In 1947, I was only 4 — going on 5 years old. I didn’t know there was a polio epidemic. All I knew was that my head hurt. We had company from Rochester, N.Y. A couple of my mom’s sisters were there with some of my cousins. I went into the house and told Mom my head really hurt. My aunt said to my mom and me, “Elaine is not getting all the attention she usually gets. I bet her head isn’t that bad.”
I left and went in the backyard where no one else was. I sat on an old swing and cried. Finally I just sat out there and held my head as I thought it might come apart. My mother saw me through the window and came outside. By then my temperature was beginning to rise — already 102. Mom took me in her arms and sent my brother to go to the field and get dad to go to the doctor.
We went to our country doctor — Dr. Reeder. He was the same doctor who brought me into the world in the Cedar Rapids Nursing home. It wasn’t what we consider a nursing home today. Small surgeries were done there — tonsils removed and children delivered.
We went to Dr. Reeder’s office, and in a very short time he diagnosed me with polio. He also gave me a shot of something that was to help with the headache and called Children’s Hospital in Omaha. I sat in the back seat of Dad’s silver Hudson as he drove there — at about 80 miles an hour. We drove faster than I had ever thought we could, and I sat in the back seat and held my head.
Once at the hospital, I was immediately taken away to my room. I saw my mother’s worried face through the room window and only the right half of my father’s — the window frame cut the rest of him off. Then they were gone and I was in my bed by myself. I had a roommate, though. Her name was Mary and I thought she was so old. She was probably 13 or 14. She was old to me. Today when I think about that time, I see my mother’s face looking through the window. I wasn’t old enough to know about isolation and contagion. The only thing I knew was that my parents left me in that room and the only thing my scared Mom said was, “Elaine, be good. We’ll be in touch with the hospital. I think you’re going to be OK.”
Today, I know I was in the hospital for five days. When I was 4 years old, I don’t think I could have survived without my roommate, Mary, being in the room. Mary talked to me all the time. She wanted to know about my family, the things I liked to do, what made me feel good.
One of the first things they wanted to do to me was give me a spinal tap, and Mary said it was going to hurt because she already had one. They put a needle in my back and took something out or put something in. I only remember Mary talking to me. “Elaine, you can do this, take some deep breaths, it doesn’t last very long. You’re going to be OK. Talk to me, tell me what you like to do when you play. Tell me about your mom and dad and your brothers.” She kept talking to me until they were done. I don’t remember what happened when it was done, but Mary kept talking to me until I went to sleep.
I don’t remember much after that time. I only remember thinking my headache was going away and I thought I might be better.
Mary wasn’t getting better. After I had been there four days, I remember waking up in the middle of the night because there were lots of people in my room and I couldn’t sleep anymore. Mary had already been put into this big piece of iron. It seemed like a machine you put things in from the farm. After that, she didn’t talk to me and I really missed her. They were all around Mary’s bed. They worked and worked and then everyone went out of the room, including Mary. I was there by myself. That’s when I really cried. I kept asking the nurses “where did Mary go?” They really didn’t answer me. They said she would be back tomorrow. That next day, my parents came to get me and I went home. The nurses took me out to the lobby in a wheelchair and my mom and dad were there. I screamed with joy when I saw them and then we went home. We drove back to Primrose, although it wasn’t at 80 miles per hour.
I talked about Mary to my mother for a long time. I missed her terribly. One day, a few months later, mother told me Mary had died. I didn’t know what to do. I didn’t even know what death meant. I only knew when some baby kittens disappeared, Mom said they must have died. I knew they were gone. Mother held me while I cried.
I went to the granary where there were kittens. I wept silently. They didn’t answer the questions I had, but they loved me and let me hold them and they didn’t go away.
Elaine Voboril, of Minnetonka, is a retired teacher. She is at email@example.com.