On a September morning in 1941, a lifelong indelible impact influenced the lives of every immediate family member, especially my sister, Nancy. This day altered all of our lives and for each one of us a different result. My carefree childhood days came abruptly to an end; my growing-up was forced – sudden – unexpected. At the time, I was 8 years old; my sister, Nancy, was 14; my oldest sister, Helen, was 23, married, and had a 19 month old child.
My friend, Edna, and I were playing on our lawn when Dr. Sumner drove in the yard, having been called to see our usual bubbly active Nancy who did not feel like getting out of bed: she had a fever, headache, stiff neck, was weak, and each day her sickness had progressively worsened. The dreaded fear in every household, at that time, was a contagious crippling disease Infantile Paralysis, or Poliomyelitis – Polio as we know it today.
Though there were no known cases in the area, her symptoms were similar and worrisome. Positive diagnosis could only be made by a spinal tap for which Dr. Sumner was not proficient to do the procedure, but he had had training and made the attempt. Unfortunately, the procedure did not go well, to say the least; the needle broke off in her spine. Nancy was transported to the Eastern Maine General Hospital in Bangor, Maine where a second successful pain-free spinal tap was performed – Infantile Paralysis was confirmed. The consensus of the doctors, who attended Nancy, believed the polio virus was ingested from the unwashed fruit we had eaten on our recent return trip from New Hampshire or from Flanders Pond water during our swim the week after we got home.
Our family was placed under quarantine to avoid contagion; we were in isolation. Our daily routine became going to Bangor, which was nearly an hour trip, dropping my mother off at the hospital where she would spend the day with Nancy and the medical staff. My father took me to the park, close by the hospital, where we would spend our days, have our picnic lunch, and I would fish in a brook. These days must have been so difficult and agonizing for my Dad – not to be with my mother, not to be with Nancy! Despite the conscious concern we both were feeling for Nancy and Mother, I did enjoy my rare time alone with my father. The days were long anticipatory days waiting for the time we could pick up Mom, hear her report of Nancy’s condition, and go home. Every day my distraught mother emerged, trying to hold back her tears until she got in the car, then sharing the grim news that another part of Nancy’s body had become paralyzed.
Finally the paralytic invasiveness stopped, but Nancy’s Betty Grable shaped legs, (her claim to fame) were immobile! Nancy was a pretty, blond, blue eyed vivacious teen, loved to read about the movie stars. She knew the exact shape and measurements of Betty Grable’s legs, famous for being perfect, and loved to tell her family about her likeness to an actress! By the time Polio had done its damage to Nancy’s body, she was paralyzed from the waist down, the upper portion of her right arm and left hand and arm were affected – all of which withered in time. The hospital was sending her home – there was nothing more they could do for her, they said. The doctors felt that rest was the best recovery method. We eagerly prepared for her return home.
Our living room became Nancy’s bedroom – her hospital bed was placed close to the windows so she could see outside. We lived in rural Maine on Route 1, so other than cars going by she could only watch who was coming and going in our driveway. Our quarantine status now over, I returned to school; family and friends came to visit, but life was far from typical. Twice, in the months to follow, Nancy had to enter Portland Children’s Hospital due to kidney complications, the results of her paralysis immobility. The nurses shared that she absolutely charmed the staff with her humor and sunny disposition, showing her resilience and courage at her young age!
Mother’s two brothers lived in the Portland area, so during Nancy’s hospitalization there, Mother stayed with one of them. Poor Dad – I would proudly get his supper of toast and cocoa every night. He never said a derogatory word about his meal; he praised me for my cooking and was appreciative. Most likely after I was tucked in bed he got himself something more substantial to eat!
Three months from the onset of Nancy’s illness, on Sunday, December 7, 1941, Dad, Mother, and I were having dinner in the dining room which was adjacent to Nancy’s converted bedroom. Nancy always had her radio on – it was her connection to news, music, and comedy – life and voices to the outside world. She called out to us the news, my mother jumped up from the table to turn up the volume. President Roosevelt’s deep booming somber voice invaded the house – “The Japanese have attacked Pearl Harbor.” Following these terrifying words the President went on with his speech that World War II was declared! “This day shall go down in infamy”. We just sat in silence, stunned at his frightful announcement! Now the impact of war – another indelible influence! Nancy immobile. Our local boys going to war. The compulsory draft of our men and boys to serve in the military service went into immediate effect.
The fall months had been spent with Mom and Dad concentrating on Nancy’s care – the day to day routine for all of us was just to make her comfortable. Mother took excellent care of her, gently massaging her affected limbs and turning her frequently to prevent bed sores. Dad had built a frame to keep the bedding off her sensitive legs and toes to prevent discomfort and chafing. I was so happy to finally be able to help with her care by waiting on her, rolling her bed up and down, serving her meals, moving pillows, talking with her, changing her radio station, singing with her, keeping her company. I couldn’t wait to get home from school so I could see her; I loved being a part of her care and making her comfortable. I was sure she had been waiting all day for me to get home from school!! Attending to Nancy, in whatever small way, brought forth my awareness of the compassionate and nurturing element within my nature; at nine years old I decided I wanted to be a nurse someday. I also felt gratification helping her, but in the beginning few months of Nancy’s illness, very new and strange emotions invaded my psyche. I had felt unwanted, unloved, lonely, and “omitted” much of the time. I was also having scary dreams – strange dreams of being lost.
