Riding the Red Rocket Through the Cottage Grove Ghetto


Three times a week after school, I hobbled out to Cottage Grove from Mendel on crutches.  I always got a seat on the streetcar  at 111th Street. The Red Rocket went without a transfer all the way to 29th Street.  The ride was long, but I had to continue with physical therapy at Michael Reese.  All the way up to 63rd Street things were familiar because Mom had taken us shopping to the Sears and Hillman’s at 63rd & Halsted.  North of 63rd Street, however, Cottage Grove Avenue became interesting.  The neighborhoods progressed from poor  to more poor. The store fronts told the story.  In the better sections there were a variety of businesses; TV shops, cleaners, butchers, bakeries, flower shops, you name it and you could find it on Cottage Grove in each neighborhood along the way.  By 43rd Street the buildings were older, dirtier, the businesses were fewer and those that were there were different.  Night clubs, taverns, storefront churches, groceries and drugstores.  What impressed me most was the up-keep on the buildings – there was none.  Some of the old frame buildings had boards missing or they were loose and hanging.  The paint wore away  years ago, and the wood was grey from weather.  Many windows had boards nailed on, others had metal guards.  There were people everywhere, just hanging around.  The further north I traveled, the people on the car changed from white to black.  By the time I got off at 29th  I was the only white left.

I never felt unsafe at any point of those trips.  The neck brace and crutches gave me a pathetic look and kept me safe.  That section of Cottage Grove was truly what I call a ghetto.  So many poor people all living in very crowded spaces with landlords that didn’t care to spend money on upkeep of the buildings.

The three block walk to the hospital after the long ride was a welcome relief.  I arrived at the Physical Therapy Department at 3:45 p.m. for my 4:00 appointment.  Once in the PT area, I stuffed my duffel bag, crutches, and brace into a locker and donned an Indian style loin cloth for the session.

Each treatment was the same.  Walk the parallel bars without crutches, do leg exercises, then follow-up with neck stretches and neck exercise. The therapist always took over my neck. At times, it felt like she twisted my head backwards..  The drill lasted 30-45 minutes and then it was time to go.

On the trip home, I pulled on the handhold and pushed against my crutches to hike up the high steps into a crowded rush-hour Rocket.  I learned quickly to take any seat that was available.  Many times I stood all the way to 79th Street before a seat became free.

One day I stepped into a very crowded car and squeezed my self away from the entrance to give room for more people to get on.  A little white-haired black lady looked up at me and offered me her seat. She looked exhausted and tired. I thanked her but refused.  At age fifteen I wasn’t about to take a seat from a senior citizen.  That incident repeated itself many times over the course of eight months that I commuted on the Rocket.

The therapy continued throughout the spring and the summer.  By the time of my release from Michael Reese  Physical Therapy, I was very glad.  During that summer I began to lift weights at home to build up my arms and legs.  My gym was the back yard. I dressed in swim trunks and looked like the guy who got sand kicked in his face in the Charles Atlas adds. I lifted weights.

By the time school started in the fall, I talked my way into using just one crutch.  The therapist didn’t think my hip was strong enough to get off the crutch completely. After only a few steps my hip swung out to the side and I fell into a limp. Eventually, I got rid of the collar, wearing it only when I felt tired.

My physical condition was 1000% better by the time school started at the end of August.  The summer of PT and weight lifting did wonders for my muscles. At the same time I was still growing in height.

A feeble smile returned to my face.

Weekend Pass-Free at Last

Physical therapy worked wonders for me.  God spared me from major nerve damage.  Each day in therapy gave me confidence and measured improvement. My strength gradually  returned.  My room mate Myron made no progress at all.  He became a prisoner in his bed limited to scratching his nose with one weak arm and fingers that didn’t move.

Mom came everyday religiously; Dad came on the weekends.  Myron’s mom did the same.  She was an attractive woman, not beautiful but pretty.  She had red hair.  His father owned a business and could not come often.  They lived in the Northern Suburbs.   As days passed, and the two moms spent time together, they became good friends as people  do in a situations like that.

Within three weeks I had gotten my crutches and neck brace and was walking.  I graduated to solid food because my swallow function had improved.  My muscles still received the hot packs and the workout everyday. There was no talk of sending me home, but I had gotten to the point of asking “when” daily.

The day before Thanksgiving Dad appeared in the evening with Mom.  The doctors consented to give me a weekend pass to celebrate Thanksgiving.  They didn’t tell me in advance so I wouldn’t get overly excited about it.

Being home was wonderful, but it was also a shock.  Home was quiet.  It was so quiet that it was scary.  There were no people walking in to check on me all day, and all night.  We did have company but no one stayed very long.  At the hospital, I took walks down the long corridors. At home, I walked the circle from the kitchen to the living room into the dining room and back. I missed the nurses stations and the smiles they gave me when I cruised by. It was too cold to go out. Anyway, I was too fragile to go out.  No telling how I would react to a cold.

Mom’s cooking was even strange at first. This was the first time since August that I ate at home.  I had gotten so accustomed to tube feeding and hospital food that her sumptuous meals that I had loved so much tasted different.  I survived the weekend and I gladly checked back into the security of the hospital late Sunday afternoon.

Coming home on the weekends became a regular thing after that.  I quickly got into the home routine and worked hard all week so I could go home.

The big surprise came at Christmas.  The doctors and therapists all agreed the time had come to release me from the hospital to go home permanently.  What a fabulous Christmas present that was for me and the family too!  Mom got her life back and I was home anxious to return to school.

During mass on Christmas day, I thanked God for sparing me from a worse fate. I thanked Him for all the wonderful people who worked with me. Most of all, I thanked Him for my wonderful mom who never gave up on me. Her support and the vision of getting back in time for football tryouts kept me from going insane. I asked God for guidance about a career in medicine.

Another Life Begins At Michael Reese

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

Image via Wikipedia

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.

Image via Wikipedia

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 . . .

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