Another Life Begins At Michael Reese

2929 S. Ellis Ave. Chicago, IL 60616 (312) 791...

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The name Michael Reese was totally strange to me as were the names of any hospital.  At the time Michael Reese Hospital, a prestigious teaching hospital, pioneered in polio rehabilitation techniques.  Our family physician, Dr. Imre Horner, was on staff there. He arranged to get me in.

Michael Reese (MR), on 29th and Ellis Avenue, is four and a half miles straight east from Contagious Disease Hospital (CDH).  The two hospitals were relatively close to each other, but the difference between them was enormous.  CDH was a government operated public facility designed to control or prevent the spread of communicable disease.  Michael Reese was a private hospital in business for curing disease.

I didn’t need curing when I entered MR.  I needed rehabilitation, and Reese had a strong polio rehab center.  The polio virus damaged many of my muscles. My body needed a program of training and exercise to teach the remaining muscles to substitute for the damaged ones that didn’t work; weak muscles needed strengthening.

The aides slid me off the ambulance cart to a hospital cart and wheeled me through miles of corridors and into an elevator.  Up it went, then, a ride through more corridors to a room on the sixth floor. Immediately, I noticed the rooms at MR were different from at CDH. The walls were solid except for one which had a window looking outside.  It was dark when we arrived and I couldn’t see out of the window, but I saw stars and city lights. At CDH, with all of its glass walls, there was never a ray of sunshine or outside light to see.

“One, two, three…..move” and I was on the bed in a new home.  There was a second bed in the room, another difference between the two hospitals.  A young man just lay there smiling at me.

He welcomed me with a big “hello.”  He had dark curly hair with bushy black eyebrows and a contagious smile.  His arms and head were the only parts of him exposed. He was very thin, nearly skin and bone.

” I’m  Myron,” he said.

He also survived polio, except his paralysis affected him from the neck down to his toes.  His chest muscles functioned just enough to let him expand and contract his lungs without the help of the iron lung.  He had limited use of his right arm, which allowed him to scratch his nose.

Myron was three years older than me, and a senior at Steinmetz High School.  We became good friends during our time together.  I often wonder what happened to him and what quality of life he had.  I’m sure he had a much harder time than me because he never regained the use of his muscles like I did.

Life at Michael Reese improved over that of the Contagious Disease Hospital. There were no restrictions on getting up to walk around the room.  Visitors actually came in to sit and talk without a chalk board.  I saw more of my friends.  Mom even brought some of the girls to see me.  I recall Mary Ann Pavel from Woodlawn as one.

The window looked out on the back-end of the hospital.  The view provided a look at the roof with lots of steaming vents and pigeons.  Way in the distance, the buildings of the loop were in view.  Chicago didn’t have many sky scrapers yet, so I didn’t see the spectacular skyline of today, but I did see a 1953 skyline. Soldier’s Field blocked any view of Lake Michigan just four blocks away to the east. I didn’t care, I loved the new home.

Forward Progress

Mount Everest from Kalapatthar.

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A major step to recovery came when I got to sit up on the edge of the bed for the first time.  What’s the big deal, I thought to myself?  Two nurses came in to help slide me over sideways to let my legs hang off the bed.  The nurses lifted from under the arms and around my back to raise me into a sitting position.  Wow! my head started spinning. I had not been off my back for a month.

Meals were a joke because I took nourishment through a feeding tube.  The first thing they did after inserting the tube was to extract a bunch of vile looking fluid from my stomach. A nurse pulled green fluid from my stomach  for a couple of days before she got the okay to feed me. She did the reverse and pushed a syringe full of milky white fluid into my stomach. Just a shot glass full at first, then gradually increasing the amount over a period of days to a full eight ounces.  I felt the cold liquid stuff going down the tube.

Why did they have to feed me through a tube?  I couldn’t swallow.  The polio damaged the nerves controlling my neck muscles.  If I tried to sip something I would  drown.

