I asked some polio survivors to share their stories with me. This is some of what one shared.
My experience with polio can best be surmised with the word “separation.” I was 22 months old in 1953, likely in July, when I contracted polio.
At 22 months, on the recommendation of the local physician, I was taken by my parents to Minneapolis to Sister Kenny Hospital. I remained there for two months, being barely a toddler.
I retain one image of (my mother) standing in the hospital doorway with her blue swing coat, looking lovely and fulfilling my only desire, which was the presence of my parents. I have looked at my own children and grandchildren of that age and cannot imagine them being separated from their parents for any length of time.
Beyond that initial separation, I recall the first set of surgeries that I had, which came when I was a first grader and but 6 years old. I attended a small country school, five children in my class and likely fewer than 25 children total enrolled. I must have had the surgery in the fall, as I remember that I was in a cast and only able to participate in the Christmas program sitting in a chair with my leg propped up and singing a song.
That first of two major surgeries consisted of procedures to loosen tightened muscles and ligaments affected by polio.
My one-room schoolhouse teacher visited me for lessons frequently. I recall learning to read Dick, Jane, Sally, Spot books and lying on the couch to do my lessons. … It was a separation, this time not from family, but certainly from classmates. …
The next major polio-related surgery came when I was in eighth grade and needed to remedy a weakened ankle with a fusion.
I recall … that Shiner’s Hospital required that all items of a personal nature were removed from the child and taken home by my parents. … I hated that, and see it once again as a separation from that which represented self and home and brought comfort.
Limp-leg Whiskey Bottle was my nickname. … I think it says much more about the culture of the rural area at the time than it does about me then or now. It was hurtful, mostly, being called a name for something I had no control over and which could have cost me my life.
I can recall sitting in class in seventh grade in town, having left the safety of my country school for the middle school, and hiding my left leg behind my right under my desk to conceal the atrophied left leg, nylon stockings sagging loosely over by atrophied left calf rather than filling snuggly over the fully formed leg. … Middle school is not the time to be different from one’s peers.
Her separation followed her from high school to college to the workforce. She said it played into friendships and even affected how people perceived her intellectually. At the end of her story, she then challenges us.
You can see how “separation” might be the theme of my story of polio. I could also tell many other stories, but given this time of COVID and racism and the “separateness” of both, this seems the theme to focus on here.
I am deeply saddened by the thought of those hospitalized with COVID (being) separated from those they love. I am also deeply troubled by the separateness created with people of a different color, a different country of origin, a different language.
The pain of being separate is real and can be very difficult to overcome. Really, separation is a recurring theme throughout life in many forms. We all find ourselves in relation to the “other” among us. I do as well.
What a task it is to fully realize that indeed, “all life is holy, all life is one,” and to fully accept the differences that each of us as human beings have from one another.
Rev. Steve Norby serves as lead pastor of Calvary Lutheran Church in Park Rapids.