THE POLIO WARD – University of Michigan 1957


University of Michigan 1957


By Janice Kimball

polio vaccine


The incessant pushing of air into the lungs of helpless children, then sucking it back out, in mechanical death-defying beats. ‘Phew-Whooh, Phew-Whooh’ continued through the days and the nights when I was thirteen years old and laying on my back, feet strapped upright on a board at the foot of my bed in the hospital’s pediatric ward.  

The heartbreaking cries of seemingly endless children housed in tight rows that filled the inside of the gymnasium echoed up the walls and pierced my soul. I internalized spatters of conversation from parents who lived in the northern part of the state, and those who lived in Upper Peninsula, saying goodbye to their children knowing it might be forever.

My adult size bed was conspicuous among the cribs and junior beds that surrounded me. It sat near the entrance to the gymnasium next to where the bank of iron lungs began. Mother came alone to visit me that first day in the pediatric ward, as she had every day since I had been admitted. Once wild, pretty and curvaceous, with the added weight of a hundred pounds, she became a doggedly unrelenting woman. Her stoic gait, tough and indomitable, gave the effect of a tank rolling in ready to do battle.

Mother’s look of suffering was even more expressive than usual. I turned my head away. I could not bear to see Mother’s expression of martyrdom on my behalf again. In a display of affection that I knew was the best mother could offer, she patted the back of my hand. At the same time Mother furtively assessed the bleakness of the gymnasium setting. Although I was angry that she seemed unable to make any rational decision, indeed was a master at making any situation worse, I did not blame her for my Polio.

Not acknowledging the existence of other children in the ward, Mother paced up one aisle and down the other in a demand for attention. As her anger grew, the screaming of babies became louder. In frustration her aggression grew. As if she were Godzilla, she shook a stack of sheeted metal partitions leaning against the back wall. She requisitioned them, and complying with her orders in a desperate attempt to keep the entire ward from turning into mayhem, the staff stopped what they were doing to construct a private wall around my bed.

I cringed each time the screen had to be clumsily unfolded then refolded when a nurse came in or left. They would trip on the stand of my makeshift screen, almost knocking it over, as they scurried around in exhaustion taking care of the needs of suffering children, like it was a never ending game of musical chairs.

I played possum faking deadness, an effect that was to get me through many hard times in my life; I turned, emotionless, to face the wall when asking for a bedpan. I had dreaded buzzing for one because of the nurses’ hatred for me. Once I waited too long and wet the bed. The nurses cleaning it up had such contempt for me that I felt their disgust as they lifted my limp body, feet trussed to the footboard, to change the sheets.

The overhead lights had been dimmed to simulate darkness. I laid awake that first night in the pediatric ward, in spite of the sound of babies crying, not imagining what was to come next. That quiet period became what I now think of as the ward in mourning.

Crisp shadows backlit from the wall lights behind the iron lungs cast eerie, stencil-like images against the curtain that circled my bed. I lay awake listening to the sound of feet tied in blue paper wrappings as they shuffled against the gymnasium floor. The doctors and nurses were so close to me that if the soles of my feet were not strapped down, I would have been able to reach out and touch their uniforms. Although I had been separated, I felt a party to the hard decisions they whispered about: which children should be left in the iron lungs and which should be taken out to die, to make room for another child who maybe had a better chance to survive.

I desperately needed to see what was happening in the tragedies of which I had become a part. Staring at my sheet room-divider out of the corners of my eyes, as if I could miraculously look through them, was fruitless. My stiff neck kept my head flat on the pillow-less mattress. Soon, however, the discussion would end and I could hear and the doctors shuffle out, followed by a period of silence before the gurneys arrived.

The aides, almost silently scurrying about, bumped against my curtain as they removed Polio victims from their mechanical tombs. One less whooshing would be heard from the bank of iron lungs as a child pumped their last breath. I could hear the wheeling of a gurney leave the room as it was pushed down the long hall. I would strain to follow the sound of it and when I could no longer hear it, then silently cry.

“… I supposed the gurney entered a room somewhere down the long hallway. Maybe it had a delivery door, like the one through which I arrived. Maybe a hearse was waiting for the body. Maybe one had not been ordered; maybe the children weren’t dead before they reached that room. Maybe, the hospital needed to wait until the child’s heartbeat stopped.  Maybe it still pumped after taking them off of their breathing machine. Maybe they were conscious when they were rolled down the hallway, maybe…” I thought.

I had never been so alone. I wanted to communicate with another person who understood this tragedy. I needed to share a tear, share the hopelessness of what I had heard, and help me pay recognition to the children’s suffering, pay homage to their deaths. I needed to do something, anything, even if it was to cry out. But I was ashamed to call attention to myself, my needs, have my sounds heard in this secret midnight tryst that I had so much became a part. Night after night, as I lay mute, this life and death scene played out. 

Scorned by the staff for the extra attention mother had demanded they give me, no one said goodbye when at last I left. I heard their snickers and sighs of relief as I was wheeled out, accompanied by my mail order catalogs. I wished it could have been otherwise.  I wished I could at least have had a paralyzed arm, or some other disability to alleviate my shame for leaving the other children behind crippled and suffering. Mother, through her most grand efforts, was never able to get me transferred to the adult ward. Possibly it was in another building. For her, it was a bitter defeat.

A whippoorwill called out. It was a fall day as I waited at the curb in the wheelchair for Mother to bring the car around. I breathed in the fresh moist air, felt it fill my lungs, a sensation I had never remembered feeling before. That short span of time laying in the polio ward ended my childhood.  Incredibly, I was encouraged to continue to make my own decisions, and I continued to make bad ones. That is, until I reached the age of 59 when I moved to the paradise of Lake Chapala, twenty two years ago.


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