Family memoir

One Family’s Journey with Another Deadly Virus

Every summer, during my childhood, usually in July and August, there were polio outbreaks throughout the country. The first reported cases always unleashed a wave of fear because nobody knew what caused it or how it spread. We knew however that it could be fatal and leave a person unable to walk or even breathe outside an iron lung. Large gatherings were cancelled; many people stopped going to the movies, and municipal swimming pools were closed. Between 13,000 and 20,000 paralytic cases were reported each year. The disease usually affected children, but it could strike down anyone. 

On the last day of August of 1946, it struck the strongest member of our family.

After school was over, my father, Sam, decided he would take our family on a vacation—a road trip—something we had never done before. My sisters, G.G. and Neta, were five and two. I assume we planned to enjoy the outdoor beauties of Colorado since not much inside activity was available.

But before we could leave, we all got very sick, and I was hospitalized with pneumonia. The doctor advised my parents to just go ahead and he would send me on the train. Of course my family didn’t go, but I didn’t see much of them; hospital visiting hours were strictly imposed then, and they didn’t include visits in the afternoon.  I remember entertaining myself by watching the traffic light outside change from red to green to yellow and back to red. I was told that I was one of the first civilians to receive injections of penicillin—a new wonder drug.

In August, we were all well and finally ready to go. We drove for what seemed to me an eternity—across the plains of Kansas—mile after mile after mile of waving tall grass without a tree in sight, until the mountains finally came into view. We had a brief visit with the relatives in Denver, then back on the road towards home. 

But things do not always go according to plan. The day after visiting Pike’s Peak, Sam could not get out of bed. His legs just collapsed under him. Rather than seek medical help in Manitou Springs, he decided that we should return to Denver where Uncle Floyd could help us. 

Somehow my mother, Grace, and the motel manager got him into the passenger seat and Grace, who had never driven a car before, had her first driving lesson—on the highway, in a car with a manual transmission—under extraordinarily stressful conditions.

Terrified, she managed to follow Sam’s directions, but shortly after we got out of town, we came upon a soldier who was hitchhiking. Sam ordered Grace to pull over and convinced the young man to drive us to Denver. Grace crowded into the back seat with her three children, and from that point on, I have absolutely no memory of what happened. I assume the soldier drove us to Colorado General Hospital where Sam was diagnosed with polio.

Those were the days when nurses wore white dress length uniforms, starched so stiffly they rattled when they walked, white lace up oxfords, white stockings, and a variety of caps depending on which nursing school they had graduated from. Scrubs, I assume, were what they wore in the operating room.

I remember the night that my mother was granted a special dispensation to visit the men’s ward because Sam was not expected to survive until morning. Years later I would receive that same phone call informing me that Herb might not make it through the night. Sadly, Herb did not, but Sam did. His doctor was not encouraging. He advised Sam that he would never walk again, at which point a physical therapist did the unthinkable and spoke up, contradicting the doctor. “And what do you know, smart ass that I don’t? demanded the doctor. The therapist’s reply has endeared me to physical therapists forever. “I know how bad he wants to walk.”

And walk he did. He wore a leg brace and carried two canes, but he walked, learned to navigate stairs, and drove to work for the rest of his life.

Since he could no longer play golf, he sold his expensive clubs and took up photography. He had a dark room built in the basement and spent hours there developing prints. Sam was strong and courageous, but he was also very, very lucky.