My Experience with Polio - Oneda Paylor StahI

By Oneda Paylor StahI

          In the years preceding the development of vaccines against polio, the first by Dr. Jonas Salk that began to be administered in 1954 and the second, a oral vaccine, developed by Dr. Albert Sabin and licensed in 1962, hundreds of people across the nation, usually the young, were struck by polio.  In 1953 polio hit our area especially hard and affected several young people.  Three of these were Oneda, Mary, and Alice Paylor, who lived with their parents, Mr. and Mrs. Gailey Paylor, on their family farm in southern Montgomery Township.  The following memoir was written by Oneda Paylor Stahl, mother of two, artist, and church worker, about her life with polio as her constant companion.

          In February 1954 I was being moved from the Harrisburg General Hospital to the Industrial Home for Crippled Children on Dennison Avenue in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

          The ambulance driver had trouble finding Dennison Avenue so he stopped at the Nabisco Baking Company to ask directions.  We, the nurse and I, had to laugh about that and kidded him about taking me to the Biscuit Company.  I can’t remember much about arriving at the Home except being put into a ward with six beds and placed in a position so I would look to my right, and not my left, because of the weak muscles in my neck on the right side.  I was so stiff the head of the bed could not be raised more than 45 degrees. My legs were stiff as boards.  You could put one hand under my knee and left the leg up, and it would not bend at all.  I need to go back to why this trip was necessary.

          At the end of October, the 27th to be exact, I went roller skating with a friend, and, when I got home, my youngest sister, Alice, was sick.  It turned out to be polio.  So the next morning she was taken to Harrisburg General Hospital by ambulance.  The Health Department came and put quarantine notices on the front door and said that no one could leave the house.  Mother told them that she and Dad WERE leaving and going to Harrisburg.  While they were gone, Mary and I also got sick, and my older brother, Harold, had to take care of us.  I cannot imagine the horror Mother and Dad must have felt when they returned home and found two more of their children down with polio.  I remember Dr. Paul Clutz was there for us.  We were put to bed that evening, and the ambulance came the next morning and took us to Harrisburg General.  Dr. Clutz went with us in the ambulance.  We were put into cubicles, the top half of each one being glass.  I cannot remember seeing Mary again until I got to Pittsburgh several months later.  With the fever and everything that was going on, there were only flashes of memory for the next three weeks or so, but one thing I do remember is their making me drink liquids, to no avail, as the bladder had shut down.  Then my breathing started to get more and more difficult.  All of a sudden they were shouting, and five or six people came rushing in, picked me up, and took off on a run.  The next sensation was a hand over my face as they pulled my head through an opening in an iron lung and distant voices.  The sound of the lung was like the old wringer washing machine at home as the lung pulled fresh air in, then pushed the old air out of my lungs.  I spent about two and one-half months in the iron lung.

          I eventually discovered the lung beside me was the one with my little sister, Alice, in.  That little room in the basement of the Contagious Disease Annex (CDA) at the Harrisburg General Hospital was where we were for weeks, I should say months.  When a storm came up, I was scared because of the power supply that ran the machines.  A patient was supposed to be there only a certain length of time, but we were in that depressing building from October 27, 1953, until February 1, 1954.

          Each of us had to have twenty-four hour nursing.  I received liquids only because of my difficulty in swallowing.  Then I graduated to baby food.  I think that was while I was in the iron lung.  To this day it is hard to eat mashed sweet potatoes or peas.  Finally the best tasting food was a soft boiled egg.  It was hard to talk; I could get only a couple of words out at a time as the lung pushed the old air out.  There was a mirror on top of the lung at an angle so I could see what was going on around me.  It had wire across it so a book could be placed behind it; then I could read.  After several weeks they started opening the lung, and I would take a few breaths on my own using what was called “Frog Breathing.”  I still have to use this method to get a deep satisfying breath sometimes, especially if I am tired or nervous.  So working that way a minute or so at a time or counting breaths, I finally worked my way out of the lung on to a rocking bed by day and back into my lung at night.  The rocking bed would raise and lower my head and feet making my diaphragm  push air out and pull air into my lungs.  Slowly, it was the rocking bed, on for a while, then off, extending the length of time it was off until I was on my own and back into a glass cubicle again.  I don’t remember the date, but it must have been mid-January 1954.

          When we did get visitors, they weren’t allowed into where we were.  They were in a hallways on the other side of the glass.  Christmas of 1953 came and went, and Alice and I were still in the CDA Building, but Mary had been  moved to Pittsburgh before Thanksgiving. On February 1, 1954, things started happening fast!  They were rushing around in the hall outside my door.  After a while the doctor came in and gave me some pink medicine to drink and told me that Alice had just died.  Within minutes they had me packed me up and moved out of the CDA Building into the main hospital.  They had me there from only February 1,1954, until February 15, 1954, and then moved me to Pittsburgh to where Mary was. They  had had us in the CDA Building over three and one-half months when it should have only been days or even weeks.  I just learned from my Mother in 1998 that, when Alice died, Mother and Dad ordered the hospital to “get her out of there or she will die too.” Mother’s words!

