Chicagoans and most people around the world no longer have to worry or fear the dreaded scourge of the 20th century disease, POLIO. The most famous person in The United States that had polio was our 32nd President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. His illness brought an acute awareness of this disease to our consciousness.
Every summer my Mother had me carry a clove of garlic around my neck on a string. It was felt that the smell would help prevent the disease from being spread. She was right. My friends seemed to stay a good distance when we were playing. The problem was that I had to smell the garlic as well and it wasn't pleasant. Then the unthinkable happened.
On a May day in 1953 I was working for a point of purchase advertising company. Part of the job was to type estimates and letters of approval to clients. It was warm as Chicago summers were and on that day I was feeling a bit woozy. Mom asked me to stay home and call in ill but like a dutiful son I explained it was a new position right out of college and couldn't afford to stay home. It wasn't about the money but to show stability besides ability.
As usual the work was piled on the desk and I proceeded to type. And then it happened: Unlike today's computers we used the old fashioned manual typewriters with a return carriage. My fingers didn't have the energy to push the keys, my headache was increasing and I started to get dizzy. My employer excused me to go home and I finally made it to our walk up apartment. I had no car so I had had to use public transportation.
It was unusual in that era not to find your Mother at home but for one of the rare times she wasn't. So, the next best thing was to lie in bed and wait for her to return home. By the time she returned my fever was rising to a dangerous level, both my hands were frozen so I couldn't bend any of my fingers. And then what most men fear I couldn't urinate and my bladder was beginning to feel sore. Mom called our family doctor and unlike today you could get him on the phone. He came to the apartment since doctors made house calls then. After examination he told Mom that I had contracted a very dangerous contagious disease. Then he said the dreaded word: POLIO. The doctor had an ambulance take me to the Municipal Contagious Disease Hospital on 31st and California on Chicago's South Side.
AND THE NIGHTMARE BEGAN. My memory can't recall the drive to Hospital but the hallucinations began due to the high fever. They placed me into an isolation room that was outside the main hospital where the polio patients were sent. At that point it was a question of my dying or surviving the fever. Somehow all these years later that night has never left my conscious mind.
The fever caused delirium and nightmares. But in the morning my fever normalized and I was ready to go to into a room. At that point my legs were paralyzed and I had to be taken in a wheel chair. My hands were still "frozen" and my bladder needed to be catheterized for relief. There was one other man in the room about my age at that time who had been there about a month when I arrived.
Visualize a room with windows where there should be walls. Each room looked into another so the nurses and Dr.'s could look in and spot any immediate trouble. Visiting hours were two days a week. Tuesday and Saturday for only 20 minutes and they were very strict about the time limit. The visitors had to remain in a specially built corridor with windows so they see through our window into the room and we couldn't communicate. My future wife came with my parents to visit with me. They had purchased two small blackboards, one for each of us to write on and that is how we communicated. Sounds ancient doesn't it? Imagine no cell phone, I pad, laptop; only the sound of silence and writing on a blackboard.
While in the room, in walked a stout man who identified himself as Dr. Trutenko, a man I will never forget. He had to take a sample of my spinal fluid with the longest needle known in mankind. He bent me like a pretzel and inserted the needle into my spine. It didn't tickle. Now he had his sample of my spinal fluid. Also, I don't know if permanent catheters were available then but I had to be catheterized at least once a day to empty my bladder. After several days it began to hurt and at times he seemed to sit on bladder to extract the urine. The nurses ran water so I could hear the sensation of urinating. To this day I doubt its value.
AND THEN THE MIRACLE: On this day my bladder started to empty itself without the benefit of a bed pan so the bed was soaking wet. The wonderful nurses came in and stripped the bed right away and changed my hospital gown. However, being a county hospital there weren't any clean sheets available so I waited patiently until they were changed. My hands started to regain their feeling and miracle of miracles: I stood up and was able to walk. I was weak at first but stronger with exercise. I felt human once more.
THEN THE CHILDREN CAME: As adults my roommate and I were aware of what was happening. We were alone for several weeks and then the epidemic season started. Young children began pouring into the contagious disease hospital with all forms of polio. We weren't alone any longer. The staff covered the windows between the rooms since the room next to ours was all girls. And, I can still hear the children crying. They were no longer in the safety of their home but with strangers, not feeling well and were very lonely.
There were the nights when the younger boys were crying "Mommy, I can't pee". Sounds you never forget. But for me the worst was over. My vital signs were back to normal and I could return home. As I left the hospital I wondered about the children. My prayer was that they would get well and return to their homes and parents. My polio left me with a slightly curved spine and a weakened right foot that I to drag for awhile. Today my leg is fine and my spine never interfered with my life.
THE DISCOVERY OF THE POLIO VACCINE. In 1954 one year after my bout with Polio, Dr. Jonas Salk discovered the vaccine for polio. Remember that name. Thanks to him our children do not have to fear the dreaded disease as we did. We had our children vaccinated with the serum and it ended. The fear ended. Our children no longer had to wear cloves of garlic around their neck. AND THANK YOU to the staff of the Municipal Contagious Disease Hospital for saving my life. To Dr. Trutenko wherever you are thank you. And to "Gussie" my favorite nurse for being at my side everyday with a gentle hand and smile.
This was one memory that lit the corner of my mind but I hope and pray never lights anyone elses ever again.
Filed under: Uncategorized