Polio – A Memoir
"Memoir" hardly seems appropriate for my/our recollections of those awful days when polio seemed to be everywhere and affecting everybody…but "memories” they certainly are. There is no gentle nostalgia connected to these memoirs. Those days are unforgettable. Fortunately, thanks to the Salk vaccine, polio itself is largely a memory.
It's hard to know where to begin if I try to be completely chronological, so I'll just "remember”... a "stream of consciousness” kind of narrative.
No one who did not live during those pre-vaccine days, especially those who have children, can begin to imagine the sheer terror that affected everybody. No ne knew where the virus came from or how it was spread. It had no seeming pattern. It affected rich and poor alike. It attacked those "protected" by privilege as well as those in the poorer category, though the less-advantaged did have slightly fewer cases of polio. During those fearful summers, we avoided crowds; swimming pools, movies; thinking (hoping?) to reduce exposure but realizing all the time that it was all guess work.
It was during the summer of 1951, life-long mends from New Hampshire were visiting relatives in Eastern Iowa. We thought it would be a pleasant little jaunt to drive across the state to see them. These life-time friends greeted us warmly, but instead of having a meal in their home, or even allowing us inside their house, we had a picnic at a nearby park. Since Hornick was such a hotbed of polio, they were afraid we might have brought the contagion with us. Such was the fear of polio and its unknown source.
A couple of summers before the Salk vaccine, gamma globulin was the shining hope. Nearly everyone dutifully and desperately took it, by mouth, as I remember. We took our three children to Onawa, a nearby town, to a doctor's office, where you were given a pill. We knew that some pills were, indeed, gamma globulin and some were simply sugar pills, the object being, of course, to test the effectiveness of the medication. This was a blind test. No one knew who received what. Extensive records were kept, but we never knew the results. There was no obvious lessening of the spread of the disease, so having taken the gamma globulin didn't set our minds at ease. It was, however, an indication of the "clutching at straws" mentality of the times.
Our little town of Hornick, Iowa and its surrounding mail routes had the highest percentage of polio victims in Iowa; It was estimated that at least 90% of the children on our mail routes had polio. The myth that polio could only be contracted once was just that, a myth. There was no comfort there. We had a young teen-aged girl in Hornick who had paralytic polio one year and bulbar the next. She survived.
Not so with Gene Prichard, a 12 year old boy, the son of church members. Gene was born with extensive birth defects, in lay terms described as a cleft palate that extended into his chest. He'd had numerous corrective surgeries and would have needed more, but he was a loved and happy, helpful farm boy. However, when he contracted polio, no one knew how his physical problems would affect his illness. He was taken to the Sioux City hospital the very same day you, Deb, were admitted. The very day we went to Sioux City to bring you home from the hospital, your Dad first had the funeral for Gene, then we accompanied the family to Sioux City where Gene was buried. The comparison was dramatic and made us even more grateful that we were bringing you home!
We had moved from New England to Hornick, Iowa in 1950. We were serving our first Iowa church, the Hornick Methodist Church. You had pneumonia when you were about 6 months old, but other than that, you were a healthy, happy little girl and the joy of the congregation! They had not had children in that parsonage for years, let alone actually having a baby born to the ministerial family.
Your Dad always worked at the Okoboji Methodist Camp, and the summer of your first birthday was no exception. We five drove first to Okoboji, then I drove with you three small children to Minnesota where I planned to visit grandparents for the week he was gone, then pick him up at the end of that time. Looking back, from the vantage point of 82 years, it seems quite an undertaking but I didn't consider it so and looked forward to visiting in both Waseca and Northfield.
While we were in Northfield, you began to pull yourself around in the play pen and were seriously thinking of walking, in fact you were taking a tentative step or two. Normally, all our children really had no problem going to bed and to sleep, so it was a bit of a surprise when you seemed wide awake well into the evening and showed no inclination to be ready for bed. I didn't think much about it, but I think you began to have a slight fever and seemed, not really unwell, but...what? Mother's intuition, maybe. Anyway, we called a doctor who came (imagine!), checked you over and assured us it was NOT polio, which was, of course, on everyone's minds, all the time.