          After having been moved to the main hospital I could  actually touch my visitors.  Some people were even afraid to come to visit us.  They would put these HOT PACKS on my legs, and HOT they were.  They were heavy and did not smell very good.  When they took them off, I looked like a red beet and felt like it too!.  I can remember the ice on the river breaking in front of the hospital.  I never knew ice could bed so noisy, and the sound of the fog horns was odd sounding to me.  Finally the day came when they moved me to Pittsburgh, February 15, 1954.

          One of the first things they did was splint my legs.  The brace man came and measured my legs and made splints for each leg.  I had to wear them all the time. They were fixed so that I could not roll my feet out to the side.  Ace bandages were wrapped the full length of both legs over the splints.  Then the physical therapy started.  My therapist was Miss Boynton.  They should have called it the torture chamber instead of the therapy room.  She started by forced bending a little at a time of these still stiff back muscles and leg muscles and for my right arm muscles.  While I was in the iron lung, I could use only my left arm and turn my head to the left.  I would lace the fingers of my left hand into the fingers of my right hand and move it wherever I wanted it.  It slowly came back.  The nurse would put a ball in my hand in the lung, and I worked at squeezing it to get the use of my hand back.  There is still some weakness there, and a muscle at my thumb was completely gone, but I’m glad I have what I do.  Sometimes they would force the leg to bend until something would pop sounding like a gunshot. Then they let me out of therapy for a few days.

          Sometimes, I think twice a week, I had therapy in the pool.  How I hated that !  Not so much being in the water, but the getting into and out the pool.  They had a sliding “thing,” for want of a better word, at gurney level they rolled me on, then slid it down these pipes into the water.  It would pinch the back of my legs.  My legs were so sensitive, it really hurt.  Polio seems to leave my flesh sore.  Sometimes even a touch can hurt.  There are no quadriceps in my legs now at all.  That was one thing I remember while I was in the iron lung those first weeks, the pain in my upper legs.  It was such a hot burning, tearing pain, never ending, it seemed.  Also I don’t have abdominal muscles because they were affected also.

          Easter 1954 came, and I was so thin I could not sit for long.  We received Easter baskets of candy.  I could keep it only a day or two, and the nurses would collect everyone’s candy.  I knew then what dessert would be for a while, chocolate chip ice cream!  Then came my sixteenth birthday on May 16, 1954.  How disappointing to be lying on my back, legs wrapped securely in full leg splints, visitors only on weekends, and then only a couple people.  No driver’s license, no school dances or church and Sunday School picnics.  Eventually I was able to sit up in a wheelchair.  It felt wonderful to be up.  They weighed me on a chart scale of some kind, and I weighed  around eighty-seven  pounds.  So they started feeding me foods to fatten me up.  One of those drinks was eggnog which I do not like and cannot stand to think of today.  Some school classes were started. They rolled my bed and everything into the classroom.  I had missed all of my tenth grade subjects after October 1953 and had only a couple subjects in Pittsburgh when I was able to go.  All therapy sessions continued daily.  After they had evaluated what muscles I had use of, they started fitting me with braces which took quite a long time.  I picked out shoes, saddle shoes.  I had a choice - black and white or brown and white.  The braces started taking shape.  There were two leg braces attached with hip joint to a back brace which strapped around my shoulders crossing over in the back and coming around to fasten to the apron on the front that supported my stomach  because of my having no quads.  The next step was to get used to wearing this thing.  It would rub my back bone raw and would have to be adjusted or make my shoulders sore where the straps rubbed.  Some things I just had to live with!   

          When I had to go to the bathroom, out would come the bedpan and the sandbag.  Yes, the sandbag.  I had no abdominal muscles so the sandbag was laid on my stomach, and it was heavy and uncomfortable, but necessary.  At one point I got really sick.  I don’t know if it was a virus or what, but they called a doctor in, and I think they called Mother and Dad out.  I remember their putting screens up around my bed, and a nurse would hold my head between her hands to help me when I had to vomit because I had no stomach muscles.  I must have been out of my head for a while for the next memory is being in a private room and back on the rocking bed.  I was there for two or three weeks and had to work my way back off the rocking bed again.

