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Thursday, 06 February 2014


By Janet Thompson

“By Order of the Department of Health SCARLET FEVER” was only part of what the sign on the door roared in 1934. I only knew how itchy, isolated and pitiful I felt, because I had it.

* * *

My knees buckled and I crashed at the bedside. I was 21 on January 2, 1951.

In the hospital, Mother saw nurses from the Foundation for Infantile Paralysis were attending all the other polio patients. Applying the Sister Kenny treatment, they provided hot-packing and exercising to the other 16 sufferers.

My doctor (the well-known, esteemed one in town) told Mother that treatment was experimental and unnecessary.

Mother, snooping around, found all the other patients’ doctors referred their cases to one younger physician. It was new Doctor Stewart who had engaged the Foundation nurses to work on his polio patients. Why didn't my doctor?

When Stewart returned from World War II, he first practiced with my doctor. Finding that doing all the grunt work and nighttime house calls was unfair, he quickly set out on his own. My doctor’s jealousy was why the old geezer didn't refer my case.

Mother immediately released me "against medical advice” and called Doctor Stewart. On January 19, outside the ambulance, the sun shone brightly but the temperature was 42 below zero.

Taught by the Foundation, Mother's hot-packing me and the torturing exercises I fought many times a day, I began recovering from waist-down paralysis.

Hot-packing a polio patient back then went like this. Weighty wool blankets were plunged in scalding water. With them hot and heavy, Mother hurriedly stuffed them through the manual wringer of our old Maytag and rushed them to my bedside.


With me on my stomach, towels and a shower curtain from my neck to ankles, the heavy blankets covered with another shower curtain and a dry wool blanket, held in the heat.

When the packing cooled, Mother would try to move my legs. Then it was the same drill all day long whenever the busy water heater delivered another 30-gallon tank-full.

The Foundation nurses came every other day to help Mother. For exercise, the two of them lifted my stiff and useless limbs, bent them and applied excruciating resistance. My lower body parts cried out something awful and it sure wasn't fun.

Not the best patient, I rarely cooperated because I'm so stubborn. Luckily, they just ignored my angry complaints and pulled, stretched and tugged away anyhow, for which I've been eternally thankful.

The first time I was helped to stand, Mother on one side and a nurse opposite, it felt like my knees would bend backwards instead of forwards. Scary.

Daddy, never a problem-solver, hung out at the Elks Club after work, no help or encouragement to Mother.

Even with relaxed quarantine rules by 1951, any frightened friends bringing food and goodies rang the bell, dropping the offerings on the porch. I was miserable missing my friends. Mother felt abandoned and my little brother was asked to stay out of school for a week.

Looking back, I imagine the whole family was depressed. I never had the nerve or sensitivity to ask or care; my habit being so egotistically focused on myself.

With hardwood floors between the bedroom and the living room, I could be pushed there on a straight chair. Finally, with support on each side, I walked, not shuffled. A victory was when I was able to step up on a Reader’s Digest on the floor.

After a full-time, eight-month job caring for me, Mother was outraged when, in my condition, I considered marriage. Headstrong and against her wishes, in late August I married my only boy-friend who was willing to accept my physical limits. All the others had long-since disappeared.

* * *

Before the pill, I delivered three children but couldn't walk and carry them. Because my paralysis was below the waist, my upper body was strong. Over time I attained about 90 percent recovery, walking in high heels with a gait that some thought looked sexy, dance again, climb ladders, work and be self-employed.

Unless someone saw me climbing stairs, they didn't notice any disability.

In about 2006, I couldn't carry stuff out in front of me and walking, I leaned to the left. By 2009, I needed a small cane and in 2011, a walker. It’s post-polio, as the less-affected nerves and muscles wear out. At age 84, I still hate the idea of exercise.

As long as I can sit on my derriere, I can still do great stuff!

[INVITATION: All elders, 50 and older, are welcome to submit stories for this blog. They can be fiction, non-fiction, poetry, memoir, etc. Please read instructions for submitting.]

Posted by Ronni Bennett at 05:30 AM | Permalink | Email this post


What desperation your mother must have felt! And how your stubbornness didn't hinder experiencing a full (tho limited some) life.

Janet, What an amazing and engrossing account of your getting polio. I remember how scared parents used to be before the polio vaccine was developed.

My parents were afraid to take my brother and me to the beach for fear we'd be exposed to it. One time my brother got sick, and my parents were petrified that it was polio. Fortunately, it turned out to be strep throat which is easily cured.

Your story-telling is wonderfully detailed, and the picture of the old Maytag washer with a wringer brought back memories. Well done.

This is "True Grit." Your Mom was stubborn too just grown up and committed about it. I
it served you both well in the end. Such a great story to read.

Several of my friends were afflicted with polio. Either they weren't willing or able to tell the stories of their trials. You've told your story wonderfully well.

My father talks about not being allowed to go to the county fair in the middle of summer because getting polio was such a risk. Thank you for sharing.

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