Listen to the Voices of Polio

Voices of Polio

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    By JoAnne Simon, 1945 Polio Survivor

    To be the undisputed neighborhood champion of cartweels was an accomplishment I was proud to hold as a ten year old girl in 1945. Although, challenged by many, I was the only child in the neighborhood who could do cartwheels all the way around the house without ever stopping. Added to that momentous achievement, I was also known to ride to the top of a steep hill on my bike and take off with my hair flying and sail down the entire four blocks…..all with no hands on the handlebars.

    On Labor Day in 1945, the dreaded Polio epidemic claimed me as one of its’ victims, and my high kicking legs and bouncing energy succumbed to the ravaging disease. The bright neon sign placed on our home proclaimed that a quarantine was in place and my life would now change. I remember going out onto our back porch and down the stairs and then being unable to get back up the stairs when my leg gave out, and experiencing an intense and painful headache at the same time. For many years afterwards neighbors would talk about the agonizing screams they heard from a block away when the doctor attempted five times to insert a needle for a spinal tap.

    Finally successful with a spinal tap, the positive results returned, and then the fear intensified when our family doctor announced to my parents that he refused to return to our home because he feared the risk of exposing himself and his family to the fearsome Infantile Paralysis as it was called then.

    Southview Isolation Hospital in Milwaukee was my destination and there was an overload of patients combined with shortage of staff. I was isolated in a hospital environment while my family was quarantined in their home and unable to visit me. The Sister Kenney treatments began with the application of heat with wool cloths together with an attempt to treat the spasms of the muscles with physical therapy. The footsteps of the nurse coming down the hallway were silent but the clanking of the tub holding the boiling water and the wool clothes remains in my memory. The picture of the nurses handling the hot wool cloths while running them through the attached roller is still fresh in my mind. And, laying there with my leg wrapped in the cloths while the smell of hot wool filled the room is added to the mix. It was years later that I learned Sister Kenney wasn’t a Catholic sister or nun but instead the title of Sister was bestowed as a military rank for nurses in the Australian medical corps.

    Near the hospital was a clock tower that chimed the hours as the days slowly crawled by. In a ward room filled with other Polio patients, I was one of the least affected by the disease. A 21 year old woman was mostly hidden from my view by a thin curtain between our beds and her weak whispery voice could barely be heard as she periodically asked me again and again what time it was. When I realized she had stopped asking me to tell her the time, and it seemed unusually quiet, I managed to squirm out of bed and peeked under the curtain. Nurses came running when they heard screams coming from my ten year old throat and there was a flurry of activity as they removed her body covered with a sheet.

    All during this time my Dad was unable to go to his workplace in Milwaukee because of being quarantined. His employer would deposit work papers on the curb in front of our home at night and the computations were called in by phone because nothing coming out of our home could be touched by others. The many books and gifts mailed to me at the isolation hospital by family and friends had to be burned in the hospital incinerator when I was discharged. Then began the fittings for a metal leg brace and home visits by a physical therapist, all with the help of the March of Dimes. Schooling continued when I was transported to McKinley Orthopedic School in West Allis. How different it was back in the 1940’s. A driver was paid by the State of Wisconsin to transport several of us in her vehicle to the orthopedic school and two other deaf passengers to Gaenslen School.

    A real bright spot in my life during those early teen years was the opportunity to attend the Easter Seal sponsored Camp Wawbeek in Wisconsin Dells, Wisconsin. Close friendships with other handicapped teens from all over the state developed with regular written correspondence keeping us in touch between summer camp sessions. Only as I became older did I fully understand the importance of the socialization skills those summer camp experiences added to my life.

    In 1985, looking back on schooling, jobs, marriage, motherhood, all interspersed with multiple surgeries and struggles, I became a charter member of the Post Post-Polio Resource Group of Southeastern Wisconsin and now years later I’m involved in the Wichita, Kansas Post-Polio Support Group. Thanks to all of you everywhere who have helped to educate and inspire so many of us to “keep on, keeping on”.


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