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The Article I Never Wanted to Write

The Article I Never Wanted to Write image The Article I Never Wanted to Write image The Article I Never Wanted to Write image The Article I Never Wanted to Write image The Article I Never Wanted to Write image
Peg Porter
Rights Held By
Ypsilanti Historical Society
OCR Text

On April 8, 1955, I celebrated my 14th birthday. On April 12, four days later in Ann Arbor, just a few miles down the road, Dr. Thomas Francis and Dr. Jonas Salk announced the successful field trials of Salk's polio vaccine. This medical breakthrough signaled the beginning of the end of one of the most feared and destructive illnesses. Each summer brought new outbreaks of the polio virus. Its victims were primarily but not exclusively children. The announcement of an effective vaccine meant an almost immediate reduction in the number of polio cases. The demand for the vaccine in the first few years outstripped the supply. Age limits were placed to determine eligibility. Younger children were the primary target. If you happened to be a young teenager, your chances of being vaccinated were remote, to say the least. The summer of 1955 was a hot one. Fortunately we had a cottage on Base Lake (aka Baseline Lake). My brother and I spent hours in the water, reluctantly returning to shore to eat. Mother sometimes made us lie down during the hottest part of the day but as soon as we could we went back in the water. In early August my parents decided we should take a short road trip. My brother and I sat the in back seat of the family’s turquoise Plymouth Station wagon. Baby sister Jane stayed home watched over by her Granny from Canada. Off we went toward Niagara Falls, first on the U.S. side, finally to cross over to the Canadian side with its lovely gardens, tea rooms and the best view of the falls. We rode the Maid of the Mist before heading back west through Ontario. Dad pointed out the signs to Guelph where his Nova Scotian father attended agricultural college. We stopped in Stratford for lunch. The Shakespeare Festival was in its second year with all performances in a tent in the city park. The last leg of the trip was up to Godrich, Ontario, a pretty town on the northern shores of Lake Huron. There was an old inn on a bluff above the lake. That was where we stayed. As soon as we could, my brother and I were in our bathing suits headed down to the beach and into the cold water. It certainly was cooler than Base Lake. Our swim was short as we had to dress for dinner, an experience mother used to reinforce etiquette. The following day we headed home to Dexter. Less than two weeks later, I developed a tingling in my legs; by that evening I found myself struggling to go up and down the porch steps. The next morning when I got out of bed, I fell to the floor. My legs could not support me. The crash brought my parents to my room. I could not stand up and was lifted into bed. I heard my parents conferring. Dad was going to summon Dr. Al Milford who had a cottage at Portage Lake. We had no phone in those days. It wasn't long before Dad returned with Al. After a brief examination, I heard Dr. Milford say, "We must take her to University Hospital." And so my mother made a bed of sorts in the backseat of the Plymouth station wagon. My father carried me out to the car. Off we headed for Dexter then on to Dexter Ann Arbor Road. My head was propped up by a pillow and I watched the familiar scenes flash by. Dr. Milford guided us to the Emergency Entrance. They did a spinal tap. That was the one sure way to diagnose the virus. The diagnosis was what we all expected - polio. Then I was loaded into an ambulance for a trip down the hill behind the hospital. The Contagious Ward was housed in an old World War I cottage with screened in porches on all sides. If you saw the film "The English Patient" that is what it resembled. I was put in a small room, my body encased in sandbags. It was hot, no air conditioning not even a fan. Staff were gowned and gloved when they entered the room. Their visits were as short as possible. I could see my parents through a small window at the back of the room. This was isolation. My one human contact was the resident physician, a young man with a kind face who spoke with me as if I were a person, not merely a patient. One night I felt I was having trouble breathing. I asked for the doctor, the nurse resisted but finally relented. He came, calmed me down and stayed with me until I went to sleep. After four days, I was put back in the ambulance, went up the hill to the main hospital to begin rehabilitation. My home for the next two and a half months was Ward 4-C. This was a noisy often raucous place that housed all of the patients who, like myself, had paralysis from polio and were undergoing rehabilitation. We were almost all teenagers and now that we were no longer "sick" did what teenagers do. There was a TV mounted on the wall. That fall the Mickey Mouse Club made its debut. We watched faithfully and picked our favorites among the Mousketeers. In the evenings we listened to local DJ Ollie McLaughlin. At least once a week he dedicated a song to "my friends at 4-C." We had visits from some of the Michigan football players, including Ron Kramer who I thought was really good looking. We were indulged but for the most part this treatment kept the depression at bay that follows a traumatic illness or accident. That would come later. Friendships developed in 4-C. Some would last beyond discharge from the hospital. My closest friends were Ellie, a freshman at the University of