-air limousine passing by, carrying the then-Princess Elizabeth.

SPOT was located up the hill on Pine Ave. in a former Golden Square Mile Edwardian mansion, Beatty Hall. Cole attended lectures held in the ballroom and a dark wood panelled billiard room. She had massage therapy classes and learned how to use electrodes to stimulate muscles. Under the Occupational Therapy curriculum, she studied sewing and weaving as well as metal and wood work.

Cole loved discovering Montreal. She would travel by street car and then bus to Verdun Protestant Hospital, now the Douglas Mental Health University Institute, to treat psychiatric patients. She still remembers reading the sign on the street car: Défense de cracher sur le plancher (No spitting on the floor). She can also still recite the French she used in physiotherapy: Toussez s’il vous plait (please cough) and Pliez les genoux (bend your knees).

Between her third and fourth year, she interned in Alberta, “hot-packing” polio patients to relieve muscle spasms. The Salk vaccine came out that same year and conquered polio.

Her parents convinced her to take a fifth year at the School to earn its newly offered bachelor of science degree. She and a fellow student struggled through Physiology but were saved, she says, by a young Phil Gold, BSc’57, MDCM’61, MSc’61, PhD’65, co-discoverer of the carcinoembryonic antigen (CEA), still used widely to test for cancer today. “He helped us with these frogs, where you had to cut their spinal cords.” She remains thankful for his kindness.

In 1953, in her starched white uniform with velvet green striped cap, she would travel to the Montreal General Hospital, which was then located on De la Gauchetière St. Each ward contained forty beds. She would have to drag the large privacy screens from the nurse’s desk. She remembers that one of her patients was a Chinese sailor injured at port. She also treated Hungarian refugees, some grappling with the aftermath of shrapnel wounds, at the now-defunct Queen Mary Veterans Hospital, where she secured a staff position after graduation.

In 1957, she married George Cole, MDCM’57, a day after his graduation. They had met in 1954 and had discovered that they both had attended high school in Schenectady.

They moved to the United States and would eventually settle in Minnesota. She continued in her career until starting a family, eventually raising four children. She and her husband would later volunteer every year in Haiti and, since his passing, she has been an avid traveller.

She looks back at McGill as a time in her life where she got to work with a great autonomy in a wide variety of situations and meet people from around the world. “The best thing that ever happened to me in my life was going to McGill University. I’ll say that over and over.”

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