Isolation Redux or Three Weeks Among Masked Avengers
By Julie Mofford
The coronavirus lock-down evokes memories of my forced social distancing at age eight.
“She just has a summer cold,” said Mother cheerfully, as I joined the family at lunch after a week in bed.
“Since when did you become a south paw?” Daddy asked. “Why are you eating with your left hand? Is this some new game?”
“Eating with my left hand? I am?” But when I switched the spoon left to right, I could not lift my right arm off my lap.
The family doctor arrived to put me through an exercise routine.
“Raise your right arm and keep it up in the air for me.” As soon as he let it go, it dropped r back down. He picked up my legs, one by one, telling me to bend them but they weren’t about to do a thing they were told to do.
“Now, sit up, dear,” he urged. “Lean your head down until it touches your knees.”
“I can’t,” I groaned. “I want to but it hurts too much.”
After a few more tests I overheard him talking to my parents. “I’m afraid it’s polio though we can’t be sure until she undergoes a spinal tap. “There have been an overwhelming number of cases this summer. It’s epidemic.”
“But we’ve been so careful, Mother cried. “We never allow our children to any crowded places!”
Back then, everyone lived under the shadow of the Childhood Crippler. Who hadn’t dropped coins into those March of Dimes boxes passed around by uniformed ushers in the middle of every movie? We’d all tried to look away from pictures of children in braces leaning on crutches or in wheelchairs? And wasn’t President Roosevelt himself a victim?
No one knew the cause of this dreaded disease though everyone had a theory. Parents feared summer, wondering whose child would be struck down next for the warmer it got, the more polio cases were reported. Swimming pools, beaches, and movie theaters closed. Children were warned to stay home and never drink from public fountains or frequent playgrounds, amusement parks or attend the circus or a baseball game.
Mother and her friends were convinced polio was spread by house flies but I knew better because one August afternoon, I joined four friends at their favorite swimming hole. The pond was covered with green scum and smelled strange.
“Don’t worry,” the oldest boy assured me. “We fellas swim here all the time.”
A few weeks later, three of us were hospitalized with infantile paralysis.
“If polio is confirmed, you must dispose of everything your daughter has been in contact with during her recent illness,” the doctor explained now. “For the protection of the rest of your family, whatever she’s used or worn this past week must be fumigated or burned.”
My Wonder Woman pajamas? The slipcovers on this couch? My games and paper dolls – burned! A film depicting my possessions in flames flashed through my head: the final scene from Jane Eyre.
“Why does all my stuff have to get burned?”
“Because polio virus is so contagious. We must burn or sanitize everything with Lysol so your brother and sister don’t catch it.”
After I was transported to the hospital, a cardboard sign reading Quarantined – Poliomyelitis was placed in the front window of our house. Families refusing to post this warning or removed placards, were fined. Newspapers regularly published the names and addresses of polio victims.
My name would appear in the Louisville Courier-Journal! Now, that was exciting!
I saw the QUIET – HOSPITAL signs as my father parked the Chevy. Everything seemed too quiet and once inside, too white. Mother pushed my arms through the sleeves of a white gown that tied in the back but failed to hide my bottom.
“Your daughter must remain in Isolation three weeks,” a nurse told my parents after the spinal test with the longest needle ever invented confirmed diagnosis. “You will not be permitted inside her room. After isolation, she will be moved into a ward with other Polios.”
“You mean we can’t touch or hold our little girl for three weeks?” Mother was in tears. “She’ll be all alone and scared!”
“I’m sorry, but it’s necessary for the safety of others.”
“Even though we can only wave to you through the glass window, we’ll come every day,” my father promised. “You must be a brave little soldier. You’ve got your own war to win now. Let President Roosevelt be your inspiration.”
For the next few weeks the only contact I had with my family was through glass. Each day I was imprisoned in Isolation, they waved at me through the glass wall. After a week of watching Mother weep into Daddy’s shoulder, I pulled the covers over my head, pretended to be asleep whenever I spotted them emerging from the elevator for their visits left me feeling lonelier than before they came.
