Guest column/Memories of a battle with polio
I read the Jan. 3 edition of the Herald-Star the story “History repeats itself” about poliomyelitis, by Alan Hall and Erika Grubbs, and how it spread its deadly sickness and then came to be conquered. It brought back memories concerning six months of my 10-year-old life and how I was bedfast the entire time with polio and had to learn to walk again.
On an early Jan. 2, 1937, morning, my mother awakened me for the first day back to school after Christmas holiday. When I tried to move my legs to roll out of bed, they would not cooperate, and there was unbelievable pain. I told her about my situation and needing to get three children off to school and deal with an 18-month-old, she wasn’t in any mood to take excuses from a child who she thought was pretending so it would stretch into another day at home. She turned me sideways and gently started to lower my legs to the floor. As soon as my feet made contact with a bare linoleum rug I collapsed to the floor. Then she realized it was no trick. I’m not sure what happened next, as she still had two to get off to school and go to the neighbor’s to make a telephone call to Dr. Jerry Thompson, one of the doctors in town. I must have fallen back to sleep because the next thing I knew there was a gruff voice in my ear.
Dr. T. had a long drawl to his words and as he said, “Well, well, what have we got here?”
He flung back the covers and examined my legs, arms and back. I knew from the look on his face as he turned to my mother that it was bad. My dad was summoned home from his work at the St. Clairsville office of the Hanna Coal Co. There were no ambulances in those days to make the hospital run, and I was beginning to realize it was bad. But I never gave any thought that it might be polio that was happening to my body. That was mentioned in school somewhat, and I heard it on the radio, but it couldn’t be happening to me. I don’t remember being bundled up and carried to the car but I do remember as we drove up Main Street in Smithfield that lunch-time students were walking the streets. I heard the laughing and commotion that younger children can make when let out of a cooped-up building and felt bad that I was going to miss a few days of school. It turned out to be 51 days in the hospital.
As I was improving from polio and receiving exercise therapy, I came down with rheumatic fever. It was believed back then that all exercise was to be avoided or a weak heart would be the next problem. I was only allowed to sit halfway up to eat and roll over when the bed linens were changed. I couldn’t understand why I was suddenly taken off exercise and polio treatments.
Speaking of the treatments, upon arrival at the hospital I received a spinal tap and was more frightened to have two nurses and an intern hold me down than to have a big needle inserted into my spine. I was put into the private area with contagious patients and they immediately started with what anyone who has had polio would call the steam treatment. They rolled in a big container with steaming water. Using wooden sticks, so they wouldn’t get burned, they placed a big square of khaki wool material, like the soldier’s winter jackets were made of, onto my legs that were previously wrapped in plastic. Laying quite still for what seemed like forever was the worst part.
My mom came down to spend the day with me when she could. She brought me loads of books that were given to me as classmate presents, and I spent whatever time I felt up to it in reading. It wasn’t all “Heidi” and “Nancy Drew,” though. There was pain and there were needles a-plenty. And, I missed home and friends. Children were not allowed in a hospital unless they were patients in those days and never in a polio ward.
On June 5, I was told I was going home. I could not walk but could handle my upper body like an acrobat. My aunt Catherine McHugh stopped in each day and took me out to the porch where there was a banister and I first learned to pull myself up to a standing position. Believe me, it was shaky and the muscles in my legs burned. After about two weeks of that, and much complaining, she had me try to take one step with each foot. My feet felt like lead. I could barely shuffle along. The day she had all the family line up six steps away and for me to walk to them was like I had run the four-minute mile. I did get overconfident several days later and decided to walk to the next room where everyone else was eating breakfast. I might have made it seven steps and then crumpled like a dried leaf on the ground. I did get carried to a chair and ate breakfast with the rest of them and practiced constantly until I could walk to the table. I started back to school in September walking moderately well, but rather tentatively. The hardest part was walking up all the steps to the sixth-grade classroom on the second floor. Students were afraid of me at first. Their parents were not sure how polio could be contracted. They had health nurses come into the school to explain that I was as safe as anyone and had everyone come up and shake my hand.
I thank doctors for the Sabin vaccine, just as they are now distributing the COVID-19. This was on Dec. 2, 1962, as the earlier story stated and nearly 6,000 people took the vaccine at the Wintersville clinic and the make-up clinic that was for all of Jefferson County on Dec. 8, 1962, when 1,163 more participated. A total of 51,052 received the vaccine by the end of 1962. May history repeat itself with the COVID vaccine.
(McCoy, a resident of Smithfield, was a longtime staff writer and remains a correspondent for the Herald-Star.)