fear and panic

America was waging a war, a war within a war, a war against fear. As the panic from the big war gradually subsided, another enemy attacked our country from within. By 1950, every town in America was affected. No one could guess who would be the next victim as the number of casualties climbed steadily every year. Signs went up on houses – Quarantined – Do Not Enter – Polio.

By 1952, most kids in America thought we had polio – every time we had a headache, sore neck, aching back, or growing pains in our legs. The whole country was terrified – especially during the summer months as new cases of polio increased rapidly. The disease could progress from cold-like symptoms to a backache to a lifetime of paralysis or even death – sometimes in a single day. Mostly it struck children – and was called infantile paralysis.

“Mama, my neck hurts” or “I’ve got a headache” became dreaded words. Parents shouted, “Don’t get too hot or overtired, don’t drink after anybody, don’t run around, don’t play to hard, do you want to end up in an Iron Lung.” Pictures of some of the children who survived began to appear on posters – sitting in wheelchairs or wearing braces from their hips to their toes and struggling to move about on crutches. Mothers organized and marched all across America like soldiers, collecting money for research and treatment. People turned their porch lights on at 7 PM to show they wanted to contribute to The March of Dimes. Children filled in special cards with dimes from their allowances to help out other children.

Hospital respiratory ward in Los Angeles, 1952. Courtesy of Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
Hospital respiratory ward (1952, Los Angeles) – CDC

In 1946, 25 thousand new cases of polio were recorded in the U.S., in 1950 – 33 thousand new cases, and in 1952 – the summer I was 10 years old – 59 thousand new cases of polio were reported. Some years it was the nation’s leading killer of children. No wonder terror gripped the nation.

Still nobody knew what was causing the disease, but it was assumed that being in crowds made it spread quicker. So everything closed down – out of fear and panic – swimming pools, movie theaters, public parks, and any place where a crowd might gather. If the epidemic started before school was out for the summer, schools closed and the officials burned desks, books, and locker contents.

And then as the weather grew cooler, the threat of polio mysteriously started to drop and life returned to normal – leaving everybody wondering, “Will it be back next summer?”

Meanwhile, at Pittsburgh Memorial Hospital, Dr. Jonas Salk frantically searched for a vaccine. He was racing against time, driven by the country’s fear. Nurses said he often stood at the window of his laboratory – weeping as he watched ambulances lined up in the street outside the hospital – bringing in more new cases. Sometimes 16, 18, 20 new cases in a single day – just in Pittsburgh alone. He knew children were dying within a few feet of his lab as he heard their cries. One of the nurses there remembers “a high school boy sobbing because he was completely paralyzed and couldn’t move a hand to kill himself, paralyzed women giving birth to normal babies in iron lungs, and a little girl who lay motionless for days with her eyes closed and then opened them one day and recovered.” Black polio victims were sometimes turned away from hospitals simply because of the color of their skin. Salk himself was often called in to make the decision to remove a child from a respirator because she was going to die anyway and someone else, with a better chance for survival, was waiting for the iron lung.

IRON LUNG! What a scary word! I’d seen pictures of them – a machine that looked like a giant hot water heater lying on its side – with the head of child sticking out at one end – and mirrors around the edges so the child could see what was going on around the room without moving his head. The Iron Lung looked like a monster as the inside pressure increased and decreased causing the child’s lungs to rise and fall – sucking in the air needed to live.

Some days I was scared to death that I had polio, and then on other days I thought it was a huge nuisance – keeping me from doing all the fun things a kid was supposed to do in the summer. Hearing the nightly news frightening me as the numbers grew daily, but those long isolated days bored me to death! Surely it wasn’t as bad as they said and besides, I didn’t know anybody that actually had it.

And then my good friend, Barbara Beacham got polio. She was admitted to the hospital and progressed quickly to an Iron Lung. I begged to go see Barbara, but of course I wasn’t allowed. My mother visited her mother at Macon General Hospital one hot, summer afternoon. While she was there, a summer thunderstorm struck the area and knocked the power out at the hospital – and generators weren’t all that great in the 1950’s. Her mother screamed hysterically while the nurses tried to pump those machines by hand. The electricity running the iron lung was the only thing keeping her daughter alive.

I couldn’t imagine Barbara being inside one of those hot water heaters, but I’ll never forget the picture of her that her mother sent to me. She was always laughing and had such a big smile, too many teeth for her mouth – the kind orthodontists love – and the smile was still there even with just her head poking out of that machine.