The hospital was filled with scary noises and strange smells. The ache I suffered had nothing to do with polio. It was desperate loneliness. Would I ever get back to school with my friends? I was accustomed to sleeping on my stomach but now, there were sand bags around both legs and one arm was tied to the bed frame above. That wooden board at the bottom of the bed was supposed to increase muscle elasticity and help prevent crippling.
Nurses bustled in and out wearing gauze masks and sterile gloves. They brought trays of food I didn’t like and helped me on and off the bedpan. I had no idea what any of them looked like below their eyes. I assigned them all names: Masked Avenger, Blinking Blue Eyes, Nurse Frown, or Doctor Bushy Brows. Nurse Vampire entered Isolation most often and I could read the weariness in her eyes. Maybe having so many Polios to care for made her cranky.
“Am I poison?” I asked. “Is that why everyone wears masks and gloves when they come in my room?”
“We put on masks and scrub down before and after we enter Isolation to prevent spreading polio virus through hallways and rooms where others can contact it.”
“Shall we have our bath now, dearie?”
“Time for lights-out.”
“Nothing to be scared of, honey.”
“We’re here to help you get well.”
They brought stethoscopes, pencils and charts when they came to peer and poke. They picked up an arm or leg, watched it drop, then scribbled notes in steno pads. Like Dr. Frankensteins and Igors, they checked my pulse and temperature and collected pee, blood and spit.
“Could you brush and braid my hair?” I asked Nurse Vampire one morning.
“I don’t have time for that,” she snapped. “Do you think I’m your personal beautician, Missy? I have lots of kids to take care of around here and most are sicker than you are.”
“So I won’t be put into an iron lung?” That had worried me since I’d arrived at the hospital.
“Goodness, no! Did you think that was going to happen?” replied the nurse. “Iron lungs are for patients with bulbar polio – the type that attacks the diaphragm. If you had that version you’d have been immediately placed in a respirator.”
“Then can I go home? I’m feeling much better now.”
“Oh, you’ve still got a long row to hoe, my girl. It’s going to require patience and perseverance. When the time comes for you to go home, we want you to be able to walk out.”
Whenever I thought I had the hospital routine figured out, there would be some new surprise. One morning a nurse pushed a cart into Isolation announcing, “It’s hot packs for you! They will get those muscles moving again.” She reached inside the cart with tongs and pulled out steaming hot, wet pieces of wool. Clouds of steam rose as she lifted out each strip of steaming wet wool cut to fit a different part of the body and fed it through a roller to wring it out. My legs and arms were tightly wrapped and anchored with large safety pins.
I thought my skin would burn off. But when I complained, she said, “I know they hurt, but this is what the doctor ordered so you may as well get used to them.” My skin was on fire but I dared not move, not if this torture would make me well. When hot-packed, I was wrapped like an Egyptian mummy. As they cooled, my muscles would stop throbbing and twitching, and the wet wool would itch miserably.
Treating patients in her native Australia, Sister Kenny found that muscles paralyzed by polio could be reeducated through exercise in ways that prevented permanent damage. The treatment was controversial at the time since the American Medical Association had not approved the treatment.
Amazon Ann was the physical therapist. She couId have played the role of a tough guard in a B-movie featuring a women’s prison. I also swam in a warm pool, enjoyed water play with other Polios and rode a bicycle that went nowhere. I didn’t miss a grade because a walkie-talkie radio tuned me into my 3rd grade class and my folks picked up and delivered assignments. When it was time for arithmetic, I promptly tuned out with a switch of the dial!
Books relieved boredom even though one Mean Girl tattled on me for reading under the covers each night with a flashlight. My stay in the hospital inspired me to write books when I grew up. I was discharged a year later with a brace on one leg. Part of the deltoid muscle in one arm never recovered so I remain unable to salute, write on a blackboard, or reach high shelves. I still enjoy swimming and can do an excellent crawl with my left arm while doing a paddle with my right.
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Juliet Haines Mofford is the author of numerous books including Polio War Which will be published in January 2021. Please check out her Author Page where all of her books are listed.