THE LAST LIVING POLIO PATIENT
(This is a work in process. Any suggestions regarding
content and readability are appreciated. If you
missed the earlier segments or need a review,
go to LAGNIAPPE. This resumes just after my first surgery.)
SURGERY WAS LIKE A “RED BADGE OF COURAGE”
Recovery from the initial trauma of the surgery came sooner than I initially thought it would. The day after I was returned to the ward from the recovery room I was allowed to have a few sips of clear soup. In a few days most of the pain had subsided.
I was making friends with the long-legged casts that enveloped both legs from my toes almost to my hips. Little by little I was gaining mobility. By that I mean I could move from one end of the bed to the other, could use the bed pan and urinal on my own, could roll over, could get things I needed from the “stand” next to my bed where a wash basin, wash cloth, utensils for brushing teeth, tin cup, and other personal items were kept. In short, I was becoming acclimated to my new physical limitations.
The experience of having gone “UP,” as having surgery was called, had finally made me feel like I was “one of them,” like I had made a significant next step toward “getting well,” as had all the other boys on the ward. It was referred to as going “UP,” because we had to ride the elevator to the second floor to get to the operating room. Relatively speaking, it was my “red badge of courage.” So I was elated when an orderly and a nurse came to my bed to move me from the ward to the adjacent sun room. It was like a promotion!
This happened on a Saturday. Someone had sent balloons to all the patients and we were having a great time. I was on the “Little Boys Ward,” because I was only six years old. I did not know how old you had to be to go the “Big Boys Ward.” There were usually twelve of us in each ward, another four or five in the sun room, and another six on the porch, which was utopia.
It was not a large space, just room for four beds, one in each corner. When the hospital was crowded, another bed would sometimes be placed in the aisle that was formed at the foot of the four beds. Besides the coziness of the area and the fact that you could really get to know the other three patients, the great attraction to the sun room was its many windows. It was a gorgeous fall day when they moved me there and the sun was literally bursting through the windows.
Back to the balloons: Almost immediately we began batting the balloons back and forth to each other. Before long, all four of them were on the floor, under my bed, in fact. To show what a “master” I had become in reaching from my bed to the floor, a maneuver that was frowned upon, actually forbidden, by the nurses, I volunteered to retrieve the balloons. I knew we did not want to delay our game by having to wait for a nurse to have the time to come get them for us.
So, I carefully braced myself by placing my hand on the wall adjacent to my bed and moving it slightly so I could reach down to the floor to retrieve the balloons. What I did not know was that the nurse and orderly who had moved me to the sun room had failed to lock the brakes on the wheels to my bed. Before I knew it the bed had rolled quickly from under me. I was on the floor, long-legged casts and all! There were both gasps and laughter from the other three boys in the room---I am sure it was a funny sight. I urged them not to call a nurse and tried to lift myself back into the bed. That effort was futile. I had been physically inactive too long and was still weak from the surgery. I had to acquiesce, and asked my compatriots to literally call a nurse. There were no buzzers or bells to be used for summoning.
Almost right away one of the nurses came and called for Benny, one of the orderlies, and together they lifted me back into the bed. It seemed I had slightly damaged the heel of the cast on my left leg, the one that was not paralyzed. They did not make a big deal of it and there was no scolding. Whew! I was glad about that. I was afraid they would tell the ward supervisor, Mrs. Rasmussen, and I would be in big trouble. She did not seem to have a sense of humor. I simply laid still and quiet for a while. I was glad it was over.
HAD I HURT MYSELF?
But it wasn’t over! A few hours later just before dinner was to be served, the Chief Surgeon, Dr. Durham, and his assistant, Dr. Caldwell, along with the Ward Supervisor, Mrs. Rasmussen and the Head Nurse, Mrs. Mills, were making the “rounds.” That means they were examining, consulting, and comforting all the boys who were to have surgery the next morning.
When they stopped at my bed, with grim looks on their faces and holding what I thought was my chart, my heart skipped a beat. You have to understand, Dr. Durham was right up there with God as far as we were concerned. When he came around with his “entourage” he truly seemed like the Ultimate Authority---at least to a six-year-old. Mrs. Rasmussen told me to lie down on my back. Dr. Durham leaned over me with his stethoscope (I did not know what that was back then) and checked my heart rate. I was sure it had stopped beating altogether. Then he asked me how I was feeling.