          There were all ages of children there.  Some had cerebral palsy, one girl had arthritis, some had muscular dystrophy, and, of course, the majority were polio patients.  As I gained strength and more mobility and became more independent and more able to help myself, I was taken to the dining room for meals instead of eating in my room.  To get to the dining room, I had to go down a really steep and long ramp to the house.  We were in the infirmary, and when I could care of my needs - make my own bed, dress myself, and pick myself up off the floor when I fell on my face - I was moved to the house.  For me that was a way off.  The first time they stood me on my feet in my body brace, the floor looked as if it were ten feet down from where I was, and it was a terrifying feeling.  I had to learn how to move my feet by swinging a hip and trying to use a hamstring on the back of my legs.  I had to use Canadian crutches because  of the braces under my arms. I couldn’t use the regular crutches, but with a weak right  arm it was really hard.  It was right foot, left arm, right arm, and then left foot.  I had to keep repeating it to myself to be able to move.  If I missed a move or my arm got tired, I’d lose my balance and kiss the floor.  With these braces if I went face first, it was like dropping a board because there was no give.  I have some scars on my chin where I’ve hit the floor.  I never did master the art of picking myself up.  They always had to stand me back up on my feet.  To do stairs I swing one foot up and then pull myself up to the next step; to come down I had to come down backwards.  They finally did let me go to the house anyway.  About the ramp - I was not allowed to go down it on my own.  There were college student volunteers from the University of Pittsburgh and Carnegie Tech there, and they would take me down and go back up and bring another wheelchair and rider down, and, after I had eaten, they would take me back up.

          By this time it had been over a year since that first ambulance ride, and I could not let myself think about getting home, for I had no idea that it would ever happen.  I just tried to do what had to be done that day, and tomorrow could take care of itself.

          Close to Christmas the tree was decorated with homemade cookies.  They were baked in the kitchen, and then we decorated them as we liked and put strings on them, and they were hung on the tree.  One evening the student volunteers took some of the older kids, including me, in  a van to a lookout above the river where the Ohio River is formed by the Allegheny River and the Monongahela River and to see other Christmas lights.  This was the second Christmas away from home.  One other outing I remember is that they took three or four of us to a Steeple Chase Horse Race.  I was in a newspaper picture advertising the race.  I think that the Industrial Home for Crippled Children received financial help from the profits from the race.  It really was a fun day.

          The day finally came when I did get to go home.  It was March 1955.  I don’t remember anything about the trip home - not a single thing!  I left, or was taken, from my home in Montgomery Township in October 1953 and returned home in March 1955.  I had been gone about seventeen months.

          I remember that  at the IHCC they opened our mail before we got it.  They said it was to keep us from getting upsetting news, but I now wonder about that.  We could not seal letters or any mail we sent because they had to see that too.  Sometimes we would get one of the nurses’ aides to take our mail out and mail it for us.  She was also good at sneaking candy bars and goodies in for us.  One of the nurses there one day told me I’d never walk again. This was just after I had gotten my braces, I think, but being the stubborn person I am, I said to myself, ”You just watch me,” and so I was determined to walk.  So I doubled my efforts and worked even harder.  I’m sure now it was a case of reverse psychology.  I’ve read since that the attitude of “I will do it”  has proved to be more harmful to us survivors now and that, consequently, now we are our worst enemies by pushing ourselves too hard and too long.  We are now having problems with fatigue, weakness, breathing difficulties, and mobility, not to mention the return of the pain.

          Therapy continued after returning home.  Mother turned therapist at home, and a couple times a week we had to go to the Chambersburg Hospital to see Dr. Richards who took care of all the polio patients.  Every couple months we had to go to the State Clinic at the hospital, and Dr. Richards did muscle  tests in which he checked all the muscles of the body and evaluated them for strength or weakness.  The brace man, Mr. Teuffel, would be there to take orders from the doctor about what needed changed or added and a shoe man also.  This went on for several years.  A day at the State Clinic was an all day event. The hallway would be lined with people waiting their turn to be called in.  Sometimes we had to make a trip to Elizabethtown to Mr. Teuffel’s office to be fitted with new braces or to have braces repaired.   I was always breaking mine as the leg brace would break off just below the hip joint.

          I finished a couple months of my eleventh grade after coming home and my full senior year and graduated with the rest of my class in 1956.  With a hand brake added to Dad’s car I was able to drive.  We had to go to Everett, Pennsylvania, for me to take the driver’s test because the local State Police office at that time was in the basement of a building, and I could not get into it to take the test.  I got a job at Fry Coal and Stone Company.  After graduation I married James Stahl and became the mother of twins, Keith and Kevin.

          I’ve have lost my independence and mobility four times in my life. In October 1953 I lost the use of my legs and for some months was totally dependent upon assistance to move around.  I learned to walk with braces and canes.  The second loss came when the diseased muscles failed with time, and I was back again in a wheelchair.  In December 1994 my husband James was fatally injured in a truck accident about a mile from our home.  With this loss, and for the third time, my ability to get around was interrupted.  I returned to driving.  I purchased a van with hand controls and with help am able to get out and around.  However, I need someone to load and unload my wheelchair from the van.

          I try to concentrate upon the “cans” of this life, and not upon the “cannots,” and take one day at a time.  I thank God every day for the blessings He has given me, for every mountain we have to climb makes us stronger in spirit and faith, if not in body.  Above all, I thank God for the miracle of my sons, for only through a miracle from God could there have been born strong healthy twin boys.

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