Michigan from New York, and Sarah, like me, a freshman in high school. She was from Manchester. My parents "adopted" Ellie who started referring to me as her "little sister." Both Sarah's parents and mine were regular visitors: they also supported each other. I was the most severely disabled and the last to leave the hospital. At one point four of us, my two friends and I plus another teenager named Joan, were moved to a women's surgical ward to reduce the overcrowding in 4-C. It was a typical hospital ward of the times, two rows of beds facing each other in a long room. Not an appropriate environment for four teenagers. The move was short-lived. Someone (we never found out who) went directly to Dr. Francis. I heard a commotion at the entrance to the ward. Since we were at the far end, I could not understand what was being said. But I recognized Dr. Francis as he was very tall. Clearly he was not happy. Within the hour we were moved back to 4-C. It seems that Dr. Francis viewed the patients who were recovering from polio as "his." Surely he recognized the irony of the teenagers recovering from polio just months after he joined Dr. Salk in announcing the success of the vaccine. My therapy consisted of being placed in an "oven" that produced warm steam. Only my head was outside the "oven." It had a timer that I watched; when it rang, I was removed to a table and the stretching began. It hurt but was felt necessary to keep the muscles from contracting. This was followed by some strength building exercises. After six weeks or so I was fitted with a full-length leg brace on my left leg and provided with "Canadian" crutches so I could stand and begin to walk. My mother visited the hospital and was told to go down to Physical Therapy where a surprise was waiting. She came into the room to see me standing though propped up by the crutches. It was a shock for her. Up until then she had seen me either in bed or in a wheelchair. During that visit she faced what the virus had done to my body. She kept herself together until she reached her car and then broke down in tears. She was sobbing so hard that when she reached Washtenaw, she pulled over. A truck driver saw her and pulled up behind her. He walked to the car and asked if she was alright. It was difficult for her to stop crying long enough to answer him. He offered to call my dad or to drive her home. By then she had pulled herself together, thanked him and told him she was able to drive the rest of the way home. Now that I had the brace and crutches much of my physical therapy involved practicing walking, sitting down and getting up, and the most frightening of all, climbing stairs. I could go up the stairs but when it came to come back down, I froze. I was taught to put my crutches on the next step down, balance myself and then lower my braced leg first. Of course it felt like I was going to fall head first. I think it was the first time I cried in Physical Therapy. But I had a cheerleader. A male patient with both legs missing sat at the bottom of the stairs in his wheelchair and talked me down. I've seen this happen in therapy again and again. The fellow patients are very supportive of each other and a camaraderie develops. When one person succeeds the other patients offer their support and congratulations. It is a crucial piece of regaining confidence. After about six weeks, I made my first home visit. This was just for a half-day but it was an important milestone. I had not been outside since late August. I remember going out the door into the cool autumn air and seeing the first touches of color on the leaves. The two family members who seemed most happy to see me were Muffin, our English cocker spaniel who cried and covered my face with kisses and Janie Lynn my fifteenth month old baby sister. Janie stayed as close as she could. About two weeks after that first visit I was signed out for a weekend visit. I remember I slept on a pull-out couch in the den; the stairs would be tackled later. The home visits and the progress I made in Physical Therapy signaled the preparation for release from the hospital. And on a cold day in mid-November, my father's birthday, I left and headed home. My next goal was to return to school in January. I had been receiving assignments regularly from most of my teachers. Through these I managed to stay on track in my classwork. I was physically ready but I was not mentally ready for the changed world I was going to reenter. I was now a person with a disability. My good friends remained my good friends. I was not however ready for the rejection I would experience. I began this by stating this was the article I never wanted to write. Why? And why did I choose to do it now? I was determined to resume my life much as it had been before I contracted the virus. I did not want to draw attention to my disability. It was not me and I was determined that not be defined by changed physical characteristics. To do so would limit my opportunities. But to others, especially those who had not known me before, that is exactly what happened. It was terribly unfair. I experienced what we would now recognize as discrimination although much of it was benign, done in the guise of protection. The 1950s were a time of conformity. This was particularly true among the young. As a teenager I was sometimes excluded from social activities. I still remember a New Years Eve Party. The first New Year's celebration among my peers. Many of my friends attended but I was not invited. Yet, I was well-liked and involved in numerous activities. When it came time to apply for college my options were