Polio Blogs 1: The polio bug

Here begins a new series for me, partly due to the Ministry of Encouragement in the Creative Group at Bedlam Farm, partly to my long ago promise to various medical professionals to write my experiences for them, and partly because of visions such as this one right below.

November 19, 2015 from Darlene Gait Witt’s Facebook fan page, She is a remarkable painter and a Coast Salish contemporary artist from Esquimalt Nations in British Columbia, a fellow Baha’i.  Among other First Nations public works she recently designed a series of coins for the Canadian government:

I think [it’s] good to remind yourself as an artist that there is no such thing as failure. You progress by moving forward, doing your best and never giving up. I was born an artist and chose paint as my medium. Yes, I have moved in different directions at times, but still consider myself a painter when I go to sleep each night. I have learned it’s not how skilled you are as a painter, it’s how good your ideas are that matter. How timely, how inventive, how creative and in tune with the world you are. Not everyone will appreciate your work. Some people will not even acknowledge you as a person or artist for reasons that are not yours to know about. But, as long as you are digging deep within your spiritual self for concepts, creativity and invention, you are Einstein, Leonardo da Vinci, [Nikola] Tesla. Yes, on that level, because it is our responsibility as artists and creators to inspire change within our life time. Anything less is you not doing your best and that kind of self pity will not move forward with any grace.

Artists, be good to yourself. You are an extremely valuable addition to this world and the next.

I’ve always thought of myself as a writer, though I have mostly done other things in life.  Doesn’t stop it from being in my blood to explore with the writing process the meanings of experiences, events, matters of the spirit.  I’m invariably looking for the light as words and paragraphs come to me.  Some would say my life has been tough, that they wouldn’t want to be me — but so what?  There’s a little light shining the brighter for every hard thing that has happened to me.

At the age of five I was living the happy life of a daughter in a middle class family near the coast of Massachusetts.  I had a beloved grandmother to explore with me the woods, streams and fields around our rural home, a younger brother to look out for, an intellectual mother in the nursing professions, and a father who worked in Boston all the time, for a chain of department stores.

The polio bug nailed me in August, 1953.  Specifically while swimming in Hyannis, awaiting the arrival of my aunt and uncle to take us out to sea aboard their cabin cruiser.

Emmie & Donnie Aug53 reduced
Me with my little brother, Donald in August, 1953.  We were both coming down with paralytic polio at the time.  After it appeared on a former blog of mine, this photo also ended up on a Romanian website.  It was called Leg Irons.

I, who loved to run with my long hair flying behind me, to climb trees, dabble my toes in Pudding Brook, follow great draft horses going about their work,  chase dragon flies across meadows and pick enormous bouquets of goldenrod for Grammie — who was allergic to them, but never said a word — I found myself stuffed into Haynes Memorial Hospital in Boston with children, teenagers and even adults packed like sardines all around.  This was the next to last polio epidemic in the US, and a vaccine for polio — the AIDS of its time — was in development.  Which made no difference to the beautiful little blonde girl in the bed two feet from mine as she moaned and died unattended, alone in the night.  To the teenage boy at the foot of my bed who ranted and raved for the loss of the use of his legs.  To Caroline Katz, a tiny Jewish girl from upscale Brookline, whose parents had abandoned her in the hospital once they found out that she would be imperfect in the  future.

With pain raging through every fiber of my body I was wrapped in woolen blankets soaked in boiling water — the “latest treatment” for polio at the moment.  Since this was humid, hot August and I was allergic to wool my screams were all the louder and nobody knew what to make of me.  At last they laid off the blankets, and doctors began thumping at my knees with their little rubber hammers, shaking their heads at the lack of response.

The fact is that I don’t remember them ever telling me directly that I would be paralyzed from the shoulders down for the rest of my life.  The first I learned of my fate was when I awakened from a nap on my bed to find my father sitting by my feet, wearing the protective robes all visitors had to put on, and he was sobbing.  “What’s the matter, Daddy?” I asked.  “My teeth hurt,” he replied.

In through the curtains surrounding my bed swept one of the rubber-hammered young doctors.  All I remember of him was his dark, wavy hair and sad expression.  “Her arms have come back,” he addressed my father.  “But her legs …. probably never.”

The next time the doctor banged my knees with that hammer I grabbled it from him.  “Sit down,” I ordered him.  “It’s my turn  to bang on YOUR knees for a while!”

Eventually, some two or three months after I was admitted at the height of the polio epidemic, Haynes Memorial abruptly ejected me and many others because of chicken pox breaking out among a few patients.

Of course as soon as I got home — home!!! — again I came down with chicken pox and was pretty sick all over again.  I had to crawl around the floors of our big old farmhouse where I had used to run and dance.  But I didn’t care a bit, I was free!  I would soon be able to go and visit my beloved draft horses at my great-uncle’s place, and the Standardbreds on the farm at the short end of our street.

Only not quite so fast.  I had yet to be equipped with leg braces and crutches and all the physical therapy that goes with that sort of change in a young life.  I did not know and did not care a bit — I was out of the smelly, humid, horrid city hospital for now and life was going to be good.

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