In July of 1946, I had my 20th birthday. I was at home on the family farm in O'Brien County in northeast Iowa, doing the usual family things like gardening and canning and some sewing for my senior year at Morningside College in Sioux City. I was pleased to be my friend's attendant in her August 10 wedding. The next morning I went to Lake Okoboji for an older youth church camp which was inspiring and fun.
When I came home from the camp on Saturday, I had an intense headache. Fever followed and went higher and higher. The doctor said I needed a spinal tap, which determined that I had polio. I was sent by ambulance to St. Vincent's Hospital in Sioux City, which had been designated as the center or treatment of polio cases from the surrounding areas of South Dakota, Nebraska and Iowa. This was, of course, an emergency isolation area set up in basement rooms. Our families could kneel at a basement type window to see something of us. There were three adult women plus several girls in our room. Men and boys were in a similar room nearby. At one time I was embarrassed because a neighbor boy, probably 16, walked through on his way to the bathroom while I was being treated with the hot packs, nearly naked of course. I do not know where the iron lungs were. After I was moved upstairs, my 18-year-old cousin was admitted with bulbar polio. She died. The casket was closed for her funeral and no children or young people were allowed.
I am certainly grateful for the Sister Kenny hot pack treatment even though it was uncomfortable and the smell of steaming wool was very unpleasant. I am grateful, too, that there were some volunteers from the community who came in at their own risk to help with applying the layers of steaming wool, rubber sheeting and dry wool. One of my eyes "turned" and I had double vision. I could not see faces really well so I would not recognize those good people if I did see them again.
I was in isolation for 10 days and then moved to a fifth floor ward for eight patients. This time there were four females on one end and four young boys on the other side. Older boys were in rooms down the hall. Two women were pregnant, of grave concern. Both delivered healthy babies. The one young girl was only three. Twice a day we had physical therapy to loosen and strengthen muscles. Then it was good to be older because I understood why we needed to do these exercises even though they hurt. Little ones tended to cry every time. There were some very pleasant fall days when they took us outdoors.
Some of my college friends were able to come visit me and kept me up on the news. It worked out that I could go home on Homecoming Weekend. Two of the young nurses suggested that I should go to the Homecoming dance on that Friday; they volunteered to take me! Mother brought my clothes, and I went to the dance in a wheelchair, getting a lot of attention. When I went home the next day, I had been in the hospital eight weeks.
It happened that there were a number of polio cases in O'Brien County. The value of physical therapy had been recognized during World War II. An Army physical therapist had come home to care for her mother. She worked out a plan with the county March of Dimes committee to go to homes and give therapy twice a week. I credit that continued therapy -- and my continued exercising -- for the good recovery I made. I was free from crutches by spring and returned to the campus in the fall.
One friend insisted that I always had some limp, but it seemed to me that I lived quite a normal life -- teaching in junior high, marrying and the two of us raising five children. My husband was a minister, and I was active in many church activities. It wasn't until I was in my late fifties that disabilities showed up. After several falls, I was fitted with braces. Later falls have put me in a wheelchair instead of walking in hallways, etc. One of the limiting disabilities is difficulty rising from chairs (and restroom stools) besides tiring easily.
It has been more than 61 years since I was hospitalized with polio. I am thankful I had the care I did, and I do keep up with exercising. It is good that post polio syndrome is recognized. My heart aches when I see children and adults in other countries sitting on a skateboard and pushing with their hands to get around at all. It seems the world has come so close to eradicating polio. What a shame that it continues!