Hot Packs and Pain

Polio Story Continued . . .

The reason for being sent from Contagious Disease Hospital to Michael Reese Hospital instead of going home was to receive physical therapy.  Dr. Horner convinced Mom and Dad that I needed extensive physical therapy (PT) to recover.  He was correct in that judgment.  My face did not work, and I dribbled when I ate or drank. A smile existed in mind only.  I had to turn my head to the right to swallow.   I still do that fifty-eight years later.  My head flopped to one side. Both legs were a mess, and the right leg was noticeably smaller than the left.  The right hip muscle was a sting. This made walking difficult.  In fact, when I arrived at Michael Reese, I could barely swallow or stand.

In today’s world all the PT I had would be done outpatient at a local therapy center. MR was the leader in PT, and there were no neighborhood therapy centers.

Everyday two very pleasant black women named Thelma and Wilma entertained me.  Their job was to administer hot packs to the dead muscles of polio patients.  Since they were not nursing staff they wore tan dresses and not the traditional white

Every morning, about ten, they wheeled in a machine that resembled an old washing machine.  Inside the tub were various sizes of dark brown woolen cloths.  The machine steam-heated the wool, and spun the water out.  The cloths were very hot; I mean really hot.  When Wilma fished a hot cloth out of the tub, she used a stick.  The rag steamed.  They never dripped but they were damp.  Then she gingerly unwrapped the cloth with the tips of her fingers and lay the rag on my thigh.  Thelma did the same thing on the opposite side.  The first time they put one of those things on my legs I felt like jumping out of the bed and run, not walk.  The two girls talked back and forth in their Ebonics and made me laugh.

They wrapped  hot rags around my neck, arms, chest, back, legs and feet.  As one rag cooled down, another hot one took its place.  The treatment lasted  an hour.

The hotpack is a recognized treatment for injured muscles.  It is still used today, but with less barbaric methods.  Today, the therapist warms a special pad in the microwave to 160 degrees F and applies that to the muscles.  The theory is that the muscle fibers are more elastic when they are warm, thus enabling them to stretch without damage.

Immediately after the hot pack treatments came the physical therapy.  My chauffeur wheeled me down to the PT room where Miss Landau took over.  She was a thin, good-looking woman with graying hair and glasses. She was kind and gentle, but hurt me a lot.  It was her job to stretch dormant muscles back into normality.  She did that by putting me into various positions on the table, grabbing an arm or a leg and bending it into positions it hadn’t been to in months.  One drill I remember involved my thigh muscle.  She rolled me on my stomach and lifted my foot so the leg bent at the knee.  On the first day she could only get my leg to the twelve o’clock position before I vibrated with pain.  She relaxed the leg for a short moment and than raised the leg again, holding it in the stretched position, then relaxing the muscle to repeat over and over.  She worked on every muscle group the same way, twisting and pushing to reach the point of pain.

By the time I left Michael Reese my heel reached back to touch my ass without pain. I learned that without pain there is no gain.

I knew the polio weakened me, but in PT I got to find out just how weak my muscles became.  One exercise I remember vividly involved my right hip.

Miss Landau ordered me to lay on my left side with legs stretched out.

“Lift your right leg straight up,” she commanded.

I strained like hell to lift but the leg didn’t move.  All the time she watched my hip muscles, watching for a single fiber to move.  When she finally spotted movement she got all excited and told me how great I was doing.  At the start I didn’t have the strength to lift the weight of my leg, so she helped by lifting under my ankle. Her boost gave the muscle an idea of how used to move.

It was a slow process with one hour workouts everyday after hot packs, and the  progress was measurable. When I left the hospital I could lift my leg high, even with Miss Landau pushing hard against it. My right hip bulged with an over developed Arnold Schwarzenegger muscle

I learned to walk between parallel bars.  At first, I had an aide in front and in back of me.  My arms straddled over the bars to support my weight. It was easier to move my legs that way. When I stood up with all my weight on my legs  My right hip just swung right out.  I couldn’t hold my hip joints horizontal. The right hip muscle could not hold the hip straight.

Miss Landau ordered a pair of crutches for me.  The crutches took the weight off the hip and kept me from developing a permanent deformity.  I used the crutches for over a year before I walked without my hip swinging out and I didn’t need them anymore.

One day, an aide wheeled me down to a special lab. A prosthetics technician measured my neck, and made a special brace. Its function was to keep my head straight, and to keep my neck muscles from shrinking. I raced between getting a stronger neck or a permanently tilted head. Wearing the brace gave my neck time to get stronger.  The brace also prevented me from becoming Mr. Bobble Head. The technician made the brace, the first of its kind, for me.

He made the brace by hand out of  heavy cloth board.  The young man cut and fit, cut and fit, then cut and fit some more.  When he had enough measurements he sent me back to my room.  The next day, he came to me with the finished product to try again.  He shaved more until the collar was comfortable.

I wrapped this thing around my neck and pulled two very long straps around to the front and threaded them through the metal clasps. Today, the thing would use Velcro and be very easy to open and close.  Velcro hadn’t been invented yet.

The collar supported the weight of my head so my neck muscles could develop without overworking.  I wore the darn thing for as long as I used the crutches.

Miss Landau was a spinster whose roommate  also worked at the hospital. The roommate was the head nurse on one of the floors.  The two got together to talk about what  to do on the weekends.  Miss Landau had just bought a new 1954 Chevy convertible.  Often, her roommate came during break just to say that it was nice enough to ride home with the top down.

I owe my recovery to the work of Miss Landau.  I never did learn her first name.  She made me go through the drills even when I didn’t want to.  At the same time she was kind, sweet, compassionate; always up-beat and encouraging. She never tired of looking for a positive muscle fiber to work with. She pushed, talked, and encouraged every strand of muscle to work harder so it would wake its neighbors.

Thank you, Miss Landau where ever you are.

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