Despite the doctor's reassurance, I was still worried. You were somehow not well, fretful and nervously active. It concerned me enough that we didn't go to Waseca, but stayed in Northfield. I called your Dad, asking him to come to Northfield to drive us home. He hitch-hiked to Northfield, and I was so glad he did. I'll never forget that drive back to Sioux City. All three of you were in child seats in the back seat. I don't know that you were actually hurting, - perhaps you were - but all I can recall is that endless trip, filled with apprehension and the fussing and crying of a sick little baby.
The next day I called our family doctor, Dr. Boe. He had delivered you and would deliver Dave and Rachel, too. He was wise, sensible and sensitive. When I told him my fears, he said that St. Joseph's Hospital in Sioux City, where all the polio patients were sent, was overfull and unless you became a lot worse, I could do as much for you than they, maybe more. He could not say, of course, that it was polio, but that was the assumption.
You were c1early sick; listless and pale and with painfully sensitive skin when I gave you the warm baths he recommended. There was nothing else to do!
I remember the day in which we took you to the hospital. I had continued to give a few piano lessons, despite our worry, and this particular day I had laid you down in your little crib for your afternoon nap. In the course of a lesson, I would peep in on you often. One never-to-be-forgotten time, I peeped in on you and saw, to my horror, that your little back was arched backward, like a parenthesis. I called Dr. Boe who said to bring you in to the hospital. I remember your Dad and I, on that seemingly endless (30 miles) trip to Sioux City wondering what was in store for you. Your little spine was arched badly. I will always remember the way your head hung over my arm as I held you on my lap.
In Sioux City, Dr. Boe was concerned that you had meningitis and he did a spinal tap. That, and subsequent experiences with white-clad doctors left you with an indelible fear of "white coats" though you crossed paths with them many more times in your early life!
It was not meningitis. It was polio. We left you at the hospital and drove disconsolately back to Hornick. St. Joseph Hospital was the only hospital where polio patients were allowed. Polio sufferers were isolated, on special floors, separated from the other patients. Even visitors were restricted to a side entrance. You were never in an iron lung, thank goodness, but the halls of that hospital were lined with those huge wheezing, life-saving machines and the hospital rooms had as many beds as they could hold, full of polio patients. You had developed paralysis in your left leg and left hand/arm. To my knowledge, you were given no medications - there were none, probably, only a form of aspirin.
I called Dr. Boe every day, though of course there was little he could tell me. If it was not reassuring, it still made me feel better, somehow, though nothing really could. We did visit naturally, though there was nothing we could do. I remember a Rev. Joe Castle, a Methodist minister in Sioux City who had one leg shorter than the other due to polio many years earlier. I will never forget seeing him walking down the crowded halls and visiting you, especially. He always took a personal interest in you. You were in so many prayers and so were we.
You were able to come home in about two weeks. You were pale and quiet. The happy, bubbling little girl of a few weeks ago was replaced by a sad-eyed, drawn and clearly sickly child. In fact, we wondered if you would survive. A favorite aunt and uncle from Leavenworth, Kansas, visited us about this time, after learning you had just returned from the hospital. As I showed them around the unremarkable little Iowa town, I will never forget my Aunt Marie stopping at our church, going inside, and kneeling at the altar to pray for your recovery.
In the hospital they had put a kind of styrofoam shoe on your left foot. This kept your foot at a right angle, supposedly to prevent a foot-drop, even when you were asleep. It was held on by wrappings of tape. When we returned to the hospital for a check-up, they put a kind of wooden brace, if you could call it that, on your feet. This consisted of fastening both shoes onto a board and then reinforcing that wooden board with a perpendicular board, the idea being, I suppose, that the "good" leg would exercise the weak one as well as helping the foot drop which afflicted your left foot. Again, whether that helped or not, I have no idea. No one really knew what to do. Naturally that did completely eliminate any chance of your walking. They didn't send us home with any exercises. I remember a thick black, foul-tasting vitamin which you took, more or less without protest, each day for at least a year.