About this time, the subject came up about whether or not I should go to summer camp as scheduled. Of course, I wanted to go – I would have done anything to have a little fun. And finally, after a lot of discussion, my parents agreed since it was a small church camp – Camp Epworth by the Sea on St. Simons Island. Barbara was supposed to go too and every day I asked if she was going to get well enough to go with me. The answer was always, “No, probably not.”

Well, I went to camp and what a relief that was! I got to be a kid again. We did everything I had not been able to do at home. We sat around a campfire and listened to stories, went swimming, played games, ran relay races, made lanyards and bracelets at craft time, sang songs before meals, slept in barrack type quarters, hiked in the woods, and on and on. We stayed so busy that I barely had time to think. Before I knew it the week was over and I was headed back home with a duffle bag full of dirty, wet, smelly clothes.

When I arrived, my mother switched into high gear trying to get everything washed before we left to visit my grandmother the following morning. I felt like a zombie and didn’t feel like eating, but everybody figured camp had just been too much of a good thing and I was just exhausted.

The next morning, my head was killing me and my eyes ached when I blinked or moved them from side to side, but we packed the car and headed for Atlanta. By the time we arrived, everything ached and I could hardly wait to get out of the car and into the bed. I sank into the big feather mattress at my grandmother’s house and thought how cool the sheets felt to my hot skin. At some point, a thermometer that smelled like rubbing alcohol was shoved into my mouth, but I fell asleep before it was removed. Later when my mother tried to wake me up, I had difficulty focusing my eyes. She said something about a doctor from my grandmother’s church being on the way to check on me and soon a strange man looked down my throat, listened to my heart and took my blood pressure. Then he removed a small, rubber, triangle shaped hammer from his bag and tapped on my knees and elbows and nothing happened. “No reflexes,” he said to my mother.

Everybody went out into the hall except for me. They talked in whispers, but I managed to hear words like tests, hospital, polio. POLIO! Thoughts of Barbara in that iron lung floated through my head.

And then the strange doctor came back into the room and sat down next to my bed. “Your mother just told me you had been away at camp for a week.”

Yes sir.

“Did you have a good time?”

Yes sir.

“I want to ask you something, honey. When was the last time you went to the bathroom? You know…a bowel movement.”

I don’t remember.

“Well try to think. It’s important.”

(Long pause.) I’m not sure, but I think it was before I went to camp.

He left the room again and then I heard another really scary word – ENEMA!

Looking back, I’m actually surprised that my mother hadn’t thought about that sooner. In those days, it was her remedy for whatever ailed me – upset stomach, sore throat, earache, skinned knee – it didn’t matter. She thought a good cleaning out made everything better.

So, the next thing I knew I was in the bathroom watching the preparation. She got that giant rubber bag out of the linen closet, filled it with gallons of warm, soapy water, put in the stopper and shut off the hose with a little silver clamp. Then she hung the bag upside down on a nail high up on the wall – that was permanently in place for this procedure. If I hadn’t been so sick, I’d have probably tried to run away and escape like I usually did, but I didn’t have the energy. Then she put Vaseline all over the end piece and told me to lean over. She inserted the tube, unleashed the clamp, and let gravity do its thing. And then she started saying, “hold it, hold it, hold it” and I said “I can’t, I can’t, I can’t,” and she yelled, “yes you can, yes you can, yes you can,” and I screamed, “No I can’t, no I can’t, no I can’t.” And then, I couldn’t, and there was an explosion. She kept at it until she was satisfied with the results or until I fell over in a dead faint.

I managed to creep back into bed and slept all night. The next morning my fever was gone and I felt much better, but had to stay in bed all day just for good measure. We forgot all about polio for a while – at least for the rest of our visit until we got back home.

And that’s when we found out that Barbara had died. A kid like me had died, a kid I knew… Barbara. I remembered when my great grandmother died and when my parakeet got caught in the swinging door between our dining room and kitchen and I knew that dying meant I’d never see Barbara again. And she had just turned 11. How was it possible for a child to die? Why did Barbara get polio and die, and I didn’t get it and lived?

In January 1953, Salk presented a paper to the medical community about his research. Albert Sabin protested the findings, because he was competing with Salk to find a vaccine. But Salk was so convinced he was right that he vaccinated himself, his wife, and his own children first and then kids in a home for children. Finally a field study began and 1.8 million children got shots – some got the vaccine and some got a placebo. The summer of 1954 showed the results – the vaccine was 80-90% effective. The government announced mass distribution.

I remember standing in a long line that wrapped all around the health department to get that shot. Only scattered outbreaks occurred after that because everyone didn’t get vaccinated. By 1960 Sabin’s oral vaccine dropped on a sugar cube eventually replaced the shots and gradually eradicated polio from North America, although many survivors of polio – perhaps as many as 70%, are now experiencing Post-polio syndrome – which includes difficulty breathing and severe joint and muscle pain and weakness.

