Queen Elizabeth arrives at the Red Deer Airport June of 1990

Queen Elizabeth arrives at the Red Deer Airport June of 1990

Pediatrics unit received royal treatment when it opened 25 years ago

Brightly-coloured walls and a play area greet young patients in Red Deer Regional Hospital Centre’s pediatric unit, just like it did when Queen Elizabeth II officially opened the ward 25 years ago.

Brightly-coloured walls and a play area greet young patients in Red Deer Regional Hospital Centre’s pediatric unit, just like it did when Queen Elizabeth II officially opened the ward 25 years ago.

Three-dimensional store fronts in the corridors still resemble a miniature village of local businesses to help alleviate anxiety.

But what has changed is the equipment and technology that has advanced medical care through the years for infants to adolescents.

Carolyn Roy, assistant head nurse, said the day the Queen toured the unit, some young patients had their fractured femurs suspended in traction that would have kept them in hospital beds for weeks.

“What used to be a stay of four to six weeks is now a week maybe, maximum. They put a plate in or they put a nail through the femur to hold it, then they put a cast on to hold it and they go home,” said Roy, who was on duty on June 28, 1990, for the Royal visit.

She said computers on the unit operated with just a few side buttons instead of a keyboard and were basically used to order tests. Now computer technology instantly connects staff to vast amounts of health care information.

At 1,356 square metres, the new 25-bed pediatric unit was double the size of the unit in the old Red Deer Hospital.

Pediatric patient rooms have since been reduced to single occupancy for a total of 10 beds due to shorter stays. The ability exists to add capacity if necessary.

The community raised more than $570,000 for the $1.6-million, cutting-edge pediatric unit.

A multitude of local fundraising efforts included Red Deer firefighter John Cormier raising more than $33,000 by swimming the English Channel in 1988.

Fifty-one corporate sponsors and service clubs paid upwards of $30,000 each to be part of the village motif.

Roy said it was business as usual the day the Queen arrived, if you didn’t count the dignitaries she’d only see on television who toured the unit, the media horde, security and a swarm of Royal watchers outside the hospital.

“It was quite an affair.”

Nine staff still work on the unit who remember that monumental 40-minute tour.

The Queen came into the room where Roy was tending to patients.

Roy said Her Majesty was exceptionally gracious.

“I was quite impressed. She talked to all the patients and parents that were there, and actually made a point of stopping and talking to everyone.”

The new unit was decked out with play therapy rooms, a burn unit, a teen lounge, treatment and counselling areas, and a suite for parents to sleep.

“Family-centred care is really important on our unit so we try and keep the families together and get them back together at home as quick as we can. (Children) just want to be at home with their families, and their dogs and cats.”

And play is very therapeutic, she said.

“That’s why we encourage them to play. That’s why the playroom is the first thing you see when you come onto the unit. As you walk around the unit, there’s interactive stations they can play at. Play is very important for them. It expedites the healing process, when they can get up and play,” Roy said.

Red Deer’s mayor at that time, Bob McGhee, was in receiving lines that day to greet the Queen and shake her hand.

“You let her shake your hand. She does the first move,” recalled McGhee.

When her plane landed at the Red Deer Industrial Airport and after she met dignitaries, he said the Queen decided to speak to some war brides who had gathered to greet her.

“She walked over and chatted with them, which was wasn’t part of the itinerary. So that was unique.”

McGhee sat between then-premier Don Getty and the Queen during the luncheon held in her honour at the Capri Centre, where McGhee had an opportunity to talk to her about the Red Deer area.

He said it was an unexpected pleasure to meet the Queen.

“Most people in Red Deer never expected the Queen to visit, I don’t think,” McGhee said.

Michael Dawe, who at the time was a member of Red Deer Regional Hospital Centre board, said the Queen’s visit created genuine excitement in the community.

She drew crowds at the airport, the hospital and hotel estimated at 3,000 to 5,000 people in total.

“We never had a reigning monarch of Britain and Canada come to visit Red Deer before. We had members of the Royal Family. Her sister (Princess Margaret) came in 1980,” said Dawe, who can still clearly picture the events of the day the Queen came to the city.

“I remember the suit a wore. It was blue one. It was brand new. It was a real honour to be there.”

He was impressed by her dignity and expertise in dealing with the public.

“I remember she did a walkabout out in the area in front of the hospital. Some people presented her with flowers, which she accepted very graciously.”

Dawe executed a formal bow before the Queen and had the chance to shake her hand, but didn’t get to exchange words with Her Majesty. The opportunity almost presented itself while he was near the hospital’s official guest book.

“The Queen asked about three times where they wanted her to sign and everyone was too busy to actually give her a clear answer. Everyone was all agog. Finally she just signed where she thought was appropriate,” he said with a laugh.

He thought about answering but wasn’t sure it was proper protocol.

Another less-known incident involved Health Minister Nancy Betkowski’s young son after the Queen’s hospital tour.

The boy was ill so he took a nap in an administrator’s office during the tour.

“He didn’t look very good so they actually took him in to have a pediatrician look at him. He was diagnosed as being in the early stages of meningitis. Because they caught it very early, it was easily dealt with.”

He said if the boy had not been at the hospital with his mother for the ceremony, the potentially serious childhood illness could have taken longer to diagnose.

Dawe said the new child and family-focused pediatrics unit garnered a lot of interest from hospitals across Canada.

“(The Queen’s visit) was a nice kudo to the pediatric ward and the people who worked very hard at developing, what at that time, was some very good and somewhat unique ideas.”

As a community gift to the Queen, an annual $1,000 Queen Elizabeth II Scholarship for pediatrics or neonatology student from the Red Deer area was established to commemorate the official opening of the hospital unit and Her Majesty’s visit.

Morris Flewwelling, who helped organize the scholarship program and attended the luncheon, said a lot of was done in Red Deer to spiff up for the Queen’s visit and to co-ordinate during the actual events.

“You didn’t have the advantage of cellphones so everyone was always kind of on the lookout for everything,” Flewwelling said.

Flewwelling and his wife, Hazel, also attended the concert held that night at Jack Singer Concert Hall in Calgary, organized by Prime Minister Brian Mulroney.

Flewwelling said the concert was put together quickly with no time for formal invitations to be sent out.

He said Hazel was notified of their invitation while she was at work as a teacher at the Red Deer Remand Centre.

“A call came through the central switchboard and they put the call up to Hazel’s room. She was busy doing something and she said, ‘Just tell them I’ll call them back.’ The switchboard operator said, ‘I don’t think we can. It’s the prime minister’s office calling.’

“You can imagine the buzz at the remand centre with the teacher getting a call from the prime minister’s office. Everyone was on high alert,” he laughed.

Red Deer, Calgary and Ottawa were the only communities the Queen visited during her five-day Canadian tour in 1990.

szielinski@bprda.wpengine.com