Later that summer, your Dad again had a commitment at the Okoboji camp. While he was gone, your Grandma Virginia came to stay with us. Neither Becky nor Mark was feeling well. Both were tired and, for them, listless and with just the slightest fever, all of which was frightening beyond words. This malaise continued for 10 days to two weeks. We had a terrifying vision of all three of our small children affected with polio, who knows to what extent. Again, the medical recommendation was simply to keep them home, give warm baths and plenty of rest...I could do more for them than the overcrowded hospital could, if indeed it was polio. I remember hearing and being very moved by the fact that the campers at Okoboji kept the Lieder family in their prayers. Just to know you are prayed for is a source of strength, isn't it? Neither Mark nor Becky became really sick... the worrisome symptoms worked themselves through, I suppose. Our good Dr. Boe was sure it was polio, and in adulthood, both Mark and Becky felt they had some residual effects; Becky a slight curvature; Mark with neck and back problems. In any event, their brush with polio was relatively minor, thank goodness!
I had always said I wanted six children. Since we had postponed having a family for five years while your Dad and I were in school, we decided we would try to have all six in six years, so you could all grow up together. However, the strain and concern over polio interfered with our plans. Thus there is a two year gap between you and David.
It was the following summer, facing the same fear of polio, that I experienced a most wonderful thing. I was so afraid of the coming summer months and couldn't seem to overcome it. I dreaded the onslaught of polio again. One night, as I prayed, desperately, I'm sure I heard “Thy faith has made thee whole". The voice was clear and even seemed to come from a corner of the bedroom. I didn't know, of course, what "whole" meant but I felt somehow, that all would be well....and well it certainly has been, honey. It was a great comfort to me then and the prophecy has been abundantly borne out in the sort of "whole" person you have become.
All this happened in the summer of 1952. I'm sure you wore that awkward sort of brace all the following year, but gradually you began to be yourself again; smiling, laughing, normal! We were wondering exactly what to do next. The current treatments were really of two kinds. The Kenney treatment consisted of hot packs on affected muscles, first to ease pain and then, later, to avoid withering. The second approach had as a goal, it seemed to us, to make everything right, RIGHT NOW. This meant surgery, often several times, to correct present problems...and of course, the surgery didn't make "everything right." It was a stopgap measure whose long-term effects no one could really foresee.
We were not happy with these approaches, but felt it was time to do something. We asked Dr. Boe what he would do if you were his child. He spoke of the Kenney treatment, saying it seemed to have some limited benefit. He also said that the doctors in Sioux City, and elsewhere, I presume, didn't have any idea how to treat post-polio kids and he certainly didn't approve of any surgery at this stage. He said, without hesitation, "I'd go to Warm Springs, Georgia, the Polio Foundation, founded by FDR. It's the only place that seems to be effective in treating polio victims". So we did. We contacted the Warm Springs Foundation, then a purely polio treatment and rehabilitation center. We finally received an appointment for springtime and we set off, again with apprehension, not knowing what their decisions would entail. Maybe you'd have to stay there? Maybe you would have surgery? We didn't know.
The trip down was pleasant. We drove by way of New England to visit our many friends there and proceeded down the eastern seaboard to Warm Springs. I remember the very special treatment you always got in the restaurants and motels in which we stayed! Small wonder, of course. You were a darling, blond, curly-haired, smiling, independent little 2 year old. There was an abundance of candy and toys always available and everyone was drawn to you, it seemed. All this attention you took with equanimity.
At the Foundation we were overwhelmed by the caring and expertise of the doctors and especially the workers in the Brace Shop. The treatment philosophy of Warm Springs was a long-term view. They were not interested, for example, in trying to make a child walk perfectly right now. Instead, they focused their attention on that child's future and how you would walk as an adult.