Winter had come and gone – spring arrived marking nine months Nancy had been immobile. As Nancy’s limbs strengthened, she dangled her legs on the side of the bed and later sat in a chair. A visiting nurse suggested it was time to try leg braces. The process and success to Nancy’s mobility caused great suffering, pain, exhaustion, and feelings of hopelessness. Although in privacy my parents cried in their despair, I heard them. These times were few, but gut wrenching for me – I felt so alone and helpless. I was too young to know what I could do to comfort them and maybe that wasn’t possible given the grim outlook. Nancy’s brief moments of willingness to spend the remainder of her life in bed caused much discord in our home – Mom – tough, caring, but determined Nancy would walk again; Nancy’s resignation to debility; and my Dad’s calm demeanor of empathy caught in the middle.
Rehabilitation to recovery and mobility was in Mother’s plans for Nancy! The usual and accepted “rehabilitation” for Polio victims, at that period of time, was to immobilize the affected limbs. Mother researched and read about a Sister Kenney, who currently was a pioneer in the treatment of Polio. She agreed with what she read about Sister Kenney’s theory and successful treatments. Nancy’s withered legs and arms were proof of immobilization.
Elizabeth Kenney, an Australian nurse later known as Sister Kenney, developed her own method of treating Polio victims when an epidemic was raging in the Australian bush and she was unable to get medical help. Sister Kenney applied prompt applications of hot woolen pads to the affected limbs and set up her own clinic in Queensland. Her treatment was accepted for use in Australian hospitals by 1939. She also believed immobilization of the afflicted limbs aggravated the spastic condition which was unnecessarily painful to the patient and that the spasm affected the muscle, damaging in its effect. Furthermore, Sister Kenney found that the method of exercise in warm water strengthened the muscles therefore minimizing deformity.
Sister Kenney was met with skepticism by the medical profession as she lectured and demonstrated her method in the United States in 1940. As she showed the resulting success of her work, eventually the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota accepted her treatment and she was able to secure funds to set up the Elizabeth Kenney Institute in Minneapolis, Minnesota. She wrote many treatises and her autobiography in 1943.
Against the local doctor’s advice, Mom and Dad decided Sister Kenney’s approach was the route to take to Nancy’s recovery. Our den became the therapy room. Dad built a Hubbard tank, which was shaped like a T and was filled every day with very warm water while Mom removed Nancy’s casts and prepared her to be carried to the den, by Dad, and lowered into a sling my father had designed. The Sister Kenney method of treatment began as Mother diligently exercised Nancy’s legs for her in the tank, in addition to bedside exercise at other times each day. The routine process was exhausting, but the day Nancy could wiggle her toes was a day for celebration – the first positive visual sign that Mother and Dad had made the right decision; hopefulness replaced despair!
I still remember the day the heavy steel braces were strapped to her withered legs. Nancy was not able to put them on herself as she had no strength and dexterity. The left leg brace extended from the top of her thigh to her ankle; her right brace was from the knee down. The brace bar, at the lower end of the brace, connected under the heel of her sturdy oxford shoes, therefore her foot was manipulated into the shoe then all was buckled for security and safety. Nancy tried to take her first step – Mom on one side of her, Dad on the other, assisting her to take her first step.
I remember the room, where everyone was in place, the bookcase against the wall, and Nancy standing, frozen between the bed and the bookcase. She tried and tried, showing interest in her attempt to move, but becoming more exasperated until she screamed her frustration and burst into tears, “Don’t ask me to ever do this again!” I still become emotional when I recall that awful moment of surrender! The braces were put away, my mother pledging not to ask her again, but telling Nancy if and when she felt ready to try again, to tell her. Mother continued her massages and water therapy and kept her promise not to bring forth the subject of braces.
About a month later, Nancy’s undying courage, and determination to be independent, surfaced once again and the process of learning to walk began – with difficulty, as expected – but with renewed perseverance! She eventually learned to walk in these braces. As time went on, my father, in his quest to make walking easier for Nancy, designed a model to make a lighter weight brace of aluminum and succeeded in convincing the brace manufacturer to develop this replacement of heavy steel. And later Velcro was substituted for the buckle straps. The changes created a less bulky and heavy device.
When Nancy started walking, she depended on me to help her; she walked on the right side of me pushing down into my right hand with her left withered hand. Once she felt secure to walk by herself with her braces, she returned to school. The kids had never seen anyone in braces – they were afraid of her; some actually made fun of her! Many times she fell on the oiled wooden floors of the school; the kinder peers raced to help her to her feet. So her transition to rejoin her classmates was also a challenge.
Nancy loved music and one day, a few years later – at home – a good dance tune was on the radio; she asked me to dance with her- she wanted to try! We did pretty good! So we started attending the Saturday night grange hall dances with our parents and we danced as many as she could manage! We made quite a “hit”; a heartwarming experience after sharing all that she had been through. And this is where she met her future husband who had just returned from the war as a marine. “Their song” became: It Was Just a Neighborhood Dance, That’s All That It Was! Following many years of wanting children, she did give birth to two – a boy and girl.
Nancy always wore slacks, but the first and only time she ever wore a dress was when attending my wedding! What an honor and a complete surprise! It would take another book to continue with Nancy’s life as her courage continued to be tested. She possessed the most remarkable humor and courage of any human being, challenged through many, many years by one tragedy after another until her death.
Author Betsy Baker resides in Exeter, New Hampshire; her family roots are in Maine. She is a lifewriter. Her stories are taken from her own experiences within her family and surroundings, events, and challenges. She also sustains an interest in genealogy.
Betsy has been writing since a teen, always striving to improve her skills by taking related college courses and engaging in several writing groups. Currently Betsy is writing her Memoir integrating some of her prior individual essays.