I do not remember the symptoms that led to my parents taking me
to Dr. Osborn, our family doctor in Dexter, in early October,
1952. They have since told me that I had some flu symptoms a few
days before and then I woke up with a stiff neck. When they took
me to the doctor, he told them to take me to Des Moines to the
hospital. I do remember the spinal tap that the doctors there
performed; I was curled on my side in a kind of fetal position
while they poked me in the back. My parents say that I screamed
and cried while they waited helplessly for the diagnosis they
feared most: polio.
I was admitted to Blank Children's Hospital and placed in a ward
with other polio patients. I remember a room crowded with beds. I
was in a crib with only enough space between my bed and the next
one for a nurse to squeeze through. That first ward was for those
of us, and it seems like there were hundreds, who were
quarantined. They told me that anything my parents gave me for me
to read or play with in that ward would have to stay behind when
I left. Parents couldn't come visit their children who were
quarantined so they came to the outside window and looked in and
waved. I remember that both parents and children were crying. I
seem to remember that my parents showed me a doll that they would
send in to me but I didn't want it if it meant leaving it behind.
I also have some memory of reading the book Heidi while I was in
the hospital but at seven years old, I wouldn't have had many
reading skills yet. It is funny how the memory of the story with
Heidi, her grandfather, and the goats is so vivid.
Perhaps ten days or so later I was moved out of the quarantine
ward to another ward for polio patients, all girls, I think.
Although there were several beds in the room, it was more
spacious and I was in a regular hospital bed, not a crib. I
remember that the walls were painted with animal characters or
cartoon characters; surely Disney hadn't penetrated that market
I don't know a lot about polio but from what I have read since
then I've learned that the accepted treatment to keep muscles
stretched and limber was to wrap the arms and legs with wet hot
packs. I remember that well. The nurses and volunteers brought
strips of steaming wool, it looked like pieces of Army blankets,
and wrapped them around our legs and arms, then covered them with
plastic. After the wool cooled, they removed them and brought
replacements. It seems to me that they did this all day while we
lay on our backs in bed.
My parents lived about 40 miles west of Des Moines where they
farmed. This was in October so I'm sure my father was harvesting.
My mother came to Des Moines and lived with her aunt, Arle
Snyder, so that she could come to the hospital every day as a
volunteer. My brother was only four so I assume that my
grandparents or aunts and uncles helped to take care of him. I do
remember being glad that my mother was there to take care of me.
She worked with the other volunteers to put the hot packs on our
I have a vivid memory of being burned. According to my mother,
the procedure was to take the hot wool out of scalding water and
wring the water out. One volunteer apparently didn't wring enough
water out and when she placed the hot wool on my leg, it burned
me. I remember the giant blisters on my thigh. No more hot packs
on that leg. I did have faint scars on my thigh for years after
One day a nurse asked me if I was ready for physical therapy. I
had no idea what those words meant. I was taken to a room with a
huge tub of water, maybe something like a hot tub. I soaked in
the water for awhile and then was taken to a bench where a
therapist started exercising my limbs. I had lost the use of my
left arm so while all of the other exercises were do-able -
bending and raising my legs and other arm - my left arm wouldn't
work. My mother accompanied me to physical therapy and learned
what the exercises were that could possibly bring my arm back to
usefulness. The doctors were pessimistic about my arm and told my
parents that I would probably need surgery to connect different
nerves and muscles for it to work again. My doctor was Dr.
Throckmorton. I don't remember him but my parents remember that I
said he would be a good grandpa.
Our neighbor boy was in Blank Children's Hospital at the same
time that I was there. One day my mother took me in a wheel chair
to see him. He was in an iron lung. I remember seeing his head
sticking out of this huge, shiny machine. He was three years
older than I was but we had been playmates. Tragically, he died
in that machine.
The hospital was so overwhelmed with polio patients that they
allowed my parents to take me home and work on the exercises
there. I had been in the hospital for three weeks or so and was
no longer contagious. Part of the regimen was for me to take
soaking baths and we didn't have indoor plumbing or a bathtub. My
parents borrowed a portable bathtub from our neighbors. It was
made of canvas stretched over a frame. I think my mother spent
much of each day heating water on the cook stove, putting me to
soak in the tub, and then working with me on my exercises.
There is a diagram that the physical therapists made for her
about the exercises. I remember that I was to simply raise my
left arm out from the side of my body, up to shoulder level. I
tried to lift my shoulder to help my arm but Mom pressed down on
my shoulder to force me to use different muscles to raise my arm.
We repeated that several times a day as well as keeping my other
limbs flexible with bending and stretching exercises. At regular
intervals we went to Des Moines to the physical therapist to
check my progress. Then he would give Mom some new exercises.
Eventually, I could raise my arm and then there was a progression
of small sandbags that I held or were perhaps attached to my
wrists and I had to raise my arm with first a small sandbag and
later, heavier ones. I seem to remember that the sandbags were
made of blue and white striped ticking. Mom was unrelenting; no
amount of whining on my part got me out of doing my exercises.
Sometimes we were both crying during our sessions but we kept
going. There were floor exercises, as well. Mom did those with me
and we sat on the floor with our legs extended in front of us
working to touch our toes. I became very flexible and could
eventually touch my forehead to my knees.
During that fall and early winter, I was, of course, missing
school. Mom got my assignments from school and I worked on some
worksheets at home. I was in second grade and there was some rule
about the number of days of school that I could miss and still
pass the second grade. So sometime that winter I started back to
school. I don't know if I went full time but I do remember
showing off my flexibility to my classmates, sitting on the floor
doing my exercises. I don't think it was long before we were able
to put polio and physical therapy behind us.