Friday, June 6, 2008

Sixty Years Later

Has it really been sixty years? Wow, as they say, time flies when you’re having fun. However, June, 1948 was not much fun for six families in Elnora. It was the time of a near polio epidemic in our small town and changed my life forever.

The following quotes are from a clipping my parents saved from one of the Washington, Indiana newspapers:

“Washington, Ind., June 23 (Spl.) A second case of poliomyelitis from the town of Elnora, in northern Daviess County, was in an Indianapolis hospital today. Wayne Edmondson, 16 year old son of Mr. and Mrs. Hollis Edmondson, was taken to Robert Long Hospital yesterday. His physician in Elnora, J. R. Rohrer, said the polio symptoms were all positive, including an arm paralysis. However, the hospital had not confirmed the case as of this afternoon.

Last week, 4-year-old James Emerson Johnson, Elnora, was admitted to Riley Hospital with severe paralysis and the hospital confirmed the case was polio. Four other cases were reported in Elnora. These cases were described by the doctor as the abortive type, where symptoms are present, but there is no paralysis. Citizens of Elnora were reported today to be considering closing public meetings. The Daviess County Board of Health said no other cases had been reported in the county as yet.”

I’ll never forget the day I went to Riley Hospital for Children. It was just three months before my 4th birthday, and most people don’t usually remember much from such an early age. However, that June day in 1948 is imprinted in my memory forever.

My symptoms began with a headache the previous morning while I was playing in my grandparents’ front yard. My body temperature became elevated to the point that my grandmother called my mother home from the restaurant. Dr. Rohrer said he suspected polio immediately, and by the next day, he was certain.

I was taken to Riley Hospital by ambulance. Dr. Rohrer rode with me, and my parents followed in their car. Sherman Anderson, who later owned the Anderson-Poindexter funeral home in Sandborn, told me at my mother’s funeral in 1974 that he was the young ambulance driver who took me to Riley that unforgettable day. It was a hot, steamy ride and the ambulance was not air-conditioned. I had a high fever and cried nearly the entire trip.

Upon arrival at the hospital, I was immediately placed into the isolation ward and my parents could only look at me through the glass windows. For two weeks, my brain nearly fried while my temperature hovered near 105°. When I developed respiratory problems, I was placed into a 7 foot long, 750 pound iron lung to help me breathe. Luckily, I only had to be in one of the monstrous devices for a few days. After much care, treatment, and therapy by the wonderful doctors and nurses at Riley Hospital, nine months and two days later in March, 1949, I walked out of the hospital. Both legs were paralyzed and I was left with a weakened left shoulder, but with the aid of leg braces and crutches I was on my feet and ready to face the world. Other polio victims weren’t as lucky.

Most people today have never seen an iron lung. Two years ago my wife and I were at the Indiana State Museum in Indianapolis and as we rounded the corner leading to a new exhibit, I froze in my tracks. I was face-to-face with a big, imposing, ancient iron lung. Memories flooded back and I got cold chills, started shaking and breathing heavily, with tears coming to my eyes. It reminded me of a time I never want to remember but can’t forget.

Just a few weeks ago in May, 2008, 61-year-old Dianne Odell of Tennessee died during a power outage when the electricity that operated her iron lung failed as did the back-up generator. She had been in the device for 58 years, and was thought to be the oldest living polio survivor still confined to one. Only about 30 iron lungs are still in use in the United States today.

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