My Mom, Polio Hero

25 Nov


(Iron lung ward, California) from Wikimedia commons)

One thing I am thankful for this weekend is that my mother—unlike my mother-in-law—never became a victim of polio during one of the great epidemics of the 40s and 50s. What makes this more thanks-worthy is that she was a nurse-in-training during a great polio epidemic in about 1955 at Boston Children’s Hospital. I asked her what it was like to work in the polio ward of the children’s hospital. “It was mostly just taking care of the kids, and there wasn’t much you could do. You were busy all the time putting) hot packs on the kids. They were called Sister Kenney hotpacks to make them more comfortable—and they did help. (for more on Sister Kenny check out Usually they seemed to have stiff necks and fever and then, sometimes they came in and were already partially paralyzed. They were all ages—babies up to 21.”

She told me that I wards would have been all open, or each room had several kids. Some had four kids. “Visiting hours were very restrictive, like two to four in the afternoon. So we would feed kids, some ould feed themselves. Not everyone was paralyze them. They had toys. Nurses were awfully good with the kids. They wanted to work with kids. It was weird back then, you weren’t allowed to give parents any information—nurses were in a different position. It was nice, but you couldn’t give them information. Even their temperature. But as far as being personal, parents were very nice.”

“We were scared, but we were all so busy, and we were in the same boat. Some of the nurses got polio. But we didn’t talk about it. It was just all understood.”

The next year, she was in rotation at the Helen Hayes Iron Lung Unit in Wellesley, MA. There, she worked with patients in iron lungs. The iron lungs worked by negative pressure—inside the closed space of the tubes the patients lay in, air was pulled out to let the paralyzed patients fill their lungs, then pushed back in so they could let it out. They could speak on the exhalation. They had books placed over their heads so they could read, but there was very little to amuse them. My mother said that she was told that all the people were young and attractive, but wouldn’t live ten years. To take care of their bodies , the nurses had to put their hands in portholes with some kind  of stretchy rubber surface.

I think of my mother, so young and tenderly beautiful, in her crisp white uniform and starched cap, putting herself in harm’s way because it had to be done. I think of her long, busy, important life, raising five children, returning to nursing, mattering so deeply to all of us even now. I asked her if she were frightened, and she said, ‘“We were scared, but we were all so busy, and we were in the same boat. Some of the nurses got polio. But we didn’t talk about it. It was just all understood.”

I understand. I know she had to do it. Those kids needed help. But I think of those young heroines like my mother and the risks they took and it gives me a shiver. I think of those families who were changed forever by polio—including my own dear husband’s. In fact, my father had polio too—but a mild case.—as a child. And I think of how polio is almost eradicated, how we are so close. Only three countries still have it now—Nigeria, Pakistan and Afghanistan. There is a fund to help—The Polio Eradication Fund. Its motto is “every last child.” Let it be so.

Writing Prompt: Did you ever put yourself in danger for others? When and why?


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