In 1949, I contracted infantile paralysis, or polio. I was 6, almost 7, about to enter 1st grade. My parents had just moved my 4 year old sister and me to a small town in Connecticut – there were only 1,200 people living there back then. Those were promising times. My father was back from the war and we moved from a rather dingy apartment outside New York City and bought a two-story house on the GI Bill. My father was a writer and wrote a couple of magazine columns, and my mother was a housewife.
One Saturday in late August, we all went to the beach. I had a cold. I remember my mother and father spreading out a blue plaid blanket on the warm sand, and the sparkling water and bright sun, and my mother calling out to me as I ran toward the water, “Don’t go in; you’ll get polio.” We didn’t know anyone who had it. But even so, I tried to be a good girl. I just dipped my toes in the water.
The following day, we went to a small party where there were lots of children pl
aying, and the adults sat around drinking iced tea and enjoying the weather. I wasn’t feeling well, and someone put a hand on my forehead. I had a fever, and we promptly went home.
The next morning, I tried to get out of bed and I fell down. I called out to my mother, who came upstairs and saw me on the floor. She helped me back into bed and went downstairs. As soon as she left the room, I remember getting up again and trying to walk, and falling down. I had a deep sense of frustration and bewilderment. I still remember the feeling of complete helplessness. A while later the doctor came and examined me – in those days, doctors made house calls.
My aunt and uncle came to the house to take care of my little sister Janis. I remember being very sick at that point, and being dressed quickly and put in the car. I was taken to the Englewood Hospital in Bridgeport, about an hour away, and put in an iron lung. By that time I was paralyzed from the neck down. My mother related to me years later that they said I would die that night. It was no idle fear. The year I got sick, 42,000 children contracted polio and 3,000 died from it.
Since I was barely conscious, I remember almost nothing about being in the iron lung. But I do remember seeing it next to my bed after they took me out of it. It sat there for several days…“just in case.” After the iron lung, I spent about 5 months in the hospital, the first part of it in quarantine. I was in a room by myself for about 30 days. There were very few nurses. My mother told me later there was one nurse for 200 children. This seemed so preposterous that I decided that there must have been more, but now I wonder.
In the corner of the room there was a wringer-washer, which the nurse and an attendant would fill up with very hot water from the sink, and then they would plunge cut-up army blankets into the water and run them through the wringer. These were wrapped around my arms and legs. I remember the smell of wet wool and how hot the blankets were. I think this happened at least twice a day. I also was taken into another room for whirlpool baths.
When my parents came to visit me during this period, they were not allowed in the room. Chicken wire was draped across the doorway and secured with nails. One time my parents brought me a big green rubber frog. They couldn’t find a nurse to bring it to me, so my father tried to toss it toward the bed, but it bounced off and hit the floor. The frog had to be destroyed. They returned the following weekend with another frog, and they still couldn’t find a nurse to help, and the same thing happened. The third time, the frog landed on the bed and stayed there.
During those long weeks, I was given books to read. By sounding out the words, I was able to teach myself to read. By the time I left the hospital, I was reading at fourth grade level. I was alone and the books were my sole company and escape.
When I was taken out of quarantine, all of my toys and books were destroyed. Everything I had touched was incinerated. This was just devastating, if you can imagine how it feels for a child to lose everything. I grieved for my cherished books and toys. I was moved to another ward where there were many children, and all of a sudden I had other beings around me to talk to. There were very few nurses there, too. My most vivid memory is not being able to get a clean bedpan, and we children would have to pass around the same bedpan and use it until it was full.
I was in the hospital for so long, I came to feel that I would never leave. That the hospital was my real home. I felt unloved, almost forgotten. Visits to my parents for holidays were called “furloughs.” They always ended in me going back to the polio ward.
Fear of the disease was so strong that people shunned my parents after I fell ill. Our house was quarantined so no one could come in. There was so much fear. When I finally went home, one leg was still paralyzed and I had to be fitted for a brace, and I used crutches. I had physical therapy. I went back to school, entering first grade in the spring, just before school was out. In those days there were no accommodations for children like me, and I had to simply blend in and act as though nothing had happened, that I wasn’t different. During recess, when other kids ran around, I just stood there.
The adjustment period was very hard. When the teacher called for a restroom break, I had no idea what to do, so I just sat there, and by the end of the school day I couldn’t hold it any longer and just wet my pants. I was humiliated and remember climbing into the car with wet socks and shoes when my mother came to pick me up, and telling her what happened. It was so distressing.
I had so much trouble walking, when we ran errands my mother would leave me in the car because it was easier. But I would become hysterical with fear. I realize now that I was deathly afraid of being abandoned. One time, a small crowd gathered around the car and someone went looking for my mother, who was terribly embarrassed.
The leg that was paralyzed never grew properly and remains three inches shorter than the other, resulting in life-long scoliosis. The treatment for this was a heavy back brace, leather reinforced with metal. It was uncomfortable and hot. Taken together with the heavy leg brace I had to wear, which had a 3-inch lift on the shoe, this meant no sports. When we did square dance in school, I played the records while the others danced. I wore those braces until I turned 14. That’s seven years. It’s hard to believe. But still, I’m one of the lucky ones.
In those days people didn’t talk about their problems or their illnesses, so I didn’t either. It’s just the way it was. Once when I tried to ask my mother about that time, she burst into tears and couldn’t talk about it—40 years after the fact.
The traumatic experience from my childhood has affected me deeply. I very rarely discuss these events with my family or friends. I even lived with the guilt that by dipping my toes in the ocean that one day I had brought this horrible thing on myself. I was brought up not wanting to call attention to myself and never wanting to be pitied. Many years later I had to seek help from a therapist to deal with what they now call PTSD. Bringing up these memories has been difficult. But it’s worth it if I can raise awareness about diseases like polio.
If there had been a polio vaccine available in 1949, I would like to think my parents would have had me vaccinated without question. If they had decided not to, I wonder if I would ever be able to forgive them. Do parents who oppose vaccinating their children in these times ever consider that they might one day face that possibility?
Judith S. Beatty
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