The year was 1949 or 1950. Polio was the terror and the plight of our nation. The disease was originally called Infantile Paralysis. No one knew where it came from, or how it was transmitted. Many theories were frantically being explored. The swimming pools in Fort Wayne were shut down that summer, and people were afraid to go into crowds. A paralysis had struck our community of Waynedale, too, which was my whole world at the age of about 8 or so. My mother was almost full term with her 6th child. (She would eventually have seven). We were all two years apart. My brother, John, was sick. Something was wrong with him. My mom called Dr. Summers, and in those days, doctors made house calls. I remember him sitting on the couch beside John and examining him. He lifted his arms and legs and checked his neck and the usual things that doctors do in an exam. Then he turned to my mother and told her that John would have to go to the hospital. John had Polio. Our world changed. The happy carefree existence and the expectation of the new baby was exchanged by a man coming to our house and posting a big sign on our door: QUARANTINED it said. That sign meant that a family had a child with Polio and we all remember the anxiety and the fear that encompassed our small world. John was taken into an isolation room at Lutheran Hospital. All of my siblings and I were immediately banned from going to Waynedale School. Our groceries were delivered by Mr. Gillispie. He would bring the groceries, that my mother had ordered by phone, and leave them at the foot of the front steps. No one could be outside when he, or anyone else, came into our yard. We would watch the school bus go by each day and wave at the kids on the bus. Fear reigned. None of us knew if we would see John again, and if so, whether he would walk again, or even die. Iron lungs were being shown in the newspapers, and on the radio we listened to news broadcasts of the epidemic. My brother had a roommate at Lutheran who also had Polio. The little boy died one night. His father worked with my father at Dana. The fear intensified. The possibility of John dying, too, became a constant fear. As children, we knew little. We felt, rather than knew, that John was in trouble, a lot of trouble. My mother wore a constant face of grimness. My father, for the first time to my remembrance, wore fear also.

An English Nurse (nurses in England were called “sisters.” They were not nuns but were often mistakenly thought to be nuns, because “sisters” in the United States were nuns.) But no, she was a very intelligent and progressive nurse. She noted that the children in England became better when their limbs were exercised instead of immobilized. I remember my mother coming home from the hospital and saying that when she got to the hospital that morning that John’s legs were pulled up to his chest and could not be straightened. His legs were forced down straight and put into splints. He would be paralyzed. But, for some reason that I no longer remember, or perhaps I never knew, Doc Summers had heard of what was being called the “Sister Kenney Treatment.” The splints were taken off John’s legs. Hot packs and exercises where begun on him. He was unable to walk, but he had feeling in his legs. My mother went into labor during that time and delivered my brother, Danny. John was given the privilege of naming the new baby. My mother used to read to us a lot, and John’s favorite book was a book by the name of Danny Meadow Mouse. Thus, my new brother was given a name. My mother and the new baby were isolated at Lutheran Hospital, too. Our grandmother came from Illinois to take care of us. All of these memories come in little patches to my mind, like a blinking reflection of a light against a wall. I knew so little. I understood less.

John got better and the weakness did not move up to his lungs, thus, the dreaded iron lung was avoided. His legs were weak and he could not stand, but he was alive and coming home. The rest was up to us. Since I was the only girl, and the second oldest child, I was taught to help take care of John’s rehabilitation. He was put in a hot bath—-I remember being told—-“as hot as he can stand it,” and I would test the water before lifting his little body in. I knew how to exercise his legs. After I got him out of the tub, I would work with his legs and encourage him to stand holding onto me. This went on for a long time but the whole family was diligent in the goal of helping John to walk again. I am sure that everyone in the family worked with John as much as I did, but in my memory he was my special charge and responsibility. His first halting steps were met with cheers from the family. John did learn to walk again, even though he had a long recovery time, and several surgeries. Bones had to be removed from his toes, and his kneecaps were removed a few years later. Today he walks with a fairly normal gait, but he has not known what it is to be pain free. He has always had incredible courage and he has fought many battles. He has come out on top, and with a grateful heart. I know the story of John is one of thousands, and that many of these children never walked again if they survived. John told me an interesting story today. He said that he was walking into Dana where he worked several years ago, and behind him a man said something about his gimpy walk, John said it was because he had Polio. The man said, “My son had Polio too, but he died.” John asked his name and it was the roommate he had in the hospital. The man said sadly, it was really hard. Your dad had five boys. I only had one. It was real hard to bear.

It reminded me of how life takes twists that we never understand. I am so grateful for John’s life but at the same time there is a sadness in me tonight, all these years later, of the boy who lay beside John in the hospital room and lost his life. And of the parents who lost their only child. Many of you may not remember, but for those of us, who lived through it, the announcement of Jonas Salk discovering the vaccine for Polio was one great celebration in Waynedale. Perhaps there will never be another day like it in my life. I am grateful today for my brother, John, and proud of our family who hung together in a time of great crisis for our family and our nation.


Lovingly, Mae

The Waynedale News Staff
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