In August of 1949, three members of my
family came down with polio all in one week. My younger sister had the
spinal variety and had only minor paralysis, mostly in her left leg. I
contracted the bulbar form of the disease and though I nearly died
during the first two weeks of the illness, I came out relatively
unscathed except for a swallowing difficulty that makes me a slow eater.
My father had a combination of the two forms and died after about a week
in the hospital.
At that time we were living in Minnesota. I was 13 years old, working as
a caddy that summer. My cousin from New Jersey and his family had been
out to visit us and his father called shortly after they got home with
the news that his boy had been diagnosed with polio. My parents had time
to purchase a special insurance to cover polio expenses before anyone in
my immediate family got sick. My cousin ended up with mild after
effects, but later claimed to have gotten polio again some years later.
I have vivid memories of my time in the hospital. I was in a ward with
about seven or eight other children, several of them in iron lungs. The
summer heat was intense and there was heavy construction going on
outside the open windows. To keep my lungs clear they had elevated the
foot of my bed about two feet and told me to drink lots of liquids. I
threw up quite a lot, maybe because I took their advice to drink too
seriously, and my nose started to bleed with all the blood going to my
I remember the painful crying in the corridor of the parents of other
children who died in my ward and the chuff and wheeze of the iron lungs.
I remember my mother coming to visit and the terrible sense of worry and
loss she carried while trying to give me support.
They had to tie my feet to the bed rail to keep me from sliding. I began
hallucinating and had to be fed intravenously and for a time was in an
oxygen tent. I was unconscious for about three days, during which time
my father died. He came to me in a vision and invited me to go with him
up a road he was ascending, beckoning with his arm to join him. When I
tried to go though I was unable, so he gave me a warm smile and waved
goodbye. Later when I regained consciousness, I interpreted his message
as his death and told the doctor who was to give me the bad news that I
already knew my father had died.
My recovery proceeded slowly after that with regular penicillin shots
every four hours that I came to dread. They ran out of fresh places on
my behind to shoot me and I felt mighty bruised. I dreamed of eating
again, and freeing my arm of the needle. I wanted a banana in the worst
way, but my first meal after a two or three week fast was Jello. It was
alright, and eventually I was able to eat bananas and other food mashed
I was too weak to walk on my own at first and I was very stiff, so I was
sent to rehab for the hot tub and hot pack treatment, then the terrible
stretching that the therapists had to do to lengthen my contracted leg
muscles. I was first tubbed and then wrapped in steamy cloths. Then they
strapped my legs to a table and proceeded to push me to a sitting
position. Oh the pain of it, but I was eventually able to stand and walk
again. Shortly after that they transferred me to another hospital for
I have rather happy memories of the convalescence hospital, wheelchair
races in the halls, shuffle board afternoons, occupational therapy
creating lamp bases out of glass ash trays. We got a lot of pampering
from the nurses there. We were about ten boys, all at about the same
level of ability and same age. Eventually I went home where I got some
help with school work from my grandmother who took a lot more delight
teaching me Latin than I took learning it. In November I started going
back to school half days and by spring was a full time student.