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We were in the loop anyway through my in-laws, but my daughter received a notice on that Tuesday morning: because she stayed to talk to that teacher, she was considered “exposed” and had to quarantine for 14 days, just in case she got sick too. On Thursday, Daughter 2’s best friend, with whom she had spent most of Labor Day weekend, left school early – she had lost sense of taste and smell. On Friday of that week, due to these and other cases, the school announced that it would close for 2 weeks. Just due to mandatory rules regarding exposure, 1/3 of the staff (to say nothing of a significant number of students) had been ordered to stay home and quarantine. On Sunday, Daughter two said she thought she was having an asthma attack that she couldn’t kick (she has moderate asthma). On Monday it was worse and my wife took her to be tested. We did not get the test results for nearly 24 hours, but when they came they were positive. From that moment on, our entire household was considered exposed and ordered to quarantine.
Suddenly we all had a lot of time on our hands. I reorganized the piles of books on my nightstand (I should stop buying books for years to come, until I’m caught up with just these stacks, to say nothing of the yards of books in our library still awaiting a good spine-bending). I unearthed a book that had languished for 6 years, to judge by the copyright. I really owed it a reading, it wasn’t even my copy but my mother’s. To add guilt to the delay, the book is by my great-aunt, the sole surviving of my maternal grandfather’s 6 brothers and sisters. The book is about her bout with polio during the 1951 wave.
In 1951, Thelma was 22, barely married two years, and had a one year old son. She and her little family had recently moved back in with her husband’s parents after a year in seminary. Her own parents lived nearby, and both families were farmers. Living back home on the farm let them try to work to save up enough money to go back to seminary, if not that autumn then perhaps in another year. Sunday, July 29, 1951, was set to be the first day that Dale was to give the sermon in the church they had grown up in, and were married in. Unfortunately, their son was a bit restless.
[Keith’s] interest began to wane when his father began to speak and, before the message was over, Keith and I were outside walking among the trees which surrounded the church and small, unused one-roomed brick school which stood next to it… It was surely going to be another warm day. It was almost as warm outside as it had been in the church. I felt my forehead with my free hand. I wondered if I was becoming ill. The heat seemed to make my head pound and my whole body ache.
Thelma did not yet know it, and would not know for several days, but she was in the early stages of polio. In those early stages it mimicked the flu – aches and pains with a moderate to high fever. Only after the passing of days, as Thelma’s condition deteriorated and she lost the ability to swallow was she transported to a hospital. By this time she had a fever of 105F. The local hospital soon suspected, and confirmed by spinal tap, that Thelma did indeed have polio – something they were not equipped to treat.
In 1951, many medical professionals still had incomplete knowledge of what actually caused polio. Thelma recounted how the nurses who attended her were uncertain themselves whether it was bacterial or viral. How it was transmitted too was uncertain – we now know it is transmitted in much the same way as COVID, or the flu, or common colds – it passes through respiration.
These things were incompletely known in 1951. Some cities did have panics, closing public venues (with swimming pools often apparently being thought dangerous vectors). There was no expectation of any sort of concerted national response, however, and perhaps this was because the media was far less ubiquitous then, and still thought understood itself as having a duty to report, not advocate. But also because, what expectation could there be? People simply did not know enough about polio.
As time went along not only was my throat paralyzed but the muscles in my face were also being affected. I could not smile. My tongue seemed thick and unable to move as I wanted it to… For days I was very thirsty. If only I could swallow. I spent a lot of time remembering how good a glass of lemonade tasted. I often mentally recited koolaid flavors, thinking of each of them individually and trying to remember just how good they tasted.
Thelma had a particularly bad case and was in near constant pain, with a fever that occasionally brought on moments of delirium. She had also lost the ability to sit up in bed, and was kept prone on her back. My grandfather (one of her older brothers), who was married and living in the city where she was hospitalized, was one of her regular visitors. On his first visit he brought a gift.
I’ve brought you a radio. They tell me I am allowed to give it to you but you will not be able to take it with you when you leave. It will have to be destroyed along with the other things you have here. But don’t worry about it. We think you need the company.
Polio was a terror. Thelma was kept in the hospital’s infectious diseases ward, in a room by herself. It’s odd today to see that what we know to be a contagious airborne virus being treated somewhat laxly by today’s standards. I do not know how many nurses in 1951 contracted polio (though I am sure that data is available). While they allowed visitors, and even allowed Dale to ride in the ambulance that carried her to the hospital, nonetheless would incinerate her radio and other belongings when she would eventually be discharged.
