General Comments :
The playful summer of 1949 was coming to an end. Gone were the
days of learning to shell black-eyed peas and swim at Virginia
Beach, VA. This would be important, later. I don't remember my
family ever talking about polio epidemics at that time.
My mother, Charlotte Davis, my sister, Judy, my grandparents,
Amiel and Elsie Roggensack from Mason City, IA and I were
traveling from Hopewell, VA to Minneapolis MN in late August. I
was to start second grade in September. My father, Leonard Davis,
remained at Ft. Lee, VA to finish Army Reserve Camp.
The first or second morning on the road, I woke up feeling
groggy. At breakfast, I ravishingly drank my glass of orange
juice, then drank another family member's orange juice without
asking. My mother reprimanded me for that. During the day, my
malaise increased as did my first and most horrendous headache. I
remember lying in the back seat of the car with my head in my
grandmother's lap. The only thing other thing I ate all day was a
cold milkshake. It was all I wanted.
That night, we were to stay at a guest house in Normal, Illinois.
I was far from feeling normal. I remember sitting on the floor
with my legs out in front of me, leaning against the bed. The
lady who owned the guest house pulled my mother aside and said,
"We had a polio epidemic here 2 weeks ago and they
published the symptoms in the paper. I don't want to alarm you,
but I think your daughter has some of those symptoms. Do you want
me to call my doctor?" Mother told her by all means to
call her doctor.
At nine o'clock that night, I walked up the flight of steps to
the second floor office of the doctor. I don't remember his name,
perhaps a Dr. Anderson. I know it ended in son. As I lay on the
exam table, I watched the doctor raise my right leg, perhaps 30
degrees. It felt like it was stretched over the back of my head.
My mother later told me that paralysis was setting in in my right
leg, an arm and my neck. The doctor wanted to perform a spinal
tap at the Normal hospital to verify it was polio. I had to be
carried down the steps I walked up, I couldn't walk anymore.
The results of the spinal tap at the hospital proved I did,
indeed, have polio. The Sister Kenney Foundation representative
was there to ask if mother needed financial assistance. How
amazing - at 10 p.m. or 11 p.m. The year before, my father had
taken out polio insurance on both me and my sister so my mother
said if she needed additional assistance she would let the
Then the doctor approached my mother and asked if she would give
permission for me to participate in an experimental program to
try and stop the disease or symptoms. The doctor said that a
doctor or researcher in Chicago was working on something to help
stop the spread of polio. They would have to have whatever it was
flown in from Chicago. "But", he said,
"you have to be sure that these symptoms haven't been
present for more than 24 hours." Mother believed my
symptoms had started that morning. My mother later told me she
thought I didn't have anything to lose, the paralysis was
becoming more pronounced. So she signed the papers which freed
the doctor and the hospital from any responsibility if things
didn't work out. Mother said it was the most awful feeling she
had when she signed the papers, but that it also offered
The doctor told Mother to go back to the guest house and get some
rest. She stayed in her car until she saw two Illinois State
troopers arrive at the hospital, delivering a package brought
from the local airport. Only then did she go back to the guest
Mother was told it took about 2 hours for the IV serum to be
injected. It became a race against time. Whatever was going to be
used on me had to be flown in from Chicago, Illinois and the
treatment completed before 8 a.m.
I believe Mother was told the serum was started at 5 a.m. I
remember seeing an IV pole with a clear glass bottle hanging on
it. It looked like the bottle was full of blood. Orange tubing
snaked down into my arm. I've often wondered if it was the blood
of people who had had polio and it had their antibodies in
I remained in the Normal, Illinois hospital for a week. From my
bed near a window of my room, waving good-bye to my sister and
grandparents was very sad for me. They were taking Judy back to
Iowa. Fortunately, no one else in my family contracted polio.
The doctor said there was a two week incubation period for the
polio virus. When they counted back 14 days, it was the day I was
swimming at Virginia Beach, VA. What I remember is that a huge
grasshopper landed on my chest while swimming, and I smashed it
My new plaid dress that I wore to first see the doctor was
burned. So were all my comics, Lone Ranger and cowboy plastic
toys and other gifts I had received in the hospital.
I was told there was a boy in the next room who had polio. I
don't know what happened to him.
But, at the end of the week, I walked out of the hospital on my
own two feet. There was a moment of hesitation when I saw the
steps, but I found out I was just a regular kid again.
On the way home, Mother stopped at a town. We went through a
mobile exhibit which had a live person in it inside an iron lung.
Mother told me that that could have happened to me. I believe the
exhibit was a way to raise funds to fight polio.
After-treatment care included a tricycle with blocks on the
pedals for me to exercise my legs. They didn't have training
bikes then. When I crashed my sister's two-wheel bicycle, my
parents got me one. Also, during second grade, I had to rest
during recesses. I hated that.
But the story doesn't end there. About 5 years later, when I was
12 years old, in 1955, I believe, a polio epidemic occurred. We
lived in Rochester, MN then.
I do remember going to the lobby of the of the Mayo Clinic, to
get my vaccine on a sugar cube, along with all the other school
children. Our doctor had said I should get it because there are 3
strains of polio and I was not protected against one of them. I
believe it was the bulbar strain.
We could not go swimming and were restricted to the block we
A block away, in a family I babysat for, the mother and daughter
contracted polio. The mother died and the daughter had to learn
to walk with leg braces. I always remember the mother - she wore
White Shoulders perfume. The father was a fellow (doctor) at the
Mayo Clinic. He did not get polio, nor did I.
I never babysat for the girl again. She did well in walking
braces but when I saw her, I would think, "That could
have been me." I could never understand how polio could
so dramatically impact my life twice.
Perhaps that's why I became a nurse.
My family has been in the State of Iowa since 1841. I was the
only one born out of state, at Ft. Leonard Wood, Missouri during
World War II. After graduating from the University of Iowa, I've
lived in Iowa for 40+ years.