Recently I read Splendid Solution: Jonas Salk and the Conquest of Polio
by Jeffrey Kluger. This is the All Iowa Reads book for 2007. It was
especially interesting to me since I had polio many years ago. As I read the
book, my thoughts kept going back to my own experience; I found that I had lots
of blanks that I couldn’t fill in. As a result, I located some people who
were alive at that time (67 years ago), read my mother’s diary and wrote this
Late Saturday night my mother, my sister Lorna and I returned home from a
trip to Colorado and Montana.
It was 17 August 1940. The
next night, Sunday, Lorna got sick. Thursday morning at 9:45, she died. Cause of death, infantile paralysis.
That Sunday morning she went to Sunday School at the Christian Church. Later
in the day she went to visit her grandparents who lived across town. She saw
some of her school friends.
During the night she got sick. She was cared for by Mother and Bessie,
mostly, with Pop there to help when needed. Dr. Muench came daily. Her
condition must have stabilized to a point - at least she wasn’t getting worse.
So Bessie stayed to care for her and me while Mother and Pop went to an
excursion boat. Bessie said, “I put a comforter on the floor in Lorna’s room to
sleep near her. I wanted to be sure to hear her when she needed me.”
“That evening, after they were gone, Lorna’s kidneys were starting to fail.
She would have to go to the bathroom real often. Her legs were starting to give
her trouble then. I helped her until her legs got worse, and I was afraid I
couldn’t keep her from falling. I remembered seeing a china potty in the attic;
so I went up there and got it, cleaned it up and set it by her bed.
“When she was no longer able to get up, I would set her up, get behind her
and lift her to the potty. She could only pass a little urine, as her kidneys
were starting to paralyze. When your folks came home, your Dad could take her
to the bathroom. Your folks were with her the rest of the night.”
By then, Dr. Muench must have made the diagnosis of poliomyelitis -
infantile paralysis. He ordered a registered nurse (Mary Kelsey from Moline);
she came on Wednesday, and we were put into quarantine. He ordered an iron
lung, which came from Bellevuehospital in Muscatine
and was set up in the upstairs hall, but no one came to operate it.
Bessie told me about the following morning: “That morning as I was getting
up, I stopped at the door of Lorna’s bedroom and asked the nurse how their
night was. She said it was very quiet. I went to the kitchen to start coffee
and breakfast. The nurse suddenly called for me, and I dashed up the back
steps. The nurse said, ‘Wake up Mr. Nichols and have him call Dr. Muench.’
“Dr. Muench had to put a gown and mask on as he came in the door. He was
such a big man and me, being a shorty, I stood on the bottom stair step. I held
his gown as he slipped into it, and I tied it in the back. He tied his mask on,
and he took those steps on the double.”
The nurse tried to resuscitate her, but the paralysis had hit her lungs, and
she could notbreathe. Bessie said, “I was crying and Nurse said she needed some
help. So with tears still spilling on everything, I helped her.”
Funeral arrangements were made by telephone, as we were in quarantine. The
casket was placed by the front window; my parents stood at one end of her
casket, Bessie and I stood at the other end. We watched all the people come up
on the porch and walk past the casket. They were nearly all adults; parents
were too frightened to allow their children to come even that close to that
horrible disease. The service was held at 2 p.m.
on the front lawn. After we were taken off quarantine (Saturday, 7 September),
Mother made her trip to the cemetery.
Lorna was 14, almost 15, and ready to start her sophomore year in high
school. She was a fun-loving girl, popular with boys and girls. Talented - an
Lorna Margaret Nichols was born in Nichols, Iowa,
25 September 1925, in the
farm house at the foot of the bluffs about a mile west of town. We moved to
town about 1930, and she spent the rest of her life there. She was active in
high school events. She was a member of the school band and she was also a
leader in church and Sunday school work. She was a member of the Nichols
Mother chose to name her Lorna after the heroine in the book “Lorna Doone.”
She was named Margaret after Mother’s sister-in-law, Margaret Mather Eckey.
