‘At that time, polio was our nemesis …’

Hurley’s first pediatric resident tells tales from 1950s

At the first-ever Hurley Pediatric Dinner & Lecture for alumni and friends Oct. 16, 2012, one guest in particular brought lots of smiles and recollections from the other guests.

Berton J. Mathias MD, 87, attended the Flint event with his wife, Mary Lou D. Mathias RN, MA. As the first graduate from Hurley’s Pediatric Residency Program in 1955, Mathias set the bar for Hurley pediatric residents. Today, an annual award is given in his name to the graduating pediatric resident at Hurley who demonstrates outstanding compassion for children and families, exceptional clinical skills, teamwork, and dedication to the art and science of healing.

During the event at the Holiday Inn-Gateway Centre, Aftab Aftab MD, Chair of the Hurley Pediatric Department, presented Mathias with a plaque as the first Hurley Pediatric Program’s Distinguished Alumni Award recipient.

Aftab noted that, as an intern, Mathias received an annual salary of $2340 in 1952, plus uniforms, lodging and laundry (only for his uniforms.) As a resident from 1953-1955, Mathias received an annual salary of $3600 (plus lodging and laundry for uniforms). Meals were not covered.

Prior to the event at the Holiday Inn-Gateway Centre, Mathias talked about his experience as the first Pediatric resident at Hurley.

“Like anything that starts, nobody mentioned (to the staff) that I was coming,” Mathias said. “Dr. LaFond Jones – he was ancient – said to show up at 7 in the morning, and he’d meet me here.”

So that’s what Mathias did. When he explained that to the pediatric nurse on duty, she told him that Dr. Jones didn’t show up until 10 at the hospital.

But Mathias still received a warm welcome, he said. “She gave me a hug and said, ‘Follow me, and I’ll introduce you to your patients.’”

It was an eye-opening and rewarding first day, said Mathias.

“At that time, polio was our nemesis,” said Mathias. “There were 30 respirators on the floor. … They all needed electrical power, so there were these large cables up and down the floor, tacked on the walls, everywhere.”

The respirators – nicknamed “iron lungs” – cost as much as an average house in those days. They provided constant background noise.

And there was a rhythm to the day.

“At breakfast, lunch, evening, whenever the feeding carts arrived, everybody dropped what they were doing – and that was everyone: nurses, doctors, people who cleaned and brought food – and everyone fed a child … Every child had contact with an adult … for a meal,” he said.

The alternative was the “iron mother,” a bottle on a lamp with a clamp to keep it warm and hold it in place while the child drank.

“It was better to have someone feed the baby,” he said.

Common cases included Strep throat and meningitis, and recovery was slow, complications high.

“We didn’t have the antibiotics to treat that back then. We only had penicillin and sulfa,” he said.

They were limited in other ways, too, said Mathias.

“There were no pediatric lumbar puncture needles, so we cut them down from adults’. We sharpened them, sterilized them, and kept them in our pockets,” he said.

And the minimum blood draw volume was 5 ccs, even for infants.

“Kids who were jaundiced were anemic by the time we followed them,” he said.

Frequent lab draws are necessary to monitor babies with high bilirubin levels that indicate jaundice. Clinical research from the time period of Mathias’ pediatric training was just beginning to help physicians understand newborn hemolytic disease. In fact, around that time, researchers discovered the Rh group of red cell antigens and suspected a genetic basis for “Icterus gravis,” the severe form of jaundice that sometimes ended in death. Treatments soon followed, such as exchanging the newborn’s blood with blood that did not have high bilirubin.

At Hurley, Mathias assisted in the first exchange transfusion performed at the hospital.

“The baby survived, and so did the pediatricians,” he said.

In his first year, he also performed 10 tracheostomies – inside respirators, which was challenging, he said.

Polio dominated the first part of his residency, which began in 1952 – the peak of the U.S. polio epidemic, with 58,000 cases nationwide. Space was a problem, he said. Polio patients who didn’t need a respirator were kept in a building across the street.

The third floor of the old hospital housed patients with communicable diseases, one patient per room, he said. Otherwise, there were four patients to a room in general pediatrics, with a white curtain around each bed.

The contagious unit was next to the current power house, and the only way to reach the floor was by three flights of stairs.

“We used to get patients up the stairs by sitting them on a chair and having two muscular people carry them,” he said.

Fortunately, Mathias’ internship year was also the year that Jonas Salk MD first tested his inactivated polio vaccine in Ann Arbor, Mich. In a few years, mass polio immunizations began, and polio “just disappeared,” he said.

“It was like putting the shades up on the window … Two years later, we were able to get the respirators off the floors. It was like magic,” he said.

Mathias enjoyed a long career as a popular pediatrician in the area and retired after 37 years in practice. Since then, he has remained very active, said his wife, Mary Lou Mathias, who was a nurse and high school teacher.

“If you can’t find him, just look at the nearest lake,” she said, adding that fishing is just one of Mathias’ activities.

A Civil War buff, Mathias also makes his own muzzle-loading rifles and shoots them, and he maintains a garden and reads. He also finds time to reflect on his career and the state of health care, he said.

And what have been the best advances in medicine in his lifetime?

“The new vaccines that prevent diseases,” he said, without hesitation.

The last U.S. cases of polio caused by the “wild” virus occurred in 1979, in an Amish community. The U.S. – and most of the world – is considered polio-free.

(Photos and more updates from Hurley's Pediatric Alumni and Friends Dinner & Lecture will be posted soon.)