I croaked, “Fine.” He ran his hand along the cast on each leg, feeling the smashed place on the heel of the cast on the left leg, looked up and nodded to Dr. Caldwell. Dr. Durham stood up and the four of them huddled. They had only been with me a few minutes, but the seeming gravity of the situation made it seem like a much longer time to me.
Then, of all things, they all laughed. Mrs. Mills said, “Johnny, you are going to be all right.” I had never been called “Johnny” before. From that time on, over an eight year period, Mrs. Mills always called me “Johnny.” She made it sound very lovable, like I was a favorite of hers. No one else has ever called me Johnny.
Dr. Durham had a big grin on his bronzed face. He always looked like he had just come in out of bright sunshine. His tan was all the more pronounced because of his thick shock of grey hair. He quietly explained to me that there had been no surgery done on my left leg or foot. The cast was simply there to keep me from hopping around in the bed too much and the smashed heel on the cast was nothing to worry about. Then he patted me on the chest and that unique band of angels moved on.
Wait! There is an anti-climax to this story. After dinner that same day, I was simply lying on my back in my bed still trying to calm myself from the events of that afternoon. I saw the expressions on the faces of a couple of the other boys in the sun room change, becoming grim. They had a view of the adjacent ward and saw one of the nurses walking toward them carrying a small tray.
She entered the sun room and turned toward me. We all knew that tray---and what was on it. Castoria! It was the foul-tasting laxative given to us when we were to go “Up” to surgery the next day. It was worse than the enema that would come later that evening. The nurse stopped by my bedside. She was preparing to hand me one of the doses of castoria!
With what little voice I had left and with all of the urgency I could muster, I muttered, “I’m not supposed to go Up tomorrow.”
She said, “Oh, that’s right, this is for someone else,” broke into a big grin, and moved on. It was like the entire staff was in on the joke! Fortunately, the playfulness of all this is what has lingered with me through the years. I am sure it was an early contribution to what I later learned as an adult about the part playfulness can have in lowering anxiety.
A CRACK IN THE DOOR TO THE FUTURE
Let me jump forward ten years to a beautiful March, Sunday afternoon in 1946. By then Dr. Durham would have performed thirteen surgeries on me relative to my poliomyelitis. From the first moment I met him I was captivated by the natural, graceful presence of the man. This is the person who was going to make me well!
That he had such a distinguished and far reaching reputation as an orthopedic surgeon was really unknown to us as children at Shriner’s Hospital. We could just sense that he was a “miracle man.” He was the one who was going to make us all “well.” That was the hope we all shared. Though he was only fifty-two when I first met him in 1936, his hair was already completely gray. It was the first thing one noticed about him, his “calling card.”
Dr. Durham was not from the south. He talked “different” from most people I knew. That made him all the more mysterious to me and, actually, increased my confidence in him. Much later I was to learn he was from Vermont. He grew up on a farm near North Hero, Grand Isle County, Vermont. Dr. Durham received both his bachelors and medical degrees from the University of Vermont, did his residency in the New York Orthopedic Hospital, earned a traveling fellowship abroad, where he studied and practiced in England, Austria, and Germany. Prior to the outbreak of World War I he returned as a staff member at New York Orthopedic.
When the United States first entered World War I in 1917, Dr. Durham was at once commissioned in the army and went to England with the first contingent of orthopedic surgeons. He was thirty-three years old. A lot happened to him there in a brief, intensive period of time. He attained the rank of Major before being discharged in 1918. Also, he met a Canadian named Beatrice Anderson, while both were serving in England during the war. They were married, April 28, 1918, at Boscombe, England. The war ended seven months later on November 11, 1918. They were to have two children, a son and a daughter.
At the end of the war they returned to the United States, where Dr. Durham continued at New York Orthopedic Hospital, this time as attending surgeon. In 1923 he accepted the position as Chief Surgeon at Shriner’s Hospital in Shreveport, Louisiana. Besides his family, Dr. Durham brought with him his interests as an avid horseman and golfer.
Widely recognized as a skillful surgeon, Dr. Durham also invented an apparatus for leg lengthening. Many of his polio patients had one leg substantially longer than the other, due to the paralysis. He successfully set about trying to remedy that situation. The surgery itself was very involved and the process took a number of months. He also developed an operation for correction of internal rotation of the hip in spastic paralysis, as well as a technique for transplantation of the biceps femoris.
