A Family With Polio from the Heart of An Eight Year Old Part 1
by Marijo Phelps
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I’d never seen my Daddy cry before until today. That train pulled our slowly gaining speed and Mom and my sister, Colette waved from the window as they swatted the tears running down their cheeks.
Daddy held me high so I could see them as they got smaller and smaller.
“Daddy, are you OK?”
“Sure I am Muh-Muh Jo, I am just going to miss all of you so much.”
I knew in a few days I “got to” go to my Grandparents in Wisconsin and then make the rounds of about 6 batches of aunts and uncles with many cousins to get to know again for the summer.
Colette and Mom were going to get treatment at Spears. It was a huge chiropractic hospital we lived across the street from for a year and she went twice a day for therapy.
When she got polio we lived in Rochester, Minnesota where the Mayo Clinic is. People came there from all over the world to get help but they told my parents that Colette would never walk again. She’d have braces and crutches and take two or three steps and fall down. Although Grandma Schacht was related to the Mayo family she encouraged us to seek other help.
We had moved to Denver in 1952. Colette had already been in a hospital for nine months and cried a lot because her legs hurt so much. Shortly we moved to Denver for a year and Colette got much better. Pretty soon she was walking without the braces and “crunches” as she called them. She could even hitch her hip around and go up the small step on our front porch. Daddy couldn’t get a good job. He still had his job back in Rochester, they said, so we went to Minnesota.
Colette had gotten polio the year before the big epidemic. She was almost 3 years old when she bit off her big toe nail and it got infected, finally getting so bad that Mom and Daddy had to put her in the hospital for treatment. There were some other kids on that ward and apparently their diagnosis later was polio. When they shared space with my little sister no one knew. Her toe healed but she got something much more sinister than a toe infection. Numbers of days later she began throwing up and had a high fever. I remember that night so well. She ended up back in the hospital and couldn’t wake up. Mommy said she was in a coma, I guess that’s what it means. They talked about encephalitis and other diseases with big names and everyone was real scary faced and no one smiled much.
I missed my sister so much and it hurt to see that little girl crying in pain. I had just turned five when she came down with polio and I was eight this summer.
Before polio my sis hardly ever cried. I remember when she was eighteen months and fell off the couch. Mom took her to the doctor and wanted x-rays. That doctor lifted her by both arms and said “mam, if she had a broken arm she wouldn’t be sitting there without showing pain, would she?”
Mom told him to please get an x-ray. That doctor looked really weird when he put those pictures on the box with the lights inside to look at her arm and said “oh, my goodness, she has a green stick fracture….”
She got a cast and we both got suckers and none of us liked that doctor very well. Boy did Dad get an earful that night. No, she didn’t cry. My sister was tough.
After she had been in that hospital for a long, long time Mom and Daddy decided they were going to sneak me in to visit. Someone had decided that she was no longer contagious by that point but they weren’t sure what to do with her to help. They gave her so many shots she got allergic to penicillin. Years later they found out that penicillin didn’t help polio anyhow.
We got off the elevator and they grabbed a little wheel chair and put me in it so I’d look like a patient. We got to Colette’s room and heard sobbing. She choked out a story in her little three year old voice that she had to go potty really bad. She put the light on for the nurse and no one came. She had to wait so long she wet the bed. Finally the nurse came and she was crying. She’d been potty trained forever and was embarrassed that she wet herself. That nurse looked at her and told her if she didn’t hush up her parents wouldn’t come to see her anymore. My five year old heart broke for my sister. I couldn’t understand anyone talking that way and lying like that to a sick kid. It was after that that mom and grandma took turns staying with Colette. Not that they hadn’t been there every day before but now they were always with her.
I hugged Daddy’s neck as I saw that steam coming out of the train’s smoke stack. It was so far down the tracks, then turned the corner and was gone. I was glad they were going to a place that had helped my sister walk again. Yes, she had a “hitch in her git along” but at least she could do a bit of walking now. I mostly pulled her to school in the wagon when we didn’t ride with Daddy.
My Daddy hugged me tight as we turned to go back to the station wagon. Soon we’d load it up and I would go to Wisconsin. My Grandma Schacht was now 75 and I guess too old to keep up with babysitting me for the whole summer so I was going to have an adventure with Mom’s family in Wisconsin. All I knew was that my sister and friend was being taken far away by that old steam engine. And I would miss her so.
(C) Marijo Phelps all rights reserved. Use with proper credits.
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