By Peggy Bowditch, as told to Karen W. Kovacs
Peggy was an active 10-year old in 1952 during the worst year of the polio epidemic in the U.S. She lived on a farm in Weyers Cave, Virginia with fantastic parents and a younger sister. Peggy’s parents avoided any large gatherings and kept their girls away from crowds. Public swimming pools were closed. Summer camps were canceled.
Peggy’s father was suffering from early onset Parkinson’s disease, so his activities were limited. During July, her mom and dad traveled to a distant clinic hoping for a cure for her dad’s disabling condition. A wonderful couple cared for her and her sister. They also helped take care of the farm and the house for the family while Peggy’s parents were away.
They took the girls to a county fair in Harrisonburg, completely unaware of the danger.
Several days later, Peggy went horseback riding. Her horse shied at a rabbit, which jerked Peggy. When she got back to the house, she was not able to kick her left foot out of the stirrup. She got out of the saddle with help, but once on the ground, Peggy was not able to stand. She had a high fever. Alarmed, her mother called the doctor.
A spinal tap confirmed the feared diagnosis: Peggy had polio. Her sister was given an injection of gamma globulin. Peggy recalls hearing about the large needle and how her sister tearfully questioned why she had to get a shot when she was not the one who was sick. She escaped the infection.
Peggy remembers that all of the hospitals were filled to capacity. Beds were in the halls. Her doctor, the health department and her mother agreed that Peggy should be treated at home; they feared moving her would also be detrimental to her father’s declining health. The family’s housekeeper quarantined herself into their home to take care of Peggy. And Peggy also remembers their priest would violate the quarantine to bring her books even though her mother would fuss at him.
Peggy’s paralysis was limited to her left side, though weakness from the virus also compromised her right side initially. Her left leg seemed almost totally useless. Her mother refused surgery or casting and instead started marathon massage sessions. She warmed Peggy’s muscles with hot compresses and used the whirlpool bath that had been installed for her father. Peggy’s mother shared her determination with everyone, especially Peggy, who believes that is the reason she was eventually able to walk again.
Once Peggy’s general health improved, she was taken several times a week to Woodrow Wilson Rehabilitation Center in Fishersville, Virginia. Her father sat in on the therapy sessions, supported the work of the physical therapists, and pushed Peggy to do more. Peggy was the only one who was able to walk out of that class of about 20 polio survivors. She credits her dad with enabling her to continue to be able to walk for the past six decades.
Peggy was able to return to school much later in the year. She was on crutches and experienced the kindest and meanest peers. Her father died two years later, and Peggy was able to stand on her own at his funeral.
Peggy continued to ride and became an instructor. She married a wonderful husband and had two sons. She had a successful career and stayed involved in numerous activities.
About thirty years ago, Peggy recalls cleaning up her yard after a big storm when both of her legs gave away. She was diagnosed with post-polio syndrome. She jokes that polio is the “gift” that keeps giving as she even now experiences chronic pain, weakness and muscles that seem to fatigue much too quickly.
But she refuses to let this ruin her life or stop her from participating in the things she wants to do. She is learning to not push her remaining good muscles too far in spite of the frustration of wanting to do more.
Peggy reminds us that we must fear the possibility of a resurgence of this dreaded disease. Even in the United States. We must End Polio Now.
Peggy Bowditch is actively involved in the community where she supports causes that improve the quality of life for both people and animals. Karen Kovacs is past president of the Gloucester Point Rotary Club. She is a physical therapist and clinical director at Tidewater Physical Therapy in Hayes, Virginia.