None of us were aware of all this as children and as patients; nor were our parents, in most cases, I am sure. We all just trusted the unsurpassed reputation that the nationwide network of Shriner’s Hospitals had in the treatment of polio in children.
Now back to that particular “beautiful March, Sunday afternoon in 1946.” I was in a car with a classmate of mine, Alan Edgecombe. We were making a delivery to Alan’s Uncle, then we were going to the Methodist Youth Fellowship at Algiers Methodist Church on the West Bank of New Orleans. Alan and I were faithful members of that group and were eager to get there. Later I will tell you more about my own particular eagerness that day.
All of that quickly changed! A fast-moving car suddenly ran a stop sign at an intersection as we approached. Before Alan could stop, we crashed into the zooming car broadside! Neither of us had ever been in a wreck like that before. I was sitting in the front passenger seat. This was years before seat belts. Though we were not speeding, the crash jolted me forward and my fused, stiff right leg was driven violently against the area under the dashboard. Immediately, it began to painfully bend and I knew it was broken. Alan was unharmed in the collision, but quite shaken because of what was happening to me. It had only been three years since Dr. Durham had surgically fused the knee so I could walk without a brace or crutches. It had only been two years since I had been discharged for the last time from Shriner’s Hospital. I feared the worst: that I had permanently damaged my knee.
Instinctively, despite the pain, I grabbed my slowly bending leg, straightened it, and supported it on the seat. For now, suffice it to say that I had luckily laid it in perfect line---no surgery was needed to set it, and no damage was done to my fused knee. As it turned out, the fusion was the strongest part of my leg. It was the fibula that had been broken.
The reason I was particularly eager to get to the youth meeting at the church that day was I had invited Audrey Sutton to visit the youth group that night. I am sure Audrey did not know it, but I had a very serious “crush” on her. She was regularly dating someone else and this was my first chance to really get her on my own turf, so to speak. When I did not show up at the youth meeting she found out what had happened and somehow got my parents’ telephone number, called them, and asked if she could go to the hospital with them. She must have been persuasive, as they did not know Audrey, and they willingly agreed. My broken leg was beginning to look like a good break for me! Indeed it was, as Audrey visited me throughout my convalescence, and that was the beginning of serious, yet off-and-on relationship that later led to my first marriage.
Four days later, when my parents came to take me home from Charity Hospital I learned something that was more painful than the broken leg. My parents had been informed that Dr. Durham had died the day before, shortly before 5 p.m. He had just returned to the riding club stables from a horseback ride, when he was stricken, apparently with a heart attack. He was 62. My Dad was 62, also, when he died twenty-five years later; a coincidence that has made my bonding with both of them grow deeper through the years.
CAN I GO HOME NOW?
Back now to 1936 and the Sun Room. Who knows what thoughts go through the minds of children relegated to a bed in a hospital far from home. I know that during the afternoon rest hour and the seemingly long nights, when silence was my only companion, my thoughts were mostly about going home. I yearned to be the star of the Yankees again, bouncing my tennis ball off the front steps of our modest home in Mobile, or building an imaginary, miniature city with neighborhood playmates in the dirt under one of the raised houses on Flint Street.
None of those longings helped time pass faster, but finally the day did come when it was time for my two long-legged casts to be removed. That was known as Clinic Day. It was a bit of an ordeal as the casts had to be cut off with angry-looking metal clippers or shears. There would be a pause after every three or four cuts to unclog the shears. It could be quite painful when the shears passed alongside the knee or ankle.
Benny, the multi-talented orderly, was trained to do this, too. He tried to be very careful, but it was really painful when he got down to my right ankle, where the surgery had taken place and the ankle bone was quite vulnerable. Benny paused there to let me catch my breath and wipe my tears. My only consolation at the moment was, maybe now I would soon get to go home since the casts were coming off.
Then there was the inner protective cotton to be removed. Much of it adhered to my legs and Benny used alcohol to kind of “wash” it off. It was an eerie feeling after weeks of being wrapped in plaster of paris. It felt very good when Benny was ready to whisk me down the hall on the stretcher back to the safety of my bed.