COVID patients are hospitalized alone. That same night when Daughter 2 first started feeling symptoms coming on, Pastor Mike was admitted to the hospital. His condition had deteriorated over the past several days, and he was struggling to breathe. Pastor Mike is not yet 50, but he has had already fought a bout with Leukemia, and it is only considered to be in remission. He has other health issues besides.
Perhaps Pastor Mike was just one of the really unlucky ones whom COVID hits especially hard. We still do not really know why some people are hit hard, while others have mild cases, and still others test positive even with no symptoms, or despite exposure never even test positive at all. Perhaps diet has something to do with it? Doubtless genetics play a large, if still indeterminate role. I’ve read where people who take Vitamin D supplements seem more immune to even contracting it, and have milder cases even if they contract it anyway. People on statins tend to have better outcomes too. We can guess why, but we cannot say with certainty… yet.
My daughter’s friend felt like hell for a few days, and when she thought she was on the rebound tried to take their puppies for a walk – it so sapped her that she slept for hours afterward. My daughter’s first few days were likewise uneventful. She had been given a steroid to help with her breathing – one above and beyond the usual asthmas meds – and she was taking it easy around the house while trying to keep up with the homework assigned for the 2 weeks closure.
We found out that the school had a total of 23 confirmed cases – enough to make the news as this was about 8% of everyone there. We knew several directly, and we talked about their experiences too. Several of the kids gave it to their parents as well. We changed little in our household routines – no distancing, masking, or isolation. This made the local Health Department upset – yes, they were directly in touch with us, nagging us to keep isolating, doing daily symptom checks on our daughter, and always asking for a temperature reading. “She’s not got a fever. She’s normal. Is this common?” The health department flak admitted, in a rare moment of candor, that fevers are not a reliable symptom for COVID, and not a particularly useful proxy.
Thelma’s paralysis worsened in the days that followed. Polio causes an inflammation in the fluids surrounding the spinal column, and this inflammation can damage or destroy the nerves controlling feeling and motor movement in the nerves that branch out from there. Excessive movement of patients in the early stages, which is unfortunately prior to when one usually suspects polio, can cause additional permanent damage (this is what happened to Franklin Roosevelt). Polio’s effects can be quite random. Thelma was losing movement and feeling in her left leg. She had other growing worries too.
One of my first questions to greet nearly every visitor was, “How is Keith?” I listened anxiously to every bit of information they had. When they could tell me what he was doing, or something clever that he had tried to say, I had mixed emotions. I was glad that he seemed well and happy, but I felt very lonesome. I missed him so much!…
One evening when Dale was visiting I asked the usual questions about Keith, but I received little response. “Is he all right?” I asked. I was assured that he was getting along all right. “What has he been doing?”
“Not much. Just the usual things.”
“Has he added anything new to his vocabulary?”
“Not today. Say, do you know, a lot of people have called to ask how you are?”
“Why is he changing the subject?” I wondered…
During the night I awakened suddenly. “What was that?” My impusle was to jump out of bed, forgetting that I was not able to do so. From the nursery down the hall, I heard the crying of a small child. It sounded so much like Keith’s cry that I had nearly tried to get out of bed to take care of him, forgettting that this would be impossible to do. When the nurse came to check my IV I tried to tell her that the babe that was crying sounded just like my little boy. She did not seem to be able to undnerstand what I was saying. With my facial paralysis, talking was sometimes very difficult…
In the morning the nurses took away Thelma’s radio. Despite her requests for it, she did not get it back for 2 days. She was given no explanation for why it had been taken in the first place, and continued to hear the cries of a child that sounded very much like her son. While she did continue to receive visitors, Dale was not among them. But her fever was coming down, and in a few days her doctor let her try a few ice chips. When her fever was well and truly broken, Thelma was discharged to a long term physical therapy care and recovery center. She had been hospitalized for three weeks.
My daughter hit her lowest point a week in. On a Sunday evening, now a full 2 weeks out from Labor Day, she said her chest felt even worse. She had seemed on the rebound the day before, laughing it up with her sisters while they played through a Kirby game on the Wii (if you are ever feeling down, a run through almost any Kirby game is bound to give you cheer), but in looking back she thought she had overdone it. “My chest really hurts.” I asked if she had trouble breathing – she had none, but it hurt to breathe nonetheless. The nearest emergency room is about seven minutes from our house, and as my wife had the cooler head that evening she was the one who went. I fidgeted and prayed, and had the other girls pray too – they had been unaware their mom and big sis had gone.
