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”.

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