I’M GLAD I HAD POLIO
I couldn’t comb my hair, sit up, or hold a book. But while I was helpless I looked into a mirror and learned some very important things. Now that I’m well again I want to tell the whole story
ONE hot sticky July night a year ago I perched on the edge of a kitchen table, swinging my legs, eating a hamburger, and giving my girl-friend Barbara an account of what it was like to be experiencing the first symptoms of polio. It was a joke—I thought. Maybe at 19 one’s jokes are a bit clumsy.
I was making fun of Barbara’s pet bogey by reading the symptoms of polio given in a medical dictionary that lay open on the table, and identifying them with those I’d had all day. From the moment I got up that morning I had been feeling warm and damp and painfully stiff. In midafternoon I put the cover on my typewriter and asked my boss in our Civil Service office if I could go early. He said okay.
Home in the Ottawa apartment I shared with Barbara I got a bit of perverse fun watching her growing alarm as I told her I was having difficulty in swallowing, just like the book said. My neck was stiff. I felt as if I had weights tied to my arms and legs.
The joke was on me. When I got down from the table and started for the bedroom I felt as if I were walking through mud on stilts. The room was all out of perspective. I fell full-length on the floor. I had polio.
At that time I still hadn’t heard the long forbidding term, acute anterior-poliomyelitis, that was to be my case diagnosis a few days later. I murmured something about tripping over a rug, tried to get up, broke into a sweat and lay there unable to help myself and completely bewildered. Barbara somehow got me to the bed and called my home. From then on, things got pretty foggy.
I remember my mother and father arriving at the apartment, my dad saying, “Now don’t get excited; I’m not worried,” while he chain-smoked, paced the room and looked completely distraught. I have a recollection of a doctor, and I remember hearing someone scream. I wondered who was making all the noise and dimly realized that it was me.
The scene shifted somehow to isolation hospital. There was a parade of doctors and nurses coming into my room, donning face masks, rubber gloves and gowns. During one comparatively lucid moment I decided to make my way to the adjoining bathroom. The floor came up to kiss my face with the alacrity of a long-absent lover. I don’t know how long I lay there, unable to get up, until a nurse came in and picked me up. I know I began to realize what it was like to be really scared. That night I heard, through a fog of pain, someone say: “She’s a Catholic. You’d better get the priest.”
I didn’t die but there were times when I wished I
would. I made a dramatic attempt to break off my engagement with Bill, a boy from next door, who, as a medical student, was able to connive his way into isolation to see me. He received my grand renunciation with: “You’ve been reading too many books.”
I came through the contamination period and was sent to the Civic Hospital for an estimate on the damage done to my muscles and for further treatment. This hospital is among the many large hospitals in Ontario subsidized by the Provincial Government for the treatment of polio. From the time I was admitted until my discharge six months later complete hospitalization was provided free.
There were three other polio cases in my room: a destitute old woman, one of the most heroic humans I’ve ever known, who managed to be cheerful in spite of being deaf and having been paralyzed by polio for 13 years; a dark 18-year-old girl named Esther; and Joan, a tiny, electrically alive brunette with a wonderful blasé sense of humor.
I was put in a pillowless bed that had a fracture board between the mattress and springs and a footboard to keep my feet upright as a safeguard against “drop foot.” I began to experience for the first time the thing that I was to learn to dread more than pain, more than dying— the feeling of dependency. One day I decided to rearrange a bouquet of two dozen roses Bill had sent me. I found I couldn’t even roll over on my side. Gradually every other feeling gave way to the nightmarish realization that I couldn’t comb my hair, pick up a book, sit up, eat, do any of the simple, ordinary, everyday things that I had done all my life. I was seized by a childish terror, a feeling of insecurity, that 1 was to get to know well.
The virus of the type of polio I had attacks cells of the spinal cord which govern the muscles, clinging to the cell or entering it entirely and ultimately killing it. Once these cells are destroyed the muscles become useless and atrophy. The result is temporary or permanent paralysis, depending on the extent of the attack.
My treatment consisted at first of the application of steamed heavy flannel hot packs daily every 15 minutes from 9 in the morning to 4.30 in the afternoon, until I felt tenderly boiled from neck to feet, back and front. After three weeks of this the packs were applied only to my legs and back and physiotherapy liegan. In this the patient and the physiotherapist co-operate in trying to get the muscles to move. The doctor strokes a certain muscle, tells you to look at it, concentrate on it, then moves your foot while you will it to move. It’s not easy to concentrate with that desperate intensity.
