Sunday, September 26, 2021
Sept. 26, 2021

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Everybody Has a Story: Fear of polio puts girl, 4, in isolation ward

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It’s no fun to be 4 years old and in isolation in the hospital with a suspected dread illness.

I was a possible polio victim and in St. Joseph’s Hospital in Vancouver in the mid-1940s. Polio was a vicious threat. I was the right age and condition to be at risk. We were told to avoid public swimming pools, crowds and friends with colds. My parents guarded me carefully, but still, illness came calling.

I started in isolation. The isolation room door had a tiny window my parents could wave through and show me presents they’d purchased for my recovery. My most vivid memory is a little red purse with a long strap to wear cross body.

The nurses poked my finger drawing blood until one nurse said that was enough finger poking, and she started poking my big toe. I remember holding up my foot for the inevitable when she appeared in my room.

After I left isolation, I was placed in a four-bed room. One of my roommates was a 10-year-old boy. I’d never known anyone so old! He could actually climb out of the crib (I’m sure he didn’t call it that) and bring me copies of his comic books. I’d never seen a comic book. How floppy it was compared with my books at home. He read to me. I was impressed that he could read. I introduced him proudly to my parents. I didn’t tell them he’d sneaked me candy.

We were on guard for nurses. St. Joseph’s was a Catholic hospital; sisters in black were frequently nearby. In those days nurses wore starched white uniforms and patrolled the halls (we thought). We could tell when a nurse was coming because her shoes squeaked on the floor. If he was out and about, my roommate would hustle back to his bed.

One night my dinner included canned peas. I didn’t like peas. The nurse wouldn’t take the tray away until I ate the peas. I wouldn’t eat the peas. A sister showed up while I was crying and saw the cold peas. She turned and marched down the hall. Soon, I heard the squeak of the nurse heading my way. She picked up the tray and disappeared. Of course, the sister was my hero.

One night I had a dream and woke up crying. A nurse squeaked in and asked me what was wrong. I answered, “I’m hungry.” She disappeared and returned with a bunch of grapes. When I asked what to do with the seeds, she said throw them on the floor. Imagine my delight being told to throw food on the floor! I even woke up early in the morning to watch the seeds vacuumed up.

My introduction to the hospital turned out to be an experience of wonder for me. Luckily I did not have polio and, thanks to a vaccine, polio no longer causes the same fear that it did. I only hope the virus terrifying us all now is curbed quickly. Once again, I am the right age and condition to be at risk.

Everybody Has a Story welcomes nonfiction contributions, 1,000 words maximum, and relevant photographs. Send to: neighbors@columbian.com or P.O. Box 180, Vancouver WA, 98666. Call “Everybody Has an Editor” Scott Hewitt, 360-735-4525, with questions.

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