Dog Days and Polio
The most wonderful thing in the world that I liked to do as a young child, was to be able to play in the warm sunshine around our house.
Playhouses of overgrown honeysuckle bushes
I remember being able to go into the woods behind my house to build “playhouses” in overgrown honeysuckle bushes. The vines are so interwoven, they would often form a hollow place in the interior, which would be shady and cool.
Since I was practically an only child my only sibling was 8 years older), I had to use my imagination and creativity to stay busy every day at my child’s “work”….It’s a wonder that I wasn’t eaten alive by snakes, playing in those honeysuckle arbors…but I don’t remember ever seeing one. I certainly remember getting chiggers…not fun.
Swimming in the shoals of the Cahaba River
My second favorite thing to do was for Daddy to take us swimming in the shoals of the Cahaba River, near our house in Helena. There was a wonderful place that Daddy knew, where the water waded off from very shallow to deeper, and the bottom was small pebbles. (I hated mushy bottoms, and still do.) We could sit in the rocks and let the water run over us…ahhh, I can still feel the cooling effect…and places where we could sit and slide down the bigger rocks into shallow pools.
Dog Days of August and Polio
Well, that all came to a screeching halt for me the summer I was 10 years old. This was during the early fifties, and if you remember, we had a scourge named “Polio” that would stop us from going anywhere in crowds, or to any public swimming pools, especially during the “Dog Days” of August, when it seemed everything stood still except the grasshoppers you could hear.
It was Sunday, and as our usual routine, we went to Sunday School and then stayed for church. As the morning wore on, I developed a headache that got worse and worse. By the time I got home, I could not stand for light in my eyes, and could barely walk. My mother gave me some aspirin and put me to bed, and since it was Sunday, they waited until the next day to take me to the doctor.
Children’s Hospital in Birmingham
By then, I was almost comatose, waking only to remember the cool wash cloth on my face as my mother bathed me to get the fever down. I was sent to the Children’s Hospital in Birmingham, to a Pediatrician named Dr. Chapman, who diagnosed me with “polio meningitis”. Knowing what I know now, I don’t know how I survived. And I am not really sure that it was really polio, but could have been some other bacterial or viral meningitis.
I had no idea where I was
I remember when I awakened and could ask for something to drink, the nurse ran to tell the doctor. I had no idea where I was! The room I was in was an isolation room…about 10 feet by 18 feet.
There were two large cribs… I was in one, alone in the room. Imagine how I felt, a ten year old in a crib with high sides I couldn’t climb over! There was an ultraviolet light high on the wall. This was supposed to help kill germs, but I had no idea what it was for! There was one small window, where the branches of a tree of some kind could be seen, but that was all.
I still remember the terror
(Later, the only way I could tell time was by the way the sun moved by the window, and the shadow of the leaves). I still remember the terror I felt, not knowing where I was, what was happening to me, or where my parents were! Thank God for the nurses, who made sure I felt safe. They would reassure me that I was getting well, and provided the only toys I could have in that room…which was a tiny plastic wheelbarrow, shovel and rake…for a ten-year-old!
My parents could only come to me at designated times. And when I continued to get better, with the aid of Penicillin, the doctor cried when I walked for him and had no sequelae. When I realized how close I came to never being able to play in those woods again, or go swimming in that cool river water again, it was a very sober thought. And I think of the thousands of children who were not so fortunate to survive Polio unscathed.
I fulfilled my wish
And so, today, as I feel the 99-degree heat, hear the grasshoppers singing, and feel the stillness of this August 2nd, 2011 day, I am reminded how far we have come and how blessed I am to be here. And yes, I think of this every time the “Dog days’” start rolling around…about a little girl who almost didn’t make it through that summer, but whose life forever was affected by her desire to help sick children get well from whatever illness they had!
I fulfilled that wish when I began working as a staff nurse at Children’s Hospital in 1968. I didn’t leave until the end of 2007, when I retired, having achieved the title of Division Director of the Outpatient Services for 26 of those years. And polio? I lived to see that dreaded disease under control with vaccines. What a wonderful thing that was!