Family History with Polio
by Denver Rotarian Rich Spong (Gladys son)
The following article was prepared by my mother about her experiences in surviving polio at the age of 10 in 1923. She lived on a farm near the very small town of Buffalo in Southeast Kansas, and going to Kansas City to a large hospital for five weeks was a very unusual experience for her in addition to dealing with the consequences and survival from polio. She lived a full life until she was 80. She did have a limp with one leg shorter than the other, but she made the adjustment to live with that impairment. She was a stay-at-home mom to raise my sister and me. She died of chronic lymphatic leukemia after a short illness.
by Gladys (Carlson) Spong
The International Society of Polio Victims met November 13, 1985, to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the discovery of the Salk Vaccine. The word polio is a clipped form of Poliomyelitis; only the latter term and “infantile Paralysis” were used for the very rare cases in the early 20’s. I had never heard of the disease when I became a victim; children today hear of polio as a vaccine.
In the fall of 1923, I began to have a stiffness in my back as I sat at my school desk. I could not bend to either side to select a book in the desk, so I would slide forward in my seat until I could see inside my desk. I had no idea what caused the problem. It was only by retrospect in adulthood that I realized my back stiffness must have been an early poliomyelitis symptom.
Daddy came to get us at school with a team and lumber wagon on a cold and rainy October day. I was extremely chilled during the wagon ride. A fever developed. Dr. Riley was called to our country home. He could not diagnose a reason for my ailment. My illness continued through the week; sometimes I couldn’t get up from a sitting position or a knee would give out when I walked.
One evening while my parents were milking the cows, the aroma of freshly baked bread tempted me to venture to the kitchen for a sample. I got to the cabinet by bracing myself on furniture and walls. My hand slipped under the dish towel cover and broke off some crust of the second loaf. As I grasped the crust in my hand, my knees buckled under me and down I went to the floor. All attempts to pull myself up failed, so I returned to the bed by crawling, hoping Mother would not scold me for breaking off a tasty morsel of warm bread. The next morning, Mother called the doctor about my condition. I did not have a fever, so Dr. Riley told mother, “Send Gladys back to school.”
Mother replied, “But Doctor, she isn’t able to go to school; she is having problems with her knees.”
After some thought, Dr. Riley requested, “Bring her to my office right away so I can check her condition again.”
My left knee repeatedly gave out. Mother and Daddy supported me as I walked to the car and into the doctor’s office. I was lifted to the patient’s table, my legs dangling. With the side of his hand, Dr. Riley tapped my legs just below the knee. There was no reflex there or at my ankles. The doctor looked up at my parents and said, “Get Gladys on the next train to Kansas City and the Bell Memorial Hospital (now University of Kansas Medical Center). I will meet you there in the morning to see that her case is in the hands of the top doctor. Get some formaldehyde candles to fumigate your house before the other children return to it.”
Arrangements were made for Grandpa Anderson to come stay with mother. Our minister and evangelist were to be at our home for a noon meal, so my mother put a note on the screen door telling them of the situation and requesting their support through prayer. Daddy and I were soon on the train en-route to Kansas City. A first train ride should be exciting, but I had mixed emotions, wondering just what was to happen in the days ahead.
The Union Depot in Kansas City was overwhelming to me-spacious with so many people. Men cleaning high windows looked like tiny flies because they were so far away.
A taxi ride to the hospital was another new experience which led to many happenings in the hospital. After checking in at the hospital, a nurse took me from Daddy to a children’s ward. She began to undress me. Off came my wraps, then dress, petticoat, bloomers, and panty-waist. I protested, “ I don’t take these off when I go to bed.” Mother had us children sleep in some underthings so we wouldn’t get chilled if we kicked off the covers at night.
I was really shocked when the nurse pulled off my long stockings and next my long underwear. I felt as if I were walking in a tent as I was led to a crib-type bed wearing only a big, starchy gown.