In 2015 Pakistan reported 53 cases and Afghanistan reported 19 cases, the only two countries in the world where polio is still endemic. The World Health Organization anticipates global eradication in the next few years, although warns that the disease can still spread as long as it exists anywhere in the world.

But some things in life don’t make sense no matter how many times somebody explains them to you. In my 10-year-old mind, I felt guilty that I didn’t have polio and was alive, and Barbara wasn’t. I know telling her story keeps her alive for me. A part of Barbara has always lived in my heart and maybe that helped me to embrace my life more fully.

You know they say “you are what happened to you when you were 10.” It’s such an impressionable age. I vividly remember the fear of that long, hot summer; Barbara getting polio; the trip to camp and the events that followed. I learned a lot about life that summer – things that usually take a lifetime. I learned that I didn’t like fear controlling what happened in my life and vowed never to let that happen again. I learned that life goes on – no matter what.

Our country learned a lot during those years too. We learned how to defend ourselves against an unknown enemy in an epidemic of fear. We learned to live and love and find things in our midst to make us laugh and give us hope that we can survive – in spite of death, war, polio, and even our mama’s enemas.

Image: Hospital respiratory ward in Los Angeles, 1952 via VaccineInformation.org and courtesy of Centers for Disease Control and Prevention;
Diane Rooks

Diane Rooks

Diane loves telling stories to audiences of all ages and teaching people about storytelling. She's been involved in storytelling and public speaking for many years and uses those skills to create programs and stories to help people navigate changes in their live. Her storytelling path changed direction following the death of her son when she realized that stories were the key to her own healing process. She grew stronger by remembering and telling stories of her son, which kept him present in her daily life. Selected milestones on her journey: Masters Degree in Storytelling - East Tennessee State UniversityAuthor of Spinning Gold out of Straw - How Stories Heal and the new CD/audiocassette - "Selected Stories from Spinning Gold out of Straw"Frequent teller on WFCF-FM Treasury of TalesLiving history performer for St. Augustine Lighthouse and Museum and St. Augustine Historic Preservation BoardStorytelling World special advisor and contributorHealing Story Alliance secretary and resource coordinatorPerformer in dozens of festivals including Atlanta Storytelling Festival, Florida Folk Festival, Gamble Rogers Festival, Cracker Festival, Stephen Foster Festival, Caladium Festival, Florida Citrus Festival - and othersPresenter at the national conference of The Compassionate Friends, an international organization for bereaved parentsMember of National Storytelling Network, Southern Order of Storytellers, Florida Storytellers Association, and Tale Tellers of St. Augustine.Former board member of FSA and Tale TellersState representative and judge for the National Storytelling Youth OlympicsCertified bereavement facilitator - American Academy of BereavementFacilitator of local chapter of The Compassionate Friends organizationKeynote speaker -- Community Hospice of NE FloridaContributor to Sandspun -- Florida Tales by Florida TellersTeacher for school students developing stories from historyTeacher and coach for performers at World Golf VillageCultural exchange student at University of Edinburgh, ScotlandPerformer for ElderhostelStoryteller for Camp Healing Powers - a bereaved children's campDiane is a native of Atlanta, Georgia and holds an AB from Georgia State University in Psychology and Information Systems and an M.Ed. from ETSU. In addition to her deceased son, she has two daughters and six grandchildren. She and her husband, Wilton Rooks, live on Lake Lanier, near Atlanta, and enjoy sailing and traveling.

  1. Diane Rooks

    When I was doing research for the story, I interviewed a woman who was a nurse in a polio ward in the early 50’s. She told me that when there was a power failure in her hospital, everybody (including janitors, cooks, etc.) stopped whatever they were doing and lined up to pump the iron lungs by hand. She said it was so hard to do that you could only pump for about a minute and then the next person in line would take over. That had to continue until the power came back on because some patients would have died without their iron lung. I talked to folks with post-polio syndrome that had to deal with breathing difficulties and muscle weakness.

    Also, at one of my performances about 15 years ago, a woman told me that her cousin had an iron lung in his home and still slept in it every night because he had trouble breathing at night without it. Of course I didn’t verify this, but thought it was interesting

  2. Diane – Well wrought story of our times. Born in 1950, I have many memories of my mothers requirement that I play outside most of the time. I had a lot of friends with polio and she made sure I played with them too. Haven’t thought of those times and may parents worry in years. thanks.

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