It’s not easy to pit your will against a foot so immobile that it could belong to someone else. You lie there sweating with the effort, while the physiotherapist chants: “This little muscle, do
you feel it? This one right here. Pull it to the right. Now to the left. Now up. Try again. This muscle. This one. Up. Now to the right ”
Although difficult and exhausting at times these things soon became routine, relieved by many bright sides of hospital life. The three of us in our room joked about the pancake-thin mattresses that we claimed allowed splinters from the board beneath to tickle our anatomy. We were amused by some well-meaning visitors. There was the gushy type who kept up a monologue of “Oooh, my deah, I was simply shattered when I heard YOU of ALL people. So full of life! So full of youth! But there are so many things you can do, leather craft, embroidery . you might even write a book. Everybody writes books nowadays.” And the ones who painfully avoided all reference to polio and whom Joan used to deliberately horrify by calling across the room, “Hey, cripple! Got a cigarette?” The really significant events had nothing to do with hospital routine. The important things were
happening inside me. I began to have a dream, usually at night while I lay wide awake, but often in the daytime. I began to dream I was walking. Walking upstairs. Walking along a sidewalk in the rain. Walking to the door. Walking to a wash basin at the other side of the hospital room, standing there a moment, walking back, getting back into bed. I’d follow every detail of these visions greedily. I always moved with a slow dreamlike motion, pausing, turning slowly, putting one foot before the other easily and gracefully. One of my favorite scenes has always been a place in the Gatineau hills where an aunt of mine used to take me Sunday mornings when I was a little girl. We’d get there by a dusty, winding road, then slip behind a farmhouse to find a path between the pines, follow that up a steep hill to where the lake appeared— always a beautiful surprise at the end of that hot hard climb. I climbed that, path in my imagination over and over again, reveling in the pull of my leg muscles, the healthy glow of my body. Then I’d be back to real life and my real hospital bed and I’d make a desperate effort to sit up. I’d strain and pull unsuccessfully and lie back covered with perspiration, feeling stifled, pinned down, afraid.
One day after I’d been in the hospital for several weeks I asked for a mirror. I stared into that mirror thoughtfully for a long, long time. Looking back at me were a pair of lustreless eyes, a wasted white face with bluish lips and purple circles under the eyes. The cheeks were sunken, the skin pulled tight. At 19 I looked 45.
But a surprising thing happened. Looking into that mirror I began to see something more important than a changed face. I began to see my whole life up to the time I’d contracted polio, more clearly than I ever had before. I’d always been vain, overly critical, completely self-centred. I would spend hours fussing with my hair and make-up. Now the realization came to me that my family, Bill, my other friends bad been coming to see me regularly, unchanged, when I looked like this! They hadn’t come because my make-up was on right or my hair just the right glossy sheen—they’d come to see me. It made me feel warm, grateful, humble and a bit ashamed.
My Legs Had Forgotten
I thought of a dance I’d gone to with Bill one time when he was sa broke that we had to walk four miles home. I complained all the way that we should have taken a taxi. Now I’d have paid every cent I’d ever own—I’d have given away a whole thriving taxi company—just for the privilege of walking those four miles. I think I grew up there in that hospital bed.
I tried to make plans for what I’d do after I left the hospital as a cripple. My back and left leg had shown some response to treatment, but my light leg was lifeless. I’d started off my illness with smiles and wisecracks with the object, not even admitted to myself, that people would say: “What a brave little girl!” Now it was a matter of self-preservation. I knew I had to hold onto my self-control; that if I cnee so much as cried I would be beaten.
Then one drizzly fall morning I caught a cold. An interne prescribed nose drops and, with a grin, “A few days in bed.” It was a pleasant grin. I grinned back. He enquired about my progress. I tried to move my right leg. It didn’t satisfy him and he had me try it over and over again. At last I heard him almost shout: “There was a flicker. You didit. Do it again!” The toes of my right foot had contracted, very feebly, but to me those five toes were the most beautiful and wonderful toes in the world. I almost cried with happiness.
I began to learn how to walk. The first day two physiotherapists lifted me to my feet, lowered me to the floor and moved forward. I sagged like a sack of meal. The physiotherapists patiently explained how legs move in walking. I had a clear recollection of myself walking, but my legs had forgotten. The feeling of walking was something that escaped me. It was like trying to recall a name I knew well and not quite being able to
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get it. I’ve seen women burning up with the desire to walk. I’ve seen their faces as they tried to recapture the memory. It’s a sight you don’t easily
Eventually I shuffled along for three short paces, then six, and I was graduated to a mechanical walker similar to the kind babies use. I was able to take quite a few steps under the watchful eye of our physiotherapist. But there
was a long way to go. As I completed a step my knees snapped back two inches farther than they should. I could stand on my feet okay and, theoretically, I should have been able to walk two steps, then rest, then two more, and so on, but my balance was completely missing. When I moved I was sure that I’d fall.
One day when I was feeling inordinately proud of having taken three steps. I passed the news to the head nurse, a middle-aged, birdlike, kindly woman who replied: “Aw, go on. I don’t
believe it.” I told her to come tomor-
row during my physiotherapy treatment and I’d show her. The big moment arrived. I took two steps and fell in a heap. That nurse could have done a lot of damage with a few words of sympathy. But she did the right thing. She said: “That’ll teach you to show off,” and went on about her work.