The Foundation itself is a beautiful place. The grounds are well cared for; the dining hall, for example, is in a pillared white southern mansion, with pictures of FDR everywhere. We toured the Little White House and you have the probably unique distinction of making a puddle on the floor! The upshot of that visit was a pair of tiny aluminum, custom-made crutches. They also discovered a weakness in your left hand and prescribed a thumb-splint, a metal and leather affair that forced your thumb to work in opposition to your other fingers. It was designed, as well, to allow you to use the little, shiny new crutches. We tried diligently to keep that thumb-splint on your thumb, but it had a way of mysteriously disappearing. The major problem, from your standpoint it seemed, was that it interfered unbearably with your ability to suck your thumb, especially at bedtime. I do remember you crying at night as that hated metallic device got in the way. Finally, no more than a year after its appearance, it disappeared for good and we gave up on it. Obviously it either did its job, or was not needed for an extended period of time. That hand works beautifully today as you play the piano!
We have a precious picture of the first steps you ever took there in Warm Springs wearing your tiny new crutches! Another real blessing from our visits to Warm Springs was the fact that we were all reminded forcefully that we were very lucky. We saw so many, mostly children, in wheelchairs with pulley arrangements suspending rubber bands to enable them to use their paralyzed fingers and hands. There were also a great many other children confined to wheelchairs and gurneys. When in Warm Springs, we realized we were, indeed, fortunate, since most of the patients were so seriously affected.
They prescribed exercises to be done twice a day. These exercises changed over the years, of course, but I did them faithfully, and you cooperated with patience! We set up a table in "the girl's room" and morning and night you climbed up on that table and we did our thing. I got my exercise too! Each new set of exercises worked on different muscles for you, but also for me! Your weakened muscles were stretched and if it was uncomfortable for you, I never knew it.
We continued to go down every other year. As you grew, naturally you needed new, longer crutches and new, personalized exercises. One year Grandpa and Grandma Lieder came with us. One year Grandma and Grandpa Leggett rode down with us. Another year they drove you and me down to Warm Springs in the fall. Still another year the McCorkindales from Odebolt went with us. We also took your siblings on such a trip so they could see where you went and what happened there. Once we flew do, you and me, from Chicago to Atlanta where we rented a car and drove to Warm Springs. (Your Dad was in Chicago.)
We knew that eventually you would need surgery to stop the growth in your good leg so that the weak leg could catch up enough that your foot wouldn't drag but swing clear. Warm Springs recommended 12 as the appropriate age for the surgery. When you were 12 we brought you to Warm Springs to spend the summer. I remember one of your doctors saying that it was "diabolical" to operate on a good leg, but that was what had to be done. I especially remember the morning you were ready for the surgery. You had been given a sedative of sorts, preparatory to the procedure itself. As I stood beside you, you said "Look Mommy! Two cardinals!" There was only one, of course…I recall vividly how extremely hard this all was for me.
The surgery went well, obviously. You picked up a southern accent, which you tried diligently to lose when you came home! At one point, the doctors thought you had measles and moved you to a different area. In fact, you just were allergic to the soap they used. We called every Sunday night, as I remember. People in our Eagle Grove church were very supportive and concerned. You remember, I'm sure, Ursula and Glenn Williams, good friends despite radically different opinions on race and politics, subjects we carefully avoided. They sent wrapped packages for you to open, one each day for your entire stay! Other memorable friends, the folks from Rebel Ridge, whom we met through antique car interests, were exceedingly caring and generous while you were hospitalized, this despite their incredible racial prejudice.
We drove down to pick you up in August. When we returned, the neighborhood had a banner stretched across our shared driveway: "Welcome Home, Debbie!" and a picnic planned. It was after the surgery that you were chosen a Poster Girl for the March of Dimes. The March of Dimes was very helpful and we turned to them often. Your Grandma Virginia collected dimes for you, I remember.
You had a roommate at the Foundation...can't remember her name...but she had been treated with the "fix it now" approach and had had numerous surgeries. There was also a 1ittle girl in Odebolt whose treatment had been the same. I've wondered often how they are. I know how you are!
There are very few things you have been unable to do; you wanted to be a "baton-twirler.” We tried to help you realize that that really wouldn't work, but you insisted so. You tried and discovered it wasn't for you. I don't remember that you were unhappy. I think you've always been a realist.
