It was Sunday, the 9th of November, 1952, when we first noticed the symptoms. Not bad enough to keep me from attending church with the family, but it was noticeable: a headache and a rare general crankiness.
At just seven years old, I’m told I was a precocious little smarty, reading by age 3, and picking up facts and figures like I’d known them from birth. It was this that had high-jumped me over first grade and into second, where the teacher had trouble keeping me interested, so I was put to tutoring those already a year older than I, but several years younger in knowledge.
Still feeling puny by Sunday evening, and getting sicker, I was told I should stay home from school the next day, and see if we couldn’t stop this “flu bug” before it really got going.
By Monday night, I was in the throes of it: vomiting, diarrhea, headache and body aches, and fever. The doctor, when my mom phoned, said the flu was going around, but cautioned her that so was Polio (as it turned out, 1952 was the year of the worst Polio epidemic in the US), and to watch carefully to be sure it wasn’t getting worse, as they dosed me with aspirin.
I spent that night in my parents’ bed with my mother, and remember only vague details. My fever was climbing, and she was nursing me around the clock to try to keep the fever down.
I remember only snatches of Tuesday, November 11. My dad and my sisters left the house to see the Long Beach (CA) Veteran’s Day (then known as Armistice Day) Parade. When they returned home, my mom did some preliminary “testing” which was to tell her whether it might indeed be polio: touching my chin to my chest (I couldn’t); standing alone (couldn’t do that either); stretching out my arms and legs without pain (hah!).
The next thing I remember was lying on my side, having my spine poked by a gigantic needle, while I felt my head was going to burst. That spinal tap was to be repeated several times over the next couple of days. The diagnoses ranged from Spinal Meningitis to what was then known by several names: Infantile Paralysis, Poliomyelitis, and Polio. It was not Meningitis.
My parents drove me, in the middle of that foggy Tuesday night, to Los Angeles County General Hospital, where all polio (or suspected polio) patients went when first diagnosed, and left me there.
Now, looking back from a nearly 60-year distance, it breaks my heart to think of what my parents went through during this time. My sisters tell me of the initial panic, and then the dreadful silence which filled our home while I was away.
We didn’t have much money, but my parents made the trip to Los Angeles every time the hospital said they could come. For several days, I don’t recall that it made any difference to me. My fever had sent me to far-away places where Mommies and Daddies were not allowed.
After nearly a week, an incident happened that let me know what was going on. I dropped my doll on the floor, and asked a nurse’s aide to get it for me.
“No, Sugar,” she said sweetly, “we can’t do that in the Polio ward.” But no one else had mentioned that word.
It took months and months of hospitalization and physical therapy before my life—albeit a different kind—could begin again.
There followed years of struggle with surgeries, pain, insecurities, gritted-teeth attempts to “pass” as able-bodied, and trying to “keep up.”
I succeeded, for the most part. Times when I didn’t are still so painful, I avoid the memories like land-mines.
I learned, however, that some of the quirks and foibles I now try to overcome began during my “polio era.” Fear of abandonment, self-consciousness about my body, the learned habit of manipulation so I could get my physical needs met as a helpless, disabled child.
Multiply this experience—and varieties thereof—by just the 58,000 cases in 1952. Consider the victims and families who were affected during the 190 years (1789-1979) that constituted this modern “Polio era,” a tragedy of epic proportions.
The fact that most people under the age of 50 are so unfamiliar with this history is proof of the near eradication and triumph over a frightening, painful, deadly disease known as Polio.
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