The summer of 1948 in Hawarden, Iowa was dominated by the polio
epidemic. As I recall there were 32 cases of polio in my home
town of about 2,700 people, and three little kids died of polio.
I think I was the 27th to come down with it.
In the fall of 1948 I was a junior at Hawarden High School and
was a member of the football team. As we warmed up for the start
of our 4th game I experienced severe pain throughout my body. One
of my teammates noticed I was having a problem and asked if he
should tell the coach. I said no, I wanted to play in the game.
Once the game started I didn't notice the pain anymore. I played
middle linebacker the whole game and a running back most of the
game on offense. When I got home that night I was extremely stiff
in the area of my neck (couldn't touch my chin to my chest) and
ached all over. I was used to being stiff and sore after games so
didn't think it was anything unusual.
The next morning I ached all over, had a fever, and also felt
weak. My parents took me to the doctor and they did a spinal tap
which showed I had a combination of two types of polio but didn't
have the Bulbar type. Mom and Dad took me to Sioux City where I
was put into the polio ward at (I think) St. Joseph's Hospital.
I'm sure it was difficult for my parents because on the way to
Sioux City I insisted on listening to the World Series and also
insisted on taking a radio with me into the polio ward so I could
listen to the rest of the World Series games.
I had a fever for 7 days and was only in the hospital for a total
of 10 days. I was one of the lucky ones. Things that stand out in
my memory about the hospital stay were: The hot packs (I got
burned once so was worried every time the nurses came to put
those on after that) about every two hours around the clock, and
the little kids (some cried most of the time they were awake). I
think there were about 20, all boys, in my ward. I remember
physical therapy in a big tank of warm water. The therapist
stretched the muscles in my legs so much that I cried in pain.
After my fever broke, they let me take a bath on my own which was
great, but after the bath I couldn't get my under shorts back on
because I was so stiff. I'll never forget sitting on the floor in
that bathroom, trying to work my two feet into the underwear and
get it close enough to my hands to pull on up the rest of the
way. It must have taken 15 minutes, but what teen-age boy in the
1940's wanted to call a nurse to help him get his underwear
Our ward was in the basement with windows about the top three
feet on one side of the room. That was our only contact with my
parents, friends, and coaches. The windows would open so we could
talk. I wasn't supposed to get out of bed until my fever broke
but whenever family or friends showed up at the windows I hustled
over to visit with them until one of the nurses spotted me and
dragged me back to bed. My parents had the Ben Franklin store in
Hawarden and since no one knew in what way polio was contagious
or infectious they could spend their time in Sioux City at the
hospital because they certainly weren't needed at the store.
There were no customers. I remember them saying that someone
could shoot a cannon down the main street business section and
not hit anything.
About the only times polio had an effect on my life at that time
was in athletics. Before polio I was one of the fastest kids in
school. After polio I was the slowest. Once in a while I felt
sorry for myself but all I had to do was think back to the kids
in the polio ward who ended up in braces and things came back
When polio vaccine became available I was told to get it as there
were other strains of polio that I might still be susceptible to.
I lined up with lots of others in the high school gym to get the
Most of the rest of my life I did all the things I was advised to
do. I ran, exercised, and worked the weak areas in my left leg.
The idea was to strengthen other muscles to take over for the
weakened ones. We now know that was wrong and are paying the
price for doing the wrong thing.
The muscular weakness I had after polio mostly went away but in
recent years has come back. Post Polio Syndrome is real. I now
feel it every day. My balance is affected when my weight is on my
left leg. I tend to stumble when my left foot is going up steps
or stepping up a curb. But I'm a lot better off than many and for
that I am thankful.