Though I worked hard it seemed that I had reached the end of my resources. The few steps I could take were grotesque caricatures of a walk. One afternoon when my mother was visiting me I decided to surprise her and very proudly stood up and walked a few
steps. Since I had entered the hospital she had always seen me in bed or sitting in a wheel chair, and my appearance, as I stood up, was a dreadful shock to her. She was pale and silent for a moment. Then with a tremulous smile she said: “It’s good to see you
on your feet again, dear—it will be even better to have you home.” Dad told me much later that when she returned that afternoon she cried for the first time since I had contracted polio.
The doctors decided that if I were to improve any more the atmosphere of my own home would be better for me. Mom, Bill and I left the hospital together three days before my 20th birthday. Mom and dad had redecorated my room completely. There was a telephone on the bedside table, a radio, books and cigarettes—no detail had been overlooked. The bed was one that months ago I had seen on display and described to dad when I got home for supper. The only jarring note was the fracture board under my mattress.
Being home sharpened my awareness of my disability. Mom and dad were models of tact and kindness but, through no fault of theirs, they were unable to carry out their share of the treatments. Mom could never quite, manage to hide her dismay as she bathed me and she was always afraid of hurting me. Dad could hardly bear to watch my struggles at taking the few steps I was capable of. He always left the room, smoking furiously.
Bill Takes Charge
Then Bill took charge and my life changed. He knew anatomy from his study of medicine and he volunteered to take over my treatments. It was just in time. I was fed up with trying. I could hobble around. I could walk. What more was there to life? I was content to be a cripple as long as I was mobile.
But that wasn’t good enough for Bill. He insisted I fight off my acceptance of a limp. When during the exercises I complained he was hurting me he would say: “Too bad. Don’t be such a
baby.” He painstakingly charted my daily progress. In spite of his demanding third-year studies he came three times a day for four months. He forced me to walk the same few steps over and over again, losing his temper if I_ became lazy or careless, insisting that I could do better. He would not tolerate carelessness and ignored my protests that I didn't mind a limp. He was sure that I would be perfectly normal again.
Then the Medical Ball drew near, the big event in the lives of all the students, and I began to feel a little sorry for myself. One afternoon, two weeks before the ball, while Bill was giving me my exercises he told me that it was very important I walk exceptionally well that day. He had an anxious look jn his eyes so I concentrated anti ear-
nestly tried to prevent my knee from snapping too far back.
When I sat down again looking very proud of myself Bill said quietly: “Would you like to go to the ball with me?” I made some completely feminine remark about not having anything to wear. Then visions of myself falling in front of all those people, embarrassing Bill, horrifying everyone, rushed to my mind. I decided Bill was just being chivalrous. I thanked him and refused. It did no good. He told me that if I could do something difficult once, like attending the ball on my first outing, from then on nothing would be too difficult.
Soft Music and Orchids
The night of the ball, pulling on my gown, fastening my flat-heeled evening slippers, rubbing perfume behind my ears, seemed a strange ritual. Bill sent me two little white orchids.
Being carried into the largest hotel in Ottawa was not the most natural way of making an entrance. As Bill remarked, most people usually have to be carried out of hotels. But once inside, with Bill’s arm supporting me and reassuringly strong, I walked to our table.
The soft music, the laughter and the talk. Flowers. Lights. The friends coming to our table to say hello. It was the most perfect evening of my life. I didn’t feel left out or different from anyone else. My heart ached from too much g atitude.
Then the lights were dimmed, the orchestra began to play. Bill and I were alone at our table. He took my hand and asked me if I’d like to dance. I nodded, but the minute I stood on the edge of the dance floor, panic gripped me. I was sure the in-co-ordination was back. I couldn’t remember how to lift my feet. Mentally I turned and ran from the ballroom to my room where everything was safe and familiar.
Bill scowled at my wilting orchids, said: “With what they cost you’d
think they’d last the night.” Suddenly I was dancing.
We might not have run away with the first prize that night, but it was dancing. I closed my eyes tightly to keep the tears from falling and thanked God for being alive.
Now People Say “Hi!”
From that wonderful night forward I rapidly improved. My mental attitude had switched and far from accepting the prospect of life as a cripple I was demanding a complete return to normal. And soon I was able to go back to my job.
By the way, it doesn’t seem to be generally known that about 50% of diagnosed cases of polio recover completely; about 5% are totally disabled, about 40% suffer only minor disability, and only about 4% die. Of the three other women in my room at the Civic Hospital the elderly deaf woman is still there and still cheerful; Esther had a very mild case and was discharged in a few days; Joan has completely recovered except tor a bit of difficulty going up and down stairs.
Myself, I’m 98% cured. When the weather is damp, or if I’m a few minutes late for work and run from the streetcar I develop a slight limp. People no longer say: “How are you?” They say: “Hi!” And I walk. I walk everywhere. I take my time and look around at the wonderful world. I often think of the interne who one day told me: “I envy you. You have a handicap. You’ll be a better person. You’ll learn how to appreciate life.”
I know what he meant now. I’m glad I had polio* it