The eleventh child born to Jack and Julie Bursey of St. Augustine, Québec, Eleanor was born in 1948. Three of her siblings had died prior to her birth. The first eighteen months of her life were uneventful, with life in St. Augustine going along as usual. The older children helped look after her, and she had ready playmates in the younger ones. As the youngest child in the house, Eleanor slept in a crib in her parents room on the main floor of the house.
St. Augustine had a Roman Catholic priest named Father Langois. Every year he brought boxes of toys and clothes into the community. The items came from the United states, in tea boxes, which were lined with foil. Father Langois sold the items to the people in the community. So in the late fall of 1949, Eleanor's parents bought clothes and toys from the priest for Christmas.
Everything was fine until the end of December. When her sister, Hampton, tried to get Eleanor out of her crib, Eleanor could not stand. The family sent for Mrs. Clench, a trained nurse, who lived in the community.
"I hope to God it is not what I think it is," said Mrs. Clench. She suspected polio.
Mrs. Clench sent a telegram to Montreal and the next a day, an air ambulance flight landed on the frozen river. The men cleaned off the ice and outlined the runway with burning pots of oil. By this time, nine children were affected, two eventually died. The people suspected the polio virus came to the community in the boxes of toys and clothes. The village was quarantined, the only place on the coast with polio.
The children were taken to Hôpital Pasteur in Montreal. While Eleanor's family was English speaking, in Montreal, Eleanor heard French. When she finally arrived home for an extended time five years later, Eleanor spoke French.
Those years away from her family are lost to Eleanor, who has no memory of that time. It may be a good thing. However, there were other children from her community with her at the hospital so Eleanor still had a connection to home. Imagine what it must have been like for her parents, not knowing what was going on day to day with their young child. Visiting Montreal was out of the question.
Even when she did return home, Eleanor went back to Montreal for yearly check-ups. She also had a further period of thirteen months away from home, living in foster care this time, as doctors operated on her left leg, trying to improve her mobility. This surgery was unsuccessful and foster care was not a pleasant experience for Eleanor either.
Through it all, Eleanor had to wear braces of varying sizes, starting with a brace on her left leg from her foot to her hip, Over the years, doctors reduced the size of the brace. Eleanor eventually wore a high boot.
Young people of St. Augustine had to leave the community to attend high school. They went to Cross Point in Restigouche, Québec. By this time, Eleanor was accustomed to being away from home, so the transition for her was not as difficult as it was for some of the young people.
By 1968, Eleanor was living in Ontario and working at Eaton's Department Store. Later she worked as a filing clerk at Princess Margaret Hospital. About this time, she met Eldon Gallant, a trucker from Prince Edward Island. They married in 1970. Then in 1974, after her mother died, the Gallants moved to St. Augustine to look after Eleanor's father.
One of the highlights of Eleanor's life, was the day she and Eldon adopted their son, Peter in 1985. The family lived in St. Augustine until 1997 when they moved to Prince Edward Island to look after Eldon's mother.
Sadly, Eldon died in 2009. Eleanor still resides in Prince Edward Island and enjoys a busy life with friends and family. She has two beautiful grandchildren as well, who fill her life with great joy.
It is interesting that the young child who spent so many of her formative years in hospital away from home, grew up to provide care for other people. The care she received had a huge impact on that little child as did the wonderful parents who gave birth to her. She became a loving, caring, adaptable, friendly woman.
Polio affected Eleanor's mobility, but she does not have any pain in the affected leg. She can do anything she needs or wants to do. Eleanor's brush with polio does not define who she is. Rather, it informed her life, in combination with her heritage and her community.
It all started with Reuben's journey to the coast, all those years ago.
Thank you to Eleanor Bursey Gallant for sharing her family story this week.