Poliomyelitis Experience

It was the summer of 1943. Poliomyelitis was rampant across the U.S. Grace Hospital in Hutchinson KS established a whole floor to accommodate patients who were in need of care. I was assigned to that duty.

The floor was made to accommodate several washing machines which were electrified to accommodate very hot water and all had wringers attached. These were needed to accommodate the Sister Kenny Method of Treatment for Polio – which was still controversial.

Wool Army blankets were cut to size for many patients. Two wool squares were cut together with a piece of rubberized material. This was the days before plastic! Several wool squares and rubberized sheets were cut making a package that could be tied together and dropped in the boiling hot water of the washing machine for a half hour.

Enough squares were cut to cover the whole body of the patient. Next we would remove the packages from the hot water and piece by piece run them through the wringer, placing them on the patient’s body and finally cover them with the dry wool pieces. The patient would lie quietly for almost 2 hours to absorb the warmth of the wool which relaxed the nerve ending of the affected area. This procedure was done twice a day for each patient. They always welcomed this treatment although they hated the odor of the wet wool. Some massage was done. Sister Kenny believed in keeping the muscles moving instead of immobilizing them with splints, plaster casts or braces. Iron Lungs were also available for those whose lungs were affected or had breathing problems.

We nursed all age groups – children to adults. The epidemic wasn’t kind to anyone. Crying wasn’t just for pain. Families missed each other. Some families would come to a window and wave - the only way they could show their concern. It was a very sad time for all.

I never was concerned over contracting the disease but will have to admit I never have worked so hard in all my training time. It was an exhausting job but very satisfying. To this day I think I can handle hotter materials in my hands than most people.

Elsie H. Johnson
Southbury, CT © 2013

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