Can I go home now?
HARD TO GET USED TO
Some things I found very hard to get used to, like urinals and bed pans. Even though I was introduced to them on my first full day at Shriner’s Hospital, they never became my friends. Both were on what I suppose was a carefully calibrated schedule. Every one of us had a urinal and a bed pan on the bottom shelf of what was called our “Stand,” which was something like a dresser, except it was metal, with a flat, shiny metal top on which our mealtime trays were placed. It had three shelves. On the top shelf was a wash basin, a tin cup, a tray to use when brushing our teeth, tooth paste, tooth brush, a towel, and a wash cloth. Along with our change of clothes, overalls for daytime, gowns for night, we could keep a few personal items on the second shelf.
We were usually awakened at about 4 or 5 a.m. to wash our face, brush our teeth, and use the urinal. All this was done very quickly and efficiently, and we could go back to sleep afterwards. I often found that hard to do. This was to make us ready for breakfast when the morning shift of nurses reported at 7 a.m.
Like half-awake robots we learned to awaken at this weird hour, pull out the urinal, use it, and sit it carefully at the foot of our bed. Then out came the wash basin, wash cloth, towel, and everything we needed to brush our teeth. Like an angel flitting about, her feet never touching the ground, the Night Nurse would give us adequate water in the basin and in the cup. In our half-awake state this seemed to happen magically.
Now the bed pans were a different proposition altogether. We got them out immediately after breakfast. Their “carefully calibrated schedule” and mine did not often match. Like the tick-tock, tick-tock of a clock, some of the boys would receive their bed pan, hop on, and plop---they were finished. Not me.
If you did not produce on schedule, you got another chance after supper, a real embarrassment. Everybody else is doing some fun stuff and there you are sitting on a bed pan! If you were a “failure” three days in a row, you got a dose of the dreaded Castoria. Such were the dreaded metrics of another day.
I have not even bothered to mention G-ties. I still can’t believe THAT happened to me. Part of my idolization of my Dad was wearing boxer shorts, just like he did. Not at Shriner’s Hospital. At Shriner’s Hospital boys wore G-ties from the first hour on, until you went home. What a come-down. Actually, they are indescribable. You cannot even google G-ties! They were made of cotton, consisting of a cloth about 4 or 5 inches wide that fit from just below your waste in the front to a corresponding place in the back. It was tied in a bow to your waist on each side with a ribbon-like cloth about a quarter inch wide. It was kind of like a thong, only not really. See, I told you they were indescribable. My only consolation was the G-tie reminded me of what Native American Indians wore in the Wild West movies I had seen.
Giving up my own clothes when I was admitted was more emotional than I had anticipated. I didn’t cry or anything, but I was close. First, I was in a gown that tied at the back of the neck. That, and a G-tie. That was it. The first three days were in isolation, to make sure you did not have anything contagious.
Then you got to wear coveralls. They were pin-stripes, but not at all like what the New York Yankees wore. These were alternating blue and white stripes, buttoned up the front, long sleeves. I remember the only time my mother saw me in them, she started crying and had to leave the room. And, at that point, I thought I was all-dressed-up, hair combed, and teeth brushed.
Was I going to have to dress like this the rest of my life? I always wondered where my own clothes went. Were they holding them for me until I went home? Had they given them to my parents?
MORE QUESTIONS THAN ANSWERS
To be sure, those were not the only questions on my mind. If you can read between the lines at all though, surely you have sensed that those hospital days were a time of frequent loneliness. Sometimes it was very difficult to go to sleep at night; sometimes I wept away much of the evening. That was especially true in those early morning hours when we were awakened to use the urinal, wash our faces, and brush our teeth. I often found it difficult to go back to sleep.
It takes a while for a child to learn the difference between loneliness and solitude. I am sure that all of us were more acquainted with loneliness and the questions it brought with it. Could they really make me well? When can I go home? Can my Mom and Dad come to see me? Did anything come for me in the mail today?
That last questions was a constant with me. Mail Call was very special. My mother was very good about writing me and sending me Big Little books, which were very popular and easy for kids to look at and even more-or-less read. The hospital routine itself kept our days full, but for me the Big Little books were a treasure. They helped fill all those empty spaces not consumed in hospital busyness. The subject matter of Big Little books could range from pre-historic times in “Ally Oop” to space exploration in “Buck Rogers.” And that was in the mid-1930s.
