In Sickness and In Health

Back when the polio virus spread disease and fear, my family was caught up in the contagion.

Author: Cathy O’Donnell ’75M.A.

In 1954, when I was 4, we lived in Dallas. On hot summer nights, all five of us — Mom, Dad, my two little brothers and I — would sleep in the living room because it had an air conditioner. When morning came and we went outside, it was usually in the upper 80s already, so instantly we were hot as winter oatmeal and sticky as flypaper.

But hey, we had an air conditioner, a wading pool and 10-by-10-foot patio. Life was good.

Then in August, Mom disappeared.

Mom had been tired — more like exhausted. Every day, she had chased us three kids, ages four, three and two. No matter what, she kept us clean, tidy and busy.

That month, she had planned to go with Dad to the Texas Daily Newspaper Association convention so she went downtown to shop for a new outfit. When the parking attendant returned Mom’s car that afternoon, she thought the clutch didn’t work. She asked the attendant what he’d done to her car.

But the problem was her left leg: it wasn’t working. Mom managed to drive home, but later, muscle spasms took over. She recalled, “They simply would not let go.”

Our family physician, Dr. Schaeffer, suspected polio and told Dad to get Mom to Parkland Hospital right away. Dad carried Mom toward their 1949 Chevrolet.

“Put me down,” Mom insisted. “I can walk.”

But she couldn’t.

Dad drove north, speed limit be damned. A patrolman stopped him. Told about Mom, the cop called other cops, who mounted a lights-and-sirens escort to Parkland.

At the hospital, nurses instantly parked Mom in an isolation room. Dad could see her only through a small glass square in the door. There was no intercom, but Mom was too sick to use such a thing anyway.

Mom was part of an epidemic. In 1952, there had been almost 58,000 cases of polio in the U.S. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, polio cases in the late 1940s had disabled an average of more than 35,000 people annually. The word “polio” terrified everybody.

In 1954, Mom was 27 years old — and a looker. She had ivory skin, copper-penny hair, a slender build and a keen appreciation for I. Miller shoes, which were both stylish and expensive. Dad loved her, and they were happy parents.

That same year, the United States undertook a field trial unprecedented in scope: 1.8 million children were inoculated with the polio vaccine invented by virologist Jonas Salk and his team. Neither physicians nor recipients knew who was getting the vaccine and who the placebo.

Meantime, the polio virus boiled through Mom’s body. Nobody knew whether she would live or die. Dad shuttled between home, hospital and his job directing The Southwest School of Printing, which graduated linotype operators.

At home, I had a turquoise party dress. Round collar, English smocking, perky sash that tied in back. After I grew up, Dad told me that while Mom was sick, I cut up the dress. I remember the dress but not the cutting up.

Mom and Dad had medical insurance on Dad but not on her. Money had been very tight. They had a house but little else.

One day, Dad dropped by to see E.M. “Ted” Dealey, publisher of The Dallas Morning News. They talked presses and printing but Dealey also asked, “How’s your wife? I hear she’s in the hospital with polio.” Dad confirmed yes, and then as Dealey listened further, he realized help was in order and connected Dad with the Dallas chapter of the March of Dimes.

In 1938, Franklin D. Roosevelt had led the effort to start the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis. To develop the vaccine, 80 million people donated to the foundation. Some could give only a few cents; hence, the name change to March of Dimes.

At the Dallas office, a social worker got us a housekeeper. Dad would make breakfast each morning, then Becky took over until dinner.

We kids and Dad weren’t sick, but the Health Department slapped a sign on our front door: “Contagion: Do Not Enter.”

We had an aunt and uncle in Dallas but they had their hands full with kids so didn’t come around. “People were freaked out about polio. They were scared to death of it,” says my brother Dan.

Nevertheless, Monica Moran and Faye Butch, friends who lived several houses away and had families of their own, brought casseroles twice a week, straight into the house.

Meantime, at the hospital, Mom got sicker. A priest gave her Last Rites but — ever the optimist — she thought she was getting Holy Communion. Then, about two weeks into the siege, the virus stopped short of Mom’s lungs. Doctors didn’t know why but it became clear Mom was going to live.

She told Dad, “I will get better. Don’t you let anything happen to our children.”

Dressed in their Sunday best, the family visits Mom. Photo provided

Mom was transferred to St. Paul’s Hospital because it was Catholic, and the physical therapist, Mrs. Coffing, was known as one of the best in Dallas. She used the Kenny techniques. They had come from Elizabeth Kenny, an Australian woman who, despite no formal training in nursing, had invented therapy that combined moist heat packs with bending and stretching arms and legs.

On Sundays when Mom was at St. Paul’s, Dad gussied us kids in our best clothes and took us to see her. By that time, she got around in a big, wooden wheelchair, a thing about the size of a Humvee, with her left leg stretched out on an extended panel.

Grammie Baugh also visited from Cleveland. The day she was to arrive, Mom waited in her wheelchair next to the hospital elevator, anxious to show her mother that she had not only survived, she was getting well.

When Gram emerged from the elevator, her face fell — and Mom’s spirit plunged to the basement. Within hours, though, Mom had scraped herself back together, ready to move on.

Some months after that — April 12, 1955 — Jonas Salk and his team announced the polio vaccine trials a huge success. The nation celebrated as if it were the end of a war.

That day, journalist Edward R. Murrow asked Salk, “Who owns the patent for the vaccine?” He replied, “Well, the people, I would say. There is no patent. Could you patent the sun?”

That April 12 was the 10th anniversary of FDR’s death. It was also Dad’s 31st birthday; he and Mom celebrated both his birthday and her being home. She got around on wooden crutches.

The March of Dimes had paid for Becky — and eventually covered Mom’s hospital bill, all six months of it.

A few months later at Grammie’s house, she and Mom were folding laundry. Grammie handed Mom a stack of clothes: “Dear, would you please run these upstairs?”

Then she instantly caught herself, absolutely mortified.

Mom laughed. “I liked the idea of normal.”                                        

Several times a week, Mom exercised at a motel pool near our house. My job was to watch Dan and Pat at the shallow end while Mom exercised at the deep end. We kids regarded the pool as a great outing; for lunch, we often had egg salad sandwiches and lemonade Mom packed in a cooler.

She made lunches at a card table in the kitchen, as she couldn’t stand at the counter. She used a kitchen chair with a yellow vinyl seat; guys at the Southwest School of Printing had added steel coasters.

Mom also swam at the YWCA pool. I was taken along to help stretch her legs. After therapy, we sometimes had sandwiches at the Y cafeteria. I thought pool-and-lunch an excellent deal: an Olympic-size pool, egg salad in the cafeteria, and a break from my pesky brothers. Mom sometimes visited with Judge Sarah T. Hughes as they worked out. The same Judge Hughes who administered the presidential oath of office to Lyndon B. Johnson on Air Force One after John F. Kennedy’s assassination.

One day, while we kids were with a babysitter, Mom went shopping for oxford shoes. “I hated that,” she said. “I realized I wouldn’t be wearing high heels. I cried. But then I realized I was lucky to be alive.”

Another day, Mom went to confession. She couldn’t kneel so instead stood in the confessional. When the priest slid the screen open, Mom said, “Bless me, Father, for I have sinned.” The priest craned his neck upward. Mom nearly guffawed. “I should have said, ‘Bless me, Father, for I am a giant.’”

I think William Faulkner was right in his Nobel speech when he said humans would not merely endure; they would prevail. There’s a lot to be said for courage. And yellow vinyl kitchen chairs.

Cathy O’Donnell was a reporter for The Ann Arbor News. She has a master’s in English from Notre Dame and lives in Seattle with her family.