POLIO: The dark days of 1953

POLIO: The dark days of 1953

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.

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  • Norm, you've brought up touching memories and I'm delighted that you were touched my a miracle. My heart goes out to the children who started to flood into the wards as you were preparing to leave. Two troubling memories of my grammar school days in the late '40s and early '50s: Nuclear annihilation and polio. Almost as if they were preparing us for contracting polio, I remember comic books featuring stories about brave young people in iron lungs. If anyone needs to ask what an iron lung was they need to brush up on history and come, I hope, to the realization that times always can be tougher.

    So, here's a well-done for Dr. Salk and more recently for Rotary International whose campaign to eradicate polio world-wide is nearing its goal.

  • In reply to Dennis Byrne:

    Thank you for your generous comments. I remember the iron lung all too well. There was a young man in a room opposite mine. It was difficult to watch him. He died. That memory will always haunt me. I am pleased to say I was a member of the Niles Il. Rotary Club in 1974.

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    In reply to Norm:

    Norm - the Dr Trutenko whom you refered to was my father - he passed away in 1980. I remember him working at the TB Sanitorium near the Cook County jail in the early 50's. I appreciate reading the story about how he saved you during your hospitalization. He was a doctor in Czechoslovakia during WW2 - then in several refugee DP camps in Germany after the war. He came to the US in 1950. He did house calls 7 days a week - often being called late at night at home. He practiced in several hospitals and doctor's offices and later had his own private practice. He has always been a hero to me and to the sick patients he cared for - His life was totally devoted to his family and the sick . Thank you for sharing this with me. Valentine Trutenko RN - retired

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    Norm, I, too, contracted polio in 1953. I had just turned thirteen. On July 17th I woke up with a very stiff neck and back. It was painful to bend or lean over. My parents took me to our family doctor, and he told them to take me to the Communicable Disease Ward of our County Hospital. Within 24 hours I was completely paralyzed and placed in an iron lung. I could not breathe, move, or swallow.

    If your readers would like to know more about an iron lung, or polio in general, that can find the website for the Polio Survivors Association: http://www.polioassociation.org/Iron_Lung_information.pdf

  • In reply to Richard Daggett:

    It sound as if we were in the same hospital. I was 20, a few months shy of 21 and engaged to be married. I rarely talk about the iron lung and perhaps I should. Across the way from my room there was a young boy in an iron lung and when I woke up one morning he had died in the night. Thank you for your comments and let us thank God Almighty you survived. The only question is did u have after effects as so many in the iron lung did. God Bless You, Norman

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    In reply to Norm:

    Norm - Back on November, 2011, we exchanged memories of polio. I just found a few extra copies of my autobiography. It contains many pages about my polio experiences. If you would like a copy, please contact me privately at: polio1953@gmail and I'll see that you get a copy.

  • Hello Norman. I also got the polio in 1953 (October) when I , too, was 20, almost 21 (15th Dec.). I got infected in Freiburg, Germany, and finally stayed in the St. Juergen Hospital in Bremen for 3 months. Later my parents were able to pay for several rehas for me. My walking was considerably reduced but still I was able to do marine research on research vessels and travel through India.

    I wrote an article on my polio - but in german, look here: "Verantwortung für MEIN Leben - die Polio - Freisein durch Polio",

    I feel really blessed in my life - I could make the best of this "fate", somehow a good fate. Greetings from Wismar - Stefan

  • If I remember correctly, Dr. Salk did not want to be enriched by his discovery. He was a great scientist and a great human being.

  • Norm:

    I came across this article today and it made me feel real good inside. The dr you referred to in this article, POLIO: THE DARK DAYS OF 1953, was my father, Dr. Walter Trutenko.

    Dr.Trutenko had dedicated his life to his patients and his family. Often, as a child, I had accompanied my father, in the evenings, and during weekends, on his house calls to care for his patients, just so i can spend some time, with my father.To those he cared for, he was often referred to as their hero, but to me, he is my dad and hero.

    When i read about your journey, thru your struggles with polio, I FELT VERY JOYFUL AND GRATEFUL, to hear of your recovery. I am also thankful to all his patients who have not forgotten him. Dr. Trutenko passed away in 1980.

    Igor Trutenko

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