Gradually,  I got better and started to talk with the nurses and doctors, I learned I had bulbar spinal polio.  This type of polio attacks the face, neck and chest.  Luckily, my chest muscles were the least affected.  My face, neck, and right leg from the hip down were the most affected.  The result was that I couldn’t smile, swallow, hold up my head, or walk.

Every evening in the Contagious Disease Hospital an attendant wheeled a snack cart through the halls and stopped at each room except mine.  I could see the cart through all the windows. The cart had two large glass bottles filled with colored water.  One was a brilliant red and the other green.  Something about the colored drink attracted me. I longed to have a glass of each.  As the cart came closer to my room I debated with myself as to which color I would ask for – the red or the green?  The hall lights helped make the color of that fluid vibrant, and I longed to have some.  Each night, the cart passed by my room without stopping, but I played the game each time. I later learned the magic fluid was cherry and lime jello water.

Another big adventure was to stand up.  Earlier in the week I got to sit on the edge of the bed. Sitting up for a few minutes became a daily ritual. Each day I sat for a few minutes longer. It was great to sit up, especially when Mom came with Mrs. Thomas.  Sitting made it easier to write on the chalk board and to hold it up to the window. When the time finally came to stand up, two nurses came in.  Again, I thought what is the big deal?  Just let me slide off the edge of the bed and stand.   That’s just what they did.  They let me slide off the edge until my feet were on the floor. One nurse on each side held me under the arm. Each held their leg against my knee. Wow! It felt good to stand;  It also felt strange. After a minute my legs started shaking and got all wobbly and I had to sit down again.

The day I stood up for the first time is when I realized how much damage the virus did. That day also marked the start of my re-hab.  There wasn’t any facility to do re-hab at CDH, but the simple act of getting me up and out of bed was the start.  I still couldn’t swallow, but I could sit up and stand.  Later in the week, they let me take a few steps which was hard because my hip and thigh muscles on the right side were gone.  I dragged the right leg along putting all my weight on the aide. The remaining muscle groups couldn’t hold me up straight, so I leaned heavily to the left to compensate and my head just rolled around like I had a  broken neck.

A nurse started me on swallowing exercises.  She let me take tiny sips of water, just enough to wet my tongue, and encouraged me to swallow.  I strained with all my might but nothing in my throat moved.

The jello water cart came every night. Each time I saw that red and green fluid I tried hard to swallow, but nothing seemed to happen.  I was never allowed to sip water on my own for fear of choking.

One day after what seemed like a month of practicing to swallow the nurse had to leave the room for a moment. What the heck, I decided to sneak a sip of water.  I felt the muscles move in my throat and the sip went down. I swallowed!  Things were moving in there, and the water went down the right pipe. At that moment I felt like I had just reached the top of the Mount Everest.  The next day, when the nurse came to exercise my swallow muscles, I showed her I could actually do it. That night the jello water cart with the fantastic red and green juice stopped at my door.

My first day at CDH was in early August, right after my fifteenth birthday.  It was now late October.  I missed football tryout, I wasn’t managing the basketball team, I hadn’t opened a book to study and I saw my friends once in that time.  It didn’t matter, all I could do is look forward and do the best I could.

One day a nurse came to tell me the news they were sending me to another hospital.  There was nothing more they could do for me at CDH.  It was Halloween night when the ambulance took me to Michael Reese.

Leaving all the nurses was a sad time.  There were so many who worked with me, mostly students from area hospitals.  All of them were great nurses.  It dawned on me that I never met another patient at CDH because everyone was so isolated.

Two aides slid me on a gurney and bundled me up. As they wheeled me out of the room I called home for so many weeks I touched the big ugly iron lung breathing machine parked outside my door. I whispered “thanks for being there for me.” I also thanked God that I never needed to use it. The attendants wheeled me down the corridor to the ambulance dock. I never saw any of the angels who cared for me to say goodbye.