more limited than my classmates. I was accepted to one of best private liberal arts colleges in the state but I did not attend as there "was no dorm space." This, I realized later, was blatant discrimination but there were no laws then that prohibited an educational institution from such practices. I know that my struggles were similar to those experienced by many others with an acquired disability. Yet, most of us try to preserve a positive attitude and to be the best in whatever we do. And many, if not most of us, not just succeed but to do so almost effortlessly or so it seems. There is a term "super crip" used within the movement that recognizes that phenomenon. The demands that we place on ourselves and that others come to expect from us can be exhausting. Those are some of the reasons I chose not to write about my own experience. Why now? This past year marks a highly significant anniversary. Many view the development of the vaccines as the most important medical advance of the 20th century. There are fewer of us to tell the story, to educate and enlighten not just about polio but to look inward and honestly think about how we view and value other people. In this age of inclusiveness, more attention needs to be paid to how others are excluded. Attitudes and awareness require constant attention. As the years passed, I became more and more of an advocate and not just on behalf of polio "victims." I learned about deafness, the deaf community or communities. A close friend and colleague of mine, who was diabetic, lost most of her vision and eventually her life. I worked with blind individuals and watched the advances in technology that provided support on the job. I came to understand that various types of physical disability presented their own unique challenges. For example, people with spinal cord injuries function differently than those with cerebral palsy. And perhaps the most damaging of all are the closed head injuries that affect communications and the thought process and often result in outbursts of anger that are frightening to the injured and those around them. All of this is at times overwhelming and yet disability coalitions have been built that have had major impact on the lives of both disabled and TABS (Temporarily Able Bodied) people. When I moved to Washington, D.C in 1980, Michigan and California were viewed as the states who led the nation in securing rights for disabled people. I was privileged to attend the signing of the Americans with Disabilities Act on the West Lawn of the White House in July of 1990. Previously people with disabilities were treated with a kind of patronizing pity. Now it was the law of the land that disabled people were entitled to full participation in almost all aspects of life. On return to my home state I found that times had changed. In part this was due to the change in political leadership and a struggling economy. Michigan, in my view, was no longer proactive but more reactive. More than once I have pointed out barriers to full participation only to hear "we don't have to do that." The end result is loss: the group or organization loses the potential contribution of people who are excluded and these individuals are denied participation. Most barriers, whether they be physical or attitudinal, aren't the result of maliciousness but have their origins in lack of awareness or lack of knowledge regarding the law. Personally I would rather not have to take legal action but it is sometimes necessary to ensure fairness and equal opportunity. My own perspective has changed significantly since 1955. In the early years I was defensive, easily hurt while still pushing myself not only to do well but to be better if not the best. Over time, as I experienced some level of success I realized the much larger issues that face so many people. I rejected the role of "victim" and became an advocate and leader. This represents personal growth and a greater level of comfort in my own body. It also allowed me to write this article, the one I did not want to write. (Editors Note: Peg Porter was born in Ann Arbor and grew up on the west side of Ypsilanti. She graduated from Roosevelt High School and received a Bachelor's and two Master’s Degrees from Eastern Michigan University. She was on the faculty of Central Michigan University, a staff member of Eastern Michigan, a program manager at Macomb County Community College and a consultant with Michigan Rehabilitation Services. She was a Department of Health and Human Services Fellow and a staff member in the Office of the Secretary of Health and Human Services. She also is a trained mediator, writer and editor.)

Photo Captions: Photo 1: Iron Lungs were used when Polio was at its peak in the late 1940s and early 1950s.

Photo 2: Dr. Thomas Francis from the University of Michigan and Dr. Jonas Salk, vaccine developer, announce the success of polio vaccine in field trials in April 1955 in Ann Arbor, Michigan.

Photo 3: Peg Porter holding her sister Jane a few months before contracting the polio virus.

Photo 4: The University of Michigan Hospital in the mid-1950s. The contagious ward was behind the main hospital.

Photo 5: Peg Porter with sister Jane on one of her visits home.

Photo 6: Peg Porter (at right) on her 15th birthday on April 8, 1956. At the upper left is Eleanor Bergeret, a U of M student and friend of Peg during her hospital stay.

Photo 7: President George Bush signs the Americans with Disabilities Act in July 1990 on the West lawn of the White House. On the left is Evan Kemp; Justin Dart, Jr. is to the right; both Republican disability advocates.