The anticipation itself was thrilling. I couldn’t wait to get the next episode of “Dick Tracy,” or “Tarzan,” or “The Lone Ranger,” or “Little Orphan Annie,” or “Tailspin Tommy.” There were even some Big Little books in which you could flip the pages real fast and it was like watching a movie. Their thickness is what made them BIG and their dimensions is what made them LITTLE. They had a hard cover and were 3.5 inches by 4.5 inches in size. Today they are collector’s items.
Mail Call was very special when I received a letter or post card from my Dad. Mother wrote more often than he did, but sometimes her handwriting was difficult to decipher. My Dad’s was always precise, neat, and easy for the nurses to read to me. Just holding mail from either of them was assuring.
Not long after my casts had been removed two questions kept cropping-up for me: Would I get to home soon? Or, would I be going to surgery again soon?
I had already been in the hospital two months when the answer came. I was surprised when Benny came to my bedside one Clinic Day to take me for an examination and meeting with Dr. Durham. He explained to me as simply as possible that they had discovered that I had a live muscle in my left foot that they thought was strong enough to be used in my right leg to enable me to walk without a brace. They would transplant that muscle from my left foot to my right leg, just under the knee.
I wondered how a muscle from my foot could be strong enough to help my leg. Dr. Durham assured me that with physical therapy and growth, the muscle would strengthen. I would still have to wear the brace for a few years, but eventually the hope was that the transplant would be strong enough. Something like that had worked on a number of other patients. He thought it was worth a try. I trusted Dr. Durham as much as I trusted my own Dad.
In fact, I had made friends with another patient named, James Leach, from Texas, who had polio in both legs and in both hands. Dr. Durham had done similar surgery on James, transplanting a muscle from beneath his right knee to his left, making it possible for him to walk with one brace and no crutches, instead of two braces and two crutches. James and I were about the same age, but James was a few years younger when that surgery had been done. Dr. Durham loved to have him show how strong his left leg had become. That helped me see that what I was hearing was good news. The main thing, though, was that I trusted Dr. Durham. He was going to make me well.
Dr. Durham went on to say that he had talked this over by phone with my parents and had their permission provided it was alright with me. He wanted me to know that I would be in a special type cast, which would cover my right foot all the way up to my chest and that they would do a little additional surgery on my right foot. I had seen other patients with that type of cast, so I knew what it would be like. It was scary, though. I tried to be the “little man” that my Dad had told me I needed to be.
There was more. Dr. Durham explained to me that while they were transplanting the muscle from my left foot they would also correct the way the polio had been drawing all my left toes further toward the foot itself. They were hopeful they could limit the cast for that procedure from my toes to just below my knee.
I was very quiet as Benny rode me on a stretcher back to my bed. Benny must have sensed the gravity of the Clinic Day visit, because he was very quiet, too. I needed the silence, though I did not know it at the time. Maybe I was beginning to experience the value of quiet solitude and contemplation.
The pre-op, bedside visit from Dr. Durham and Miss Mills, the Castoria, the ride UP on the elevator to the operating room seemed to come quickly after that. The dreaded ether was as debilitating as I had remembered it the first time.
That dream came back, too: the one that was like a merry-go-round in my head. As ether lured me to sleep it felt like a downward spiral to nowhere.
There was something else this time, though. Something that had never happened before and never happened again. I remember having the sensation of feeling that I had been sleeping for a while, when, from somewhere outside myself a very bright, white light appeared. At first I thought I had awakened in the operation room and was under the big light that I imagined was in there. I thought I heard some soft and calm voices conversing softly, but had no idea what they were saying. It was obvious they were not talking to me. After that relatively brief experience, I remember a sense of serenity enveloping me. It made me feel like if I could handle this, I could handle anything!
What was that about? Was it the ether playing tricks on me? Should I say something about it? To be sure, my questions were childlike and short-lived, or so I thought. It was not until many years later, when I read William James’, The Varieties of Religious Experience, that my wonderings pressed much deeper and my questions became more serious. Dr. James introduced me to the mysterious word “numinous.” It became a permanent part of my vocabulary and left me with still more questions without a clear answer.
Coming next: ALMOST COVERED IN CASTS