I was part of “polio hysteria,” a disease that ravaged an average of more than 20,000 Americans a year immediately after WWII in the years 1945-49. In 1952 a record 58,000 cases were reported across America.
And though it was many years ago, I remember it like it was yesterday. A hot beautiful Sunday afternoon in October. I was playing in a spirited touch football game with neighbors in the field next to our little house that sat right across the alley from St. Mary’s Church. After an hour or so I was running down the left sideline going out for a pass. I never made it.
All of a sudden, like a switch was turned on, I was seeing stars. Everything turned to black. I went to my knees. I couldn’t make it back to the house. My two friends, sisters who lived across the field with a father who had black lung disease he contacted from working in the coal mines of Appalachia, helped carry me to the house. There I spent the next three days on the couch, unable to move, my neck like a statue.
I was a very sick 9-year-old boy. My father, who worked on the Wabash Railroad and was gone a lot, called our family doctor, John Nill, who made a house call. Doctors did that back then. Dr. Nill came over to the couch with his black bag, got on his knees and examined me. After awhile he got up and walked over to my dad. In a hushed whisper so I wouldn’t hear, but I did, he told my dad, “Jerry, I am so sorry to tell you this, but your boy has polio.”
My dad stared at him for a few seconds, unable or unwilling to comprehend what he just heard, and then he did something I had never in my whole life seen him do: He cried. Dr. Nill, a kind of gruff but kind man, put his arms around my dad, and the two men stood there for what seemed forever, not moving, sharing this tender terrible moment.
Dr. Nill called an ambulance to take me to St. Joe Hospital. There I was given a spinal tap. I had never in my life experienced such pain. A long needle jabbed into my spine to take fluid. It seemed much more than a tap, I’ll tell you that. The test confirmed I had polio. I was then admitted to the polio ward for children. I had my own room and a pretty young nurse who was as kind as she was pretty.
Outside my room in the hallway, I could see some sort of contraption that looked like a big bullet, and I could see, or thought I did, a face hanging out the end of it. The nurse explained that polio attacks not just arms and legs and necks but also the lungs, and people can’t breathe, so they put them in this, what she calls an iron lung.
When I asked about the person inside it she told me, “He’s a high school football star from Van Wert, Ohio.”
I thought maybe I wasn’t as bad off as I thought.
Then came that first night. The halls filled with howls of anguish, all night long, moans and groans and screams for “Mommy.” When I went in I thought I was sick as a kid could be. By morning I knew I wasn’t even close. To this day I can hear their agony echo through my brain. It was on this ward that the 4-year-old boy in the headline died. Eventually I was released, and I did physical therapy in the pool. It hurt, but gradually I was able to move my neck. I was lucky. I had a mild case.
When I got home, there was a big sign on the front door in bright blood red letters: QUARANTINE. DO NOT ENTER. ALLEN COUNTY BOARD OF HEALTH.
It is a stigma that has never left me. Polio informed my world view, for better or for worse; made me the person I am today, wanting to heal, gather others up and save them. I have failed, of course. No one really knew what caused it, which added to the hysteria surrounding it. One theory is that it was caused somehow by dirt, a less-than-clean environment; hence, the quarantine sign that it was contagious, and I somehow did something to deserve catching it. And, therefore, if you don’t do whatever it is I did, you will be spared. You won’t get polio.
In that inferno called a polio ward I wondered to myself why the God I was taught loves me would do such a thing to me and all the kids in that hospital suffering from this awful disease. Some didn’t survive. Polio didn’t just cripple, it killed.
At the same time I attributed my recovery to the prayers of the nuns who lived right behind our house in the nunnery across the alley, who were always kind to me, giving me cookies and milk about every time they saw me, and they prayed for me. I learned the power of prayer and the confusion I felt, between being abandoned by God and saved by prayer has never left me.
The kids who didn’t make it no doubt had people praying for them, too. And though polio has largely been eradicated in the United States, many dreadful diseases remain, among them black lung disease.
I still see that man in his bed looking like a corpse and hear the screams of those children. And along with them, my question I asked at the age of 9 I still ask: Why? Why do we have to suffer this way?