While we were on our western trip, we visited friends in Colorado
and then went on to Montana,
where we visited Mother’s cousin, Charles Dickman, his wife, Bess, and their
son, Chuck. Depending on the length of time for the incubation, we could have
picked up the virus anywhere.
We stopped in Hot Springs, South
Dakota, on our way home. I started to get sick on
Tuesday, 13 August. Mother wrote in her diary that I was feverish all afternoon
and night. The next day I still had a fever, but not so much - it had gone to
103 in the night. Mother called a doctor to come in to see me - she didn’t say
whether he made a diagnosis. I don’t think he did. She stayed with me, while
Lorna went out with some friends. Thursday, the 15th, I didn’t have so much
fever, and the doctor came back in the late afternoon.
We left Hot Springs the
following morning and went as far as Scottsbluff,
Nebraska, where I was glad to get in bed at
3 p.m. Saturday morning (17th) we
left at 5 o’clock, drove long hours
and finally arrived home at 11:45 in
the evening. I do remember that I rested and slept in the back seat on
that trip. I remember that we stopped at a restaurant in some town, and
Mother and Lorna went in to eat, but I stayed in the car.
Bessie told me that I was put to bed as soon as we got home, and I stayed
there for a couple more days. She worried that I wasn’t hungry; she tried to
think what she could fix for me to eat.
Before he put us under quarantine, Dr. Muench came to Bessie and told her
that she could leave right then if she wanted to get out. Bessie said she
thought a little and said, “Where would I go? I have a younger brother at home
and I sure don’t want to carry germs to him. Then I said, ‘If I’m gonna die, I’ll
die right here.’” Dr. Muench patted her hand and told her that was good
Dr. Muench came to the house each day and checked me over. He also checked
my parents and Bessie. She said that he would tap her knees with a little
rubber hammer and her foot would fly up.
I remember one time when Dr. Ady came to see us. We were sitting in the back
yard or on the steps of the back porch, when he explained to me about my
semi-paralyzed left shoulder and how he thought I would regain the use of it.
He told me that if a bomb fell in the smooth green lawn, it would make a hole
and destroy some of the grass in the area. As time went by, the lawn and the
grass would fill back in until it would look natural again. The same thing
would happen to my arm: the nerves controlling the muscles that made my arm
move were “bombed,” but after time passed, other nerves and muscles would learn
to compensate for the damaged ones, and I would be able to use the arm in a
normal manner. He was right.
While we were in quarantine, people could come to visit, but they weren’t
allowed to come in the house. Bessie’s boyfriend (eventually her husband, Bryce
Wolford) would come to see Bessie. He’d drive his car into the alley, and he
sat in his car while she sat on the back porch steps.
Bessie said that she and I would walk around our block, and when we met
people, they would cross the street and walk as far away from us as they could.
We telephoned the grocery store, and they would deliver the needed items to the
back porch. If anyone came to visit, they stayed by their car in the alley.
Many years later (1955) I took my own boys to have their polio shots. The
doctor suggested that I get one, too. When I told him I had already had it, he
said there were three types, and I had just one. He said I didn’t need to get
it again when I had three boys to take care of. So I had my polio shots, too.
Lorna’s close friends, Marie and Berni Fridley, have shared their memories
with me. They follow.
Marie's Thoughts of Lorna
My first memory of Lorna was she was very kind and friendly. I was spending
the summer with my sister, Grace Borgstadt, and her husband, Ralph. Grace
suggested I make friends with Lorna and Charlene Nichols. The chance came very
soon as Lorna approached me in Sunday School. She introduced herself and our
friendship began. We took long walks and played baseball with her friends in
the school yard. This is where she introduced me to her friend, Berni Fridley,
and many others. I was soon one of the group. They enjoyed riding their
bicycles on a warm summer afternoon. I did not have a bicycle so Berni rode me
on his. I thought he was a very nice, kind young boy. Lorna and I shared
secrets and giggled about boys we thought were “cute.” We attended the
Wednesday night band concerts as Lorna played in the band. After, we dashed to
Rice's Cafe and Ralph would treat us to a milk shake of our choice. My summer
vacation would always end far too soon. We kept in touch by writing letters.
