Return to Civilization From a Polio World

Coming home for the Christmas holiday from Michael Reese Hospital created a high level of activity.  It was a good thing for me.  We had lots of company and I went to church a lot.  The holiday action gave me an opportunity to get into living at home more gradually.

The connection to the hospital did not end by any means.  Three times each week I rode the Cottage Grove streetcar from 93rd Street to 29th Street, and then walked  three blocks to the hospital for physical therapy.  At first, mom came with me, but she realized that I could handle the trip on my own and I began taking the trip solo.  The hot packs were gone but the stretching and resistance training continued.

When I first transferred to MR, progress was fast, but now it became tedious. The exercises turned into the sweat of building muscle and learning to use those that still worked.  In the case of my badly damaged neck and hip, it was a matter of finding available muscle fibers and retraining them to do new things.  The process required constant repetition of exercises and stretching.  In many ways a physical therapist is a personal trainer.  They are with you to push you toward a goal without hurting you or damaging a muscle.  In addition to therapy at the hospital, I did a set of exercises at home everyday.

The holidays ended and the next big adventure after traveling to MR was returning to school.  I missed an entire semester, and wondered how I would make it up.  In my mind I was ready to repeat sophomore year and graduate a year after my classmates. Unbeknown to me, Mom kept in touch with Father Grace and the priests at Mendel. Not only were they praying for my welfare, they assured her that when the time came for my return, they would give me an opportunity to catch up.

The toughest aspect of returning to school was answering the questions from my classmates about what happened to me.  It didn’t help that the collar and the crutches broadcast my condition.  After answering and explaining for a week, things were pretty well accepted.  It became very clear that I was seriously behind in every subject, and the prospect of repeating the year challenged me. Each of my teachers gave me counsel and assigned extra reading and homework to help catching up. It became my responsibility to accept the challenge and do the work. Religion, English, Social studies, etc. were easy. They involved reading and some one on one with the instructor. Plane Geometry was another matter. The entire concept of geometry as mathematics was totally new. I thought geometry involved shapes. Later, I learned that solid geometry is the mathematics of shape. Plane geometry was Greek. My head buzzed with new words like “proof, axiom, theorem, congruent.” Father Burnell recognized the dilemma quickly, and assigned a student to tutor me. The second semester work relied on knowing all the definitions and basic proofs presented in the first semester. My classmates literally bowled me over with their knowledge while I trembled at the lack of it.

God bless my classmate Bob Zimmerman.  He was in the Scientific curriculum and the editor of the school newspaper.  I liked him and everyday, after school he spent one hour with me going over all the first semester work.  His patience and persistence to stay with me until the lights went on in my head saved me. At the same time he coached me on the basics I had to absorb the new material and solve daily homework problems.

With all the extra reading, geometry problems to solve, and three trips a week to Michael Reese, there was no time for extra curricular activities. My days of managing the basketball team ended last spring. I had to give up metal shop because of the late start and my condition made it unsafe for me to work with machine tools.  Father Hartigan didn’t want me getting hurt. Instead he suggested I use that time to do my catch up work in the library. I did, and it helped. Would you believe that machine shops became an part of my career? They did, and I am proud of my accomplishments in the field of precision tool making.

The semester finished too fast, but I managed to get through finals with average grades.  All of the teachers were very generous and understanding to my plight and I thank them for that.  On the other hand, I studied very hard to make up the lost time and to catch up.  It worked, I moved into my junior year. I suppose I could chalk up the first semester as experience, but I will brag and say that I came through it with straight A’s in Swallowing, Walking, Smiling, and Living.

The cherry on the cake came when the basketball team awarded me a Varsity letter for participating as their manager in spirit.  By August, on my sixteenth birthday, I gave up the last crutch and my physical therapy ended at Michael Reese.

Thank God for Jonas Salk, inventor of the polio vaccine.

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.

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.

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”.

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