The outcome of that protest was that after sleeping in only a gown while in the hospital for five weeks, I refused to ever sleep in underthings again. It took some time to convince my sisters that wearing only a gown was a much more comfortable way of sleeping.
Dr. Riley arrived early the next morning and brought Dr. Major to my bedside. I was transferred to a private room in quarantine for three weeks. Daddy had to wear a white tie-around gown when he came into my room and disinfect his hands after visits.
The paralysis continued to progress until my whole side was paralyzed on the third day at the hospital. Dr. Major would put his hand under my head, lift upward, and my body would raise from my heels as if I were a post.
Dr. Major and an intern wheeled a stretcher to my bedside, moved my stiffened body onto it, then wheeled me up the elevator to a lecture room. A gallery of medical students were waiting for their class session. Dr. Major appeared beside me with an open Bible and began to read. I was filled with fear. “What is happening here? Here I am prone on a stretcher covered with a white sheet to my chin, my body paralyzed on one side and a Bible being read to an audience.” I soon realized that my doctor was teaching a lesson on poliomyelitis to the interns, beginning with a possible polio case from the Bible. I would have preferred that he continue to read instead of raising my body to illustrate his lecture.
My spine was tapped three times and the nurses gave me massages daily. My paralysis gradually left, but I was unable to walk. Two nurses would take me up and down the hall to help me learn to walk again. On the first tries my legs just dangled without control. Little by little, I regained some use of them; I could limp along with the aid of one nurse. What a thrill to learn to walk again!
The last two weeks of my hospital stay were in a women’s ward. With my regaining walking skill, I roamed about the ward to visit with the other 13 patients. I learned their names and something about their ailments. Observation of some of the nursing details prompted me to say, “I will never be a nurse.” That statement didn’t hold as in middle age I took a nurse’s aid course and found the floor-training duty very satisfying.
One day Dr. Major and a bone specialist from Wichita came to my bedside. Dr. Major said, “Gladys, how would you like to go home for Thanksgiving?” Because I had been in the hospital five weeks, it was exciting news to me.
The next day, I dressed in a new, red wool serge dress that Mother had made for me. I felt like a new person to be in a dress, shoes, and stockings and able to walk again. I was tired of hospital gowns, robes, and house shoes. Proud of my red dress with the pleated skirt, I walked around the ward to tell each of my patient friends goodbye.
Mother had come to be with me the last two weeks. We were to leave by taxi for the Union Station after lunch. As we waited, full of excitement about going home, a nurse came with a wheel chair and asked me to sit in it. I had been walking unaided for several days. “Why should I be put in a wheel chair?” I thought.
Without a word to Mother, I was wheeled away, up the elevator, and into a surgery room. They lifted me onto an operating table and began to wrap gauze on my left leg, then spread it with plaster of Paris, more gauze, and plaster until my leg was encased in a heavy cast. The purpose was to hold my heel tendon in place so it wouldn’t tighten during my first weeks of walking again. I was told that it should be on my leg for three weeks, when I could return to the hospital to have it removed.
A nurse returned me to Mother in the wheel chairs, my leg encumbered with the awkward cast. I had anticipated waling in the train station, into our home for Thanksgiving and back to school. I was wheeled to the taxi and through the Union Station to our train. I hobbled about with the cast during three weeks of school. Finally, there was another train trip to Kansas City to get the cast removed before Christmas.
Mother continued to massage my legs daily for many months. Dr. Major’s instructions for other therapy were for me to do much swimming and skating.
My whole left side is smaller than the right side and the left tendon restricts the action of my left foot. Restricted ankle action had caused many falls for me throughout the years. I’m grateful for a good recovery. Much credit is due Mother for her faithful massaging and Dr.. Riley for promptly sending me to the hospital and getting the top doctor for my case. Dr. Major did not accept credit for my recovery. His comment was: “Higher powers than ours have had a hand in your recovery.”
Thanks to the Salk vaccine, polio cases are rare today in the United States.