We did not find out until the next morning, but that evening Pastor Mike, as his condition had continued to worsen (something he had not been candid with his wife about in the days beforehand) had to be sedated and intubated. We had all had a joint half-hour of prayer for him on Friday, for he was really in bad shape. I was terrified this was in store for my daughter. The ER doctors were at least concerned, but not fearful. Her EKG was normal. As a precaution they took x-rays of her lungs while I called our eldest (away at school) so we could keep each other company while we waited. Our news was good – my daughter had overdone it a bit, and was given another steroid and ordered to rest. She would sleep away most of the next day, a Monday, the start of our second week of quarantine (well, really the 3rd for Daughter 3).
Thelma had been at the therapy facility for several days before she could receive visitors. Many of the other patients were polio victims like herself, but others had suffered accidents, burns, or other maladies. The doctor warned her that she would require leg braces if she were to walk again, and possibly a back brace too. She had partially lost the use of muscles not only in her face and neck but in both legs (albeit in different places in each leg) both feet, and one arm.
I wished someone were here to help me accept the analysis the doctor had given. I spent the afternoon trying to sort out my feelings. Why was this happening to me? Surely God had not caused it. My next question was, “Why had he allowed it to happen?” Surely, an all powerful God could have prevented it if He had chosen to. Was there some purpose for it? Would He help me to overcome it? Would He heal my body? Perhaps I would have a miraculous healing and then people everywhere would know that I was a witness to God’s great power. I had heard of miraculous healings, but the people who witnessed to this always seemed to have an abundance of faith. Was I that dedicated and trusting? Could I have that kind of faith? Then too I recalled instances where people made great claims of being healed, when time showed a different story… To me, it had always seemed that god usually worked through ordained channels. he uses modern doctors and medicines although much certainly depends on the patient’s state of mind, his determination, and yes, I had to admit, his faith in God. I thought of faith as a tool that helps one deal with the unknown, a sort of light for dark places. That day I asked God for the courage, and faith and strength to face the future -whatever it was.
Progress would be slow. When the day came at last for Thelma to receive visitors, she had a surprise.
When the time came I listened to the footsteps. During the time I had been in the hospital I had come to the place where I could recognize the footsteps of many of the people who visited me… I knew Dale would not be coming, for he would probably be working. I finally recognized the short steps of my mother-in-law. When she rounded the corner I could see that my sister-in-law was with her. And in her arms was Keith. Oh. Keith, I was so happy to see him! It had been many long painful days… But why was he here in this building?… They don’t allow children in here unless – Somehow something did not seem right.
The infant cries she heard in the hospital were indeed Keith’s – a mother knows her own. This was why the nurse had taken the radio – polio victims’ names were read out by all radio stations. Thankfully Keith’s injuries were less – chiefly confined to one leg. As a robust one year old boy, his prognosis was excellent. In a few days time, Thelma would find out, however, that her husband Dale was even then hospitalized with polio too. He, like Thelma, would have a very bad case of it.
The Monday morning after the ER visit, while Daughter 2 slept in at home, the rest of us waited in my car, in the drive-up window at a local CVS. We had a 10 AM appointment for COVID tests. There were two other people in line ahead of us, and one of them seemed to be having a lot of difficulty picking up their prescriptions. We finally got to the window at 10:15. It took them another 15 minutes to get our test kits prepped, and out they came through the tray. Once briefed, we all jammed cotton swabs deep up our nostrils and twirled them about. Then repeated with the other nostril and tried not to sneeze (I failed and sneezed violently, as did Daughter 3). We finally shoved our swabs into the test vials (snot-end down), bagged them up, and put them into a special test kit box, which I then had to wipe down with a provided sanitary wipe.
“Can we stop at McDonald’s? Get some breakfast? Don’t know about you but I could use a strong coffee right now.” The kids affirmed my wife’s suggestion.
“Umm… First, that McDonald’s doesn’t know the meaning of ‘fast’ in fast food, and I’m tired of lines already. I know this is our first field trip, but I’m not eager for that. Secondly, with us being quarantined, and them having an incompetently slow line, wouldn’t that be a violation?” We headed home.
A day later we got our results: all negative. Nobody in our household but Daughter 2 had COVID.
Polio was usually like that too. Thelma’s family received extra notice in the news because all three of them contracted polio – in the vast majority of cases, only one person in a household would be struck with it. And yet, most people who did have polio never even knew they had it. They thought they had the flu, or a cold. Why were some people horribly struck, but others untouched? I’m not sure the science of 1951 could have found out. The science of today still cannot say why some people contract COVID even after a mild exposure, while others are exposed as exposed can be and never get so much as a sniffle. There is a lot we do not know about immunity still.
