The last blog in this series left my six-year-old self lying in an old hospital bed with chipped enamel railings, devouring two bowls of vanilla ice cream smothered in mustard.
That bizarre meal — following a hunger strike — marked the end of my sullen rage at what paralytic polio had done to me. For a time at Children’s Hospital I became the picture of puzzled cooperation.
Gnomish looking men began showing up at my bedside and they had an inexplicable interest in my motionless legs. Tape measures and calipers took measurements that were carefully noted down. All this began to make sense on the day when a gnome appeared, bearing a set of metal leg braces.
I had never seen such things before and had no idea what they were for. A pair of Buster Brown shoes attached to one end of each brace was a clue. Me, who favored sandals and sneakers, was I supposed to stick my feet into those ugly things?
Evidently I was. At first the uncomfortable braces were put around my legs as I lay in bed, but quickly I found myself being plopped into a wheelchair and rolled off down long hallways till we arrived in a large room where a few other paraplegics were clumsily maneuvering along parallel bars.
Herein began a serious re-education in the fine art of ambulation. Somebody picked me up, ordered me to grip a set of bars, then gradually let go of me. Splat! My arms, not long recovered from several weeks of paralysis themselves, were no match for gravity.
There were quite a few splats accompanied by howls from me. A set of eyes belonging to a tall, youngish man on a nearby set of parallel bars began attracting my attention. He had a man-sized set of braces strapped on over his pants and was struggling along the bars. As he looked at me taking my tumbles tears began to run down his cheeks.
This was despite his pleasant face, where smiles seemed to belong. I was perplexed. A woman, obviously his wife, hovered around him.
Back in my obnoxious bed, I thought about him and these uncomfortable “leg irons” that bound us together. He was the first person I’d ever seen trying to get around in the awful things. I had the idea now of what was expected of me — and also that I was not going to make him cry again.
And I didn’t. Slowly I began to be able to stand, hands on the bars, on my own, then to lean back and forth, to move each leg in turn. From there I moved on to wooden crutches and slow, rigid legged marches up and down hospital corridors.
I found myself the personal pet of my new doctor. Although his name was David Grice, I called him Fuzzy Wuzzy for his head of curly hair. He was actually well-known for his work with polio patients in those days. Some of his work remains available online. None of this would have mattered to me just then.
He was sort of nice, in my opinion, but also troublesome when he would come round my bedside in the mornings with a dozen or so young doctors, residents, hanging on his every word. He used unintelligible language, such as “latissimus dorsi” in describing the nature of my paralysis on these occasions. He also developed a nasty habit of plucking my hospital johnnies off, poking some muscle or other with a pointing finger and describing its lamentable condition to the hovering residents.
Not then or at any time since have I liked hearing that anything about me was unfortunate.
I determined that a program of doctor education by Emmy was now in order. During my early morning washing up I spat toothpaste into my bedside water pitcher, followed up with a bar of soap and all the hair I could pull out of my hairbrush. That wasn’t impressive enough, so I thoughtfully tossed in the brush.
When I heard the gaggle of doctors moving in my direction I got my hand near the pitcher’s handle and waited for Fuzzy Wuzzy to come close to my bed, talking in rapid fire Greek and Latin terms to his gang of doctor thugs. Just as he began reaching for my johnny up came my hand with the pitcher — which I dumped all over his head and shoulder.
Fuzzy Wuzzy may have taken that and my scowl in good humor, but the nurses — who all seemed to worship the man — did not. Never again was I permitted a water pitcher.
I wasn’t done with him, though. My progress at wobbling around the hallways pleased Fuzzy Wuzzy enough that he determined I would be the ideal patient for a demonstration before an amphitheater full of doctors. I found myself deposited up on stage with him, wearing just a johnny. He jabbered away in the usual foreign medical language as he began fumbling with the ties on my johnny. “Oh, no, you don’t!” was the thought rising in my mind when he turned to me and said, “Go ahead and kick me, now! Show everybody what those legs can do!”
I got myself lined up beside him, putting all the force available into one solid kick … between the legs …
And so ended my career as a demo patient.
Look in the Polio Category for earlier blogs about paralytic polio and me.