We did what we could to keep your spirits up, if and when that seemed necessary. As a little girl we found that every so often you would sort of quietly withdraw and we'd notice you sitting in a chair and watching the kids playing. When that happened, we'd try to find something new and fun. I especially remember a little pair of red boots with a fur edging. Of course you always wore saddle shoes, Buster Brown as I recall, which we bought for many years from a store in Storm Lake. A family consequence of your limitation regarding shoes is the fact that no one in our family has much interest in a shoe wardrobe. “Sunday" and “everyday" seems to cover the subject! These cheerful, little red boots with a white fur lining were overshoe-boots and you wore them often, even having a Christmas picture taken at your pre-school while wearing them. Your siblings remember with amusement how firmly we explained to them that "Debbie wears out her sweaters and coats under the arms so she has to have more new clothes than you do."
While living in Sioux City you seemed to feel sort of left out when both Becky and Mark began school. We found a pre-school for you with the added exciting bonus of a bus that picked you up each morning. You attended for a year.
You learned to swim before Becky. The day you passed your test and she didn't, she came racing home and dashed up to the attic to get your old crutches. We had comforted her by saying that your arms were stronger because you used crutches. Now she was going to use crutches and pass HER swimming test! She ltimately did! You also enjoyed King of the Hill with the neighborhood kids. From the top of the pile of snow, you could keep them all at bay with your crutches! We have a wonderful picture of you and Becky - actually, your crutches are a blur you are running so fast! We bought you a chain-driven tricycle so you could ride like everyone else. I've wondered many times how many miles I ran behind or beside that bike! Later we bought a bicycle built for two on which you and Becky, especially, rode to and from the Eagle Grove school. She never really enjoyed it, I think, but I don't remember any complaints, either. I wonder sometimes how many miles I chased you to give you your crutches. You'd start out playing on the lawn with the others and gradually inch further and further away until you were well away from the essential crutches.
We had given the other children firm instructions about NOT helping you get up if you fell down. They were to help you up, only if they were responsible for knocking you down. (I'm sure the neighbors thought we were terrible.) You very quickly learned to be self-sufficient and not want nor expect any special treatment. Do you remember when we were visiting one of the National Parks and the Ranger was about to give his talk? There were no available seats. The Ranger saw you with your crutches and urged you to come right down in front to a chair that would be emptied just for you! You absolutely refused and went to the front and sat on the floor. Special treatment did appear, though, and often. You were put first in line for rides at carnivals and entrance lines. Everyone liked to be with you! You also found a lot of money on the ground as you walked, watching where you stepped.
When you decided to go to Morningside College, you were assigned to Dimmit Hall. The many hills and steps that were a part of the campus were of real concern to us as well as to the Dean of Women. Sioux City is often icy, also. I know they pictured some frail, struggling, needing-lots-of-help young woman and were justifiably concerned. When you arrived, it was very clear that you neither wanted nor needed help and you negotiated the hills and steps and occasional ice with no more problem than anyone else, it seemed. I remember your Dad designed an ice grip for the tips of your crutches to keep them from slipping. I don't
really know if you ever used them. Your seeming ease is, of course, a testament to your independence and perseverance. No one can imagine the discipline and determination that always underlies any activity that seems, to the observer, "easy".
You had – have - many things going for you. You were instantly likeable; you were a happy, outgoing child and young adult. You never asked for any special treatment…still don’t!
I like what you said in one interview this past year, honey. You said that polio does not define you but it is part of who you are. You called it a “gift.” Probably it is, but it is a gift only because you have seen it in that light and drawn creative and compassionate lessons from it.
You have risen to the absolute apex of your profession; a Bishop in the United Methodist Church, something very few people ever achieve. You and Brad have created two of the finest young men any parent and grandparent could imagine. The esteem in which the Iowa Annual Conference holds you is a further testament to your remarkable qualities. There are no words to describe the pride and deep affection your Dad and I have for you. Little did we know that the darling little curly haired one-year-old, stricken with the dreaded polio, would accomplish so much in such a brief span of years.