Thelma’s progressed well through her therapy. In time she regained enough muscle strength and control that she could begin to sit up in bed, then moreso, then progress from liquids to baby food. Dale had meanwhile pulled through and been transferred to the recovery home too. He had suffered loss in his legs abdomen and back, and would require a great deal of therapy too. Thelma eventually began re-learning how to stand and walk.
Even though I was discouraged with my first attempt to put weight on my legs and feet it continued to be part of my daily therapy. Very gradually I began to feel I was gaining some strength in my legs.
One day Dr. Gosman said to me, “Your neck seems to be improved to the place where you may not need the neck brace. I will call the brace maker and cancel that order. He has had so many orders this year and I don’t suppose he has gotten to you yet.”
As it turned out, Thelma would not need the leg braces either. Though she would require surgery in both feet. Dale too would walk again, though never without at least one support, and he could only walk while totally stooped over. But this too would come after several surgeries. Thelma had a roommate at the recovery center – another young woman like herself. This other young woman completely lost the use of her right arm to polio, and she never regained that at all.
On Friday the 25th, Daughter 2 was officially declared “recovered” by the Health Department. This past Monday her school reopened after its two-week closure, but with a loss to grieve. Pastor Mike died late last Friday evening. Once he had been intubated it was a race against time – the medication to sedate and restrain him was destroying his kidneys, the intubation was keeping him alive while damaging his lungs, but even when they thought he might be able to try breathing on his own, they couldn’t pull him off instantly – patients in that deep take days to awaken before you can begin to see whether they can breathe on their own again. Late on the 25th, Pastor Mike’s lungs collapsed, and he passed away.
For us, the 25th has a 3rd significance: according to the Health Department, that’s when our quarantine started. You see, if you are exposed to COVID by their definition (which is all about proximity, time, and so forth), you are supposed to quarantine for 14 days after exposure (which is what Daughter 3 started on weeks ago now). By CDC guidelines, Daughter 2 was 100% contagious, and us 100% vulnerable to COVID, right up until the very minute they determined she was “recovered”. They made this determination when they finally called for the daily symptom check that Friday, at 6:00 pm. We were considered “exposed” right up until 5:59.
None of us has shown any symptoms. We tested negative (granted a week and a half ago now). Based on who we guess to have been the infection vectors at school, as well as many other cases I’ve looked into, the 14-day incubation window appears to be complete and utter tripe. Yet we are housebound for one week to go, even though Daughter 2 is cleared to rejoin society (and has been at school every day this week, and then dance practices afterward). My wife’s 94-year-old grandmother has been in town this entire time, and we haven’t been able to see her except through our front door. It’s all such nonsense.
Oh, and masks? 23 people contracted COVID while wearing masks, and they got it from people who were wearing masks. Let’s can it with the mask business.
We’ve ruined our economy, we’ve ruined lives and businesses and health for millions, and we will never have a full reckoning for any of it. And all for a disease where we still have no idea why some people get it, and some don’t. But life goes on. Indeed, life must go on. Constant living in a paralysis of fear and anger won’t bring back one COVID victim. Keeping the churches closed likely won’t stop very many new cases either – COVID it seems strikes whom it will strike, and we do not know how or why. Others before us have endured worse, and with less drama.
Dale did eventually find his calling to ministry – though with his greatly reduced physical strength he could not stay on his post. After nine years he found a new career in social work. Thelma eventually became a teacher, earning her master’s in English along the way, and teaching in some of the best and worst of big-city public schools. Life moved on for them. With faith in God they never let themselves wallow – Thelma’s memoirs relate how this was a constant temptation, but always God directed her to keep looking forward instead. And so she did, and still does. With God’s help, we should do likewise.
So, here it is, many years later. While there were many things Dale and I were not able to do because of our handicaps, we were able to live indpendently. We enjoyed the children and grandchildren. Now I look forward to watching our new great grandchild. I am continuing as many activities as I can comfortably do. Life is good.
I look back, so many years ago, to the “Valley of Tears.” I still think of the questions I asked in the times when I struggled. After all of these years, my conclusion is the same. We may not understand why things happen as they do, but we have the assurance that God is with us. He loves us and cares for us. If we are His child, we do not go through our valleys alone.
NB: I’d love to tell you how to obtain a copy of my aunt’s memoirs, they are well worth reading (and I wish she’d written much more), but she had them privately published for family and friends.Published in