During my last few days at CDH I thought about becoming a doctor.  All of the staff at CDH was so good and nice to me. I thought of giving back to the world by becoming a doctor.  The question stayed with me and I debated for very long time. Eventually,  I concluded that even though it was a noble idea that I was not the right kind of person to become a doctor.  I decided to stay on the path to become an engineer.  The ride to Michael Reese took only a few minutes, but it seemed like a trip around the world. In my mind I saw kids out on the street going door to door to “Trick or Treat”.

More Torture Followed by Joy–Part Five

The new doctor’s assessment brought me two new tortures: One is a Levine tube, the second a foot board. The first little beauty is a rubber hose, brown in color and very flexible. The doctor inserted one end of the tube into my nose and quickly fed it down the throat into my stomach. Just what I needed another tube: first a catheter, then a cut down, and now a feeding tube.

The second torture was to lay with my feet pointed up and flat against a board. This exercise kept my calf muscles from shortening permanently. Shortened calf muscles would make walking harder. I still thought that one day the doctor would say ‘time to go home’ and I’d jump out of bed and walk out.

Visiting days were becoming a major highlight of each week. The longer I stayed in the CDH the more I wanted to see my friends and family. The half hour seemed so short yet there were times when it was too long. Mom came with a friend most times. It had to be hard on her to get there. She took five streetcars to reach the hospital. That took several hours each way. Selfish me, I never thought about how hard it was for her, I only looked forward to seeing her. Dad came on Sunday. I’m sure Sis visited too, but I don’t remember. My brother Bill couldn’t come because he was in the army stationed in Germany.

Once I could sit up in bed, we began using small chalk boards to write messages to each other. Finally, we communicated again. Mom’s girlfriend Barbara Thomas and our neighbor Mrs. Lihota came with her often. They did all the writing because Mom couldn’t write in English.

After being in for several weeks, Mom and Dad drove Joe Barath and Jack Adams to visit.  It was good to see them, but awkward. They were brave to come into that environment. We separated when we left for high school, and now this new adventure separated me even further from my world of friends.

To be continued . . .

Assessing the Damage-Part Four

I had been in hell for a long time when a new doctor arrived. My leg still had a tube with fluids running. The bed was still on an angle with my feet up in the air. Why? It was a way to keep fluid from filling my lungs. Unbeknownst to me, I lost the nerves that control the muscles for swallowing. All saliva and drool ran out of my mouth or down my throat. It also meant I could not take food or drink by mouth without choking.

The new doctor asked me to move my head from side to side. He held his hand against my face as I strained to push him away. He asked me to smile. I did. He asked me to smile again; I told him I was smiling. My face muscles were paralyzed. Even though my brain was telling me to smile, and I really thought I was, the message didn’t get to my cheek muscles. During my stay at CDH I became known as the ‘kid who never smiles.’ I couldn’t move my mouth to form words very well either. None of it made sense. I thought I was smiling and talking normal, but no one understood me, and they thought I was grumpy all the time.

My arms were next. I was able to move them up, down, around, and to put pressure against his hands. He moved to my legs.

“Bend your knees and hold them together.”

I moved my legs and bent them as he asked. The doctor put two fingers against my knees. “Now spread your knees apart against my hands.”

I pushed with all of my might but nothing happened. At that moment I realized I wasn’t going to make it to tryouts.

Where Is Everybody?-Part Three

I didn’t see Mom or Dad for days, and I wondered why. An aid explained that visiting hours were twice a week for half an hour. Mom had been there to visit, but I was too sick to know it. Because the hospital’s function was to control contagious diseases, visitors were never allowed into a room with the patients. The hospital restricted visitors to a special glass corridor. Each room had glass walls separating it from adjacent rooms and the corridor connecting them. Parallel to the staff corridor was another corridor separated by glass. Visitors were restricted to the space behind the second glass wall. When I was able to see Mom it was through two walls of glass and across a space of twenty feet. We couldn’t talk to each other because the voice wouldn’t carry through all the glass. At first, it was a lot of waving and lip reading. Visits became frustrating because of the difficulty of communication. Visits also ended in what seemed like a second. When visiting hours ended, the security staff moved visitors out. The time machine went back to ultra slow where one second was a minute, one minute was an hour, and one hour seemed like a day. Now more than ever, I wanted to go home and play football.