Each time I visited Grace and Ralph my first call was to Lorna and soon she
would be knocking on the door. Our friendship continued where it had left off.
I remember the tragedy of Keith's accident. I did not know how to comfort
Lorna but she made it very easy for me. We hugged each other and she said she
and her family were trying to be very brave. They knew their friends were
saddened by their loss and they appreciated their love and support.
Grace called me and told me the sad news Lorna had polio. I was devastated.
I knew she would be so very brave and keep the beautiful smile on her face. Her
recovery was not to be. Grace called me and told me Lorna had passed away. I
cried for days as I loved my dear friend so very much. She was far too young to
be gone so soon. I remember visitation was on the front porch. Lorna was in
front of a huge window inside and we passed by to pay our respects. She looked
beautiful and at peace. Her suffering finally had come to an end. I did not
visit Grace and Ralph as frequently as I had when my dear friend would come
knocking at the door. I think of her often and always with a smile. She was a
very special and beautiful young lady loved and admired by all who knew her. I
count my blessings I can call her my friend.
Grace came to our home one day with a package she gave me from your Mom. She
had sent me several of Lorna's beautiful blouses. At first I was hesitant to
wear them but her note said Lorna would want me to have them. I wore them
proudly to High School and received many compliments.
Berni's Thoughts of Lorna
Lorna was such a dear friend to me. We were in the same class in school so
we had lots to talk about. Sometimes she would share the trips with her family
with me. Always very interesting as she made them all so exciting. She very
much enjoyed traveling with her family. I remember one day while riding our
bicycles we stopped at her house and her Mother invited me in for a snack. It
was grape juice and cream puffs and oh so very delicious. I still enjoy both
and always think of Lorna. With happy tummies we continued our bicycle ride
about town. Lorna was a wonderful and kind girl and I very much enjoyed our
I was devastated when I learned Lorna had polio. I was so fearful for her as
she was just too young and vibrant to be so very ill. I learned of her death at
the West Liberty Fair. It was such a shock as she deserved to live a long happy
life. Lorna was very special and I still think of her.
One day I was up town and I met your Mom. I was going with Marie at the
time. She said she was going through some of Lorna's things and she came across
something she thought I would like. She said she would dash home and get it. It
was a locket I had given Lorna and my picture was on one side and Marie's on
the other. She said Lorna must have known something the rest of us did not
know. I thanked her for her kindness. We both cherish this locket.
Lorna was a very special young lady and touched so many lives during her
short life. She was loved and admired by all who knew her. I count my blessings
I was her friend.
* * * * *
Facts from the book Splendid Solution: Jonas Salk and the Conquest of
Polio by Jeffrey Kluger. New York.
Berkley books, 2004
Page 89 -
...60 percent of the nerve cells associated with a particular muscle had to
be damaged or destroyed before any paralytic symptoms appeared at all.
Page 94 -
...researchers had known that...there were three different types of
poliovirus, with many different strains within each type...
Page 99-100 -
The three types of poliovirus were very different bugs, distinguished by
their very different behaviors. Type I was the most common of the three, the
one most likely to lead to epidemics and paralysis of the limbs. Type II was a
milder virus than Type I, the likeliest to lead to asymptomatic cases, though
in the weak or unlucky, it could still paralyze or kill. Type III was the
rarest of all and that was a very good thing, since it was the one most likely
to lead to bulbar polio, the infection of the medulla oblongata, the lower bulb
of the brain, leading to paralysis of the diaphragm, destruction of breathing,
and so often death. The only hope for these cases was the feared iron lung, a horizontal,
tank-like device into which the body was slid up to the neck. Rising and
falling pressure within the machine then expanded and contracted the chest,
forcing breath into and out of the lungs. Only the patient’s head protruded
from the tank, the mouth and nose forcibly drawing in and expelling room air.
Page 153-154 -
Salk asked further if she also knew how resilient even the most severely
stricken polio patients could be; how their bodies seemed to remember how to
work, and with effort, could regain a surprising degree of the strength and
mobility they’d lost.
* * * * * * * * * *
Charlene Nichols Hixon
31 May 2007
Charlene Hixon, Johnson County
(formerly of Muscatine County)