Monday, December 28, 2009


My dad’s right hand has always been smaller and weaker than his left hand. We children always thought of him as a strong man, but that right hand never looked quite right. Polio—we always knew it was caused by polio, back in the days before polio vaccinations.

Here’s the story my parents told me of the scary summer when the second-grade boys around Carlisle got sick:

It was 1924. School was out for the summer when four little second-grade boys developed flu-like symptoms. On the west side of Carlisle, little Frank was in bed with severe cramping stomach pains. His parents, Alice and Ted, were gravely concerned.

On a farm a little farther west, my mother’s brother Clifford was so ill that he was in bed. My mother remembers that her parents’ bedroom was downstairs off the living room, and the children’s bedrooms were upstairs. Her father never went upstairs. However, seven-year-old Clifford was so ill that her father went upstairs to be with him. That’s when she knew how sick her brother was, when she saw her father climbing the stairs. She was five years old at the time and still remembers it because it was so frightening. Her parents didn’t know what was wrong with Clifford, just that he was terribly ill—neck pains, back pains, headache, severe flu-like symptoms.

The mother of another second-grade boy, Orville, sent word that her son was very, very ill with these same symptoms.

And at my dad’s farm, seven-year-old Elmer was alarmingly ill.

Word spread quickly in the farm community that there was something “going around,” that several second-grade boys were very, very sick. An ice cream social planned for Hedemarken Church was cancelled. Families isolated the sick boys from the other children in their families. There was general alarm because in 1924, childhood diseases often resulted in death.

While Frank, Clifford, and Orville were treated at home, my father was having different symptoms: paralysis, high fever, severe pain. In 1924, my grandparents had four girls and one son—my dad. He was a big, strong boy, several inches taller than many of his classmates. But when Elmer was lying on his bed, struggling to breathe, his father Albert did the unusual: he scooped him up, blankets and all, put him in the backseat of his 1917 Dodge, and drove him to the doctor in Fergus Falls. Albert was afraid his only son was dying. My dad remembers the ride to Fergus—he recalls that the side curtains on the 1917 Dodge were flapping in the wind as his father drove him to the doctor.

My father’s diagnosis was “infantile paralysis,” (later known as polio myelitis), according to Dr. Baker, a physician at the clinic. The rest of that summer and all through the fall, my grandfather would drive my father to Fergus Falls for treatments. When I asked him what the treatments were, he said he remembered Nurse Sutter laying hot, wet towels all over his body. (Sister Kinney didn’t develop her famous physical therapy treatments for polio until the 1930s.)

My dad missed school all fall but rejoined his class around Christmas time. The other boys recovered from their illnesses, too. Frank and Orville escaped without any lasting effects, having a milder form of polio where the virus was confined to the intestinal tract. My mother’s brother Clifford had permanent weakness in his back and chest, and my dad’s right hand and forearm had muscle damage.

In the early part of the 20th century, the infant mortality rate was nearly twice as high as it was when I raised my children. When I brought them in for their immunizations—mumps, measles, rubella, tuberculosis, polio—I never had to worry that they would contract many of these diseases that were so common—and feared—in my parents’ day.

All I had to do was look at my father’s right hand to know how lucky we were.


Cindy said...

I was just talking to a friend and he told me his father's story. A story of his father's polio as a child and his struggle with post-polio syndrome now. Thank you for the blog today.

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