Talking to the Devil–Part Two

After going to hell for a long conversation with the devil, the ice bed began bringing my temperature down. It lasted for what seemed like eternity during those first seven days in the Contagious Disease Hospital. When the fever finally dropped, I began to notice strange things all around me. The rooms and hallways are separated from each other by windowed walls. A huge, beige colored tank with glass port holes stood in the hall along the window outside my room. What is it, I wondered? I never asked, but later learned that it had my name on it.

A few months ago I asked my brother Bill to tell me about the death of our older brother Joe. Since I wasn’t born when Joe died, the details of his story escaped me. Brother Joe died at age seven of scarlet fever in the same hospital. Wow! It finally dawned on me. Here I am at age 64 finally realizing the agony that Mom and Dad must have gone through when they took me, their second son named Joe, to the same hospital where their first born son died. They earned their way into heaven with the suffering and mental anguish. I apologize, Mom and Dad, for having put you through that horrible wringer again.

After the ice-mattress, the doctors invented a new torture. Two aides came in and raised the foot of my bed with blocks. Now, I had to lay there with my head down, and my feet up in the air, and my arm tied.

The IV-line in my hand blocked, and it needed to be moved. A doctor came and started doing something to my leg. The next thing I knew, the tube was in my ankle. He cut my ankle open to find the vein and inserted the tube down there. The nurses referred to that as a ‘cut-down’. They tied my leg to keep me from pulling it out.

Time slowed to a crawl in that fish tank of a room at CDH. An hour seemed like a day, a day like a week, and a week like a month. Still, all I could think about was getting out in time for tryouts. The start of a new school year drew closer, and I realized it would take time to regain my strength from being in the hospital.

Once the fever subsided I felt much better and more mentally aware of the surroundings. When a doctor came in, I asked, “When will I go home?”

“Soon,” they replied. That is not the answer I wanted to hear.

Out of My Mind–Part One

The Length of the ride in the ambulance to the Contagious Disease Hospital is all I remember. I don’t recall how fast they drove or if a siren sounded. The attendants moved me into the hospital, and slid me off the cart to a bed in a room alone. The room seemed dark but I didn’t care one bit. My head pounded, and it hurt like heck to move my neck.  My throat felt like fire and I couldn’t swallow. The fever made me delirious. I wanted to sleep, and make it all go away.

A steady stream of doctors and nurses came throughout the night to examine me. Each one asked the same questions. Each one tested the stiffness of my neck. One nurse stuck a glass thermometer into my mouth another stuck a needle into my hand and taped it there. She hung a bag with fluid and started it flowing. A male nurse inserted a catheter. I wished they would leave me alone and let me sleep. When they finally left, I lay in a hospital gown tossing and turning, the fever cooking me from within; my arm tied to the bed so I couldn’t jerk the needle out.

After what seemed like an eternity, two nurses came. They rolled me to the edge to spread a rubber mattress on the bed. A male aid came with a tub full of ice cubes. I wondered what they were going to do, but didn’t really care. I was hot and my mind was everywhere.

The aid began pumping ice water into the rubber mattress under me. At first the coolness felt good. After awhile on the chilling bed I began to shiver uncontrollably. The nurses kept replacing the water in the mattress, the aid brought more ice. My teeth chattered from the cold, my body shook uncontrollably. Lying on the ice mattress made me cold, but the fire in my body raged on. They threw a blanket over me to help, but I kept shivering under the covers.

Many weeks later, I learned that my body temperature went over one-hundred-five degrees as the virus worked its evil in my body. The torture of the ice mattress was necessary to save me. As uncomfortable as it was, I couldn’t care less.

During the endless hours of delirium, visions of Mendel and football tryouts played through my mind. I needed to get out of this place to make it to the tryouts. Plans for an escape filled my mind.  Each time a doctor came to check my condition I asked if I’d be home in time for the tryouts. None of them ever answered.

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