Surviving the Iron Lung: a Story of Polio

Mary Virginia with her family. Heather’s father is the young boy on the right. Picture estimated to be from 1958. Provided courtesy of Heather, and used with her permission.

This story was told to me by Mary Virginia’s granddaughter, Heather. After seeing the picture of the communal iron lung at the top of the blog, Heather realized that this is what her grandmother spent several years in.

Mary Virginia was born in 1930, to a well-off family. Her childhood was happy enough, until the summer of 1937. Mary Virginia went to the neighborhood swimming pool, and had a lovely time. The next day, right before bed, she felt a little fuzzy. Her mom touched her forehead: the child was a little feverish, so her mother called the doctor.

Within hours, Mary Virginia could not control her lower body; within two days she was in an iron lung, in a hospital. She told her granddaughter that she shared a communal iron lung with four other children at a time (an “Emerson”, she called it).

There were dozens of children with polio in the hospital.

The turnover was high. Within six months, she and only two others were the only ones left from the original group she saw. In the communal iron lung turn over was fast for a grimmer reason: children died. Mary Virginia stopped counting her lost companions when she reached 24: she didn’t know how to count any higher than that. She had an aversion to the number 24 since then: it reminded her of the children she saw die.

For 3-4 years Mary Virginia lived in the iron lung. The nurses who treated her would move her arms and legs to maintain some kind of muscle. Her parents would visit her throughout the years she spent at the hospital, but although they were financially well off, the price and lengths of the train trip meant their visits were limited. Mary Virginia’s mother always felt guilty about that. Still, they saw Mary Virginia more often than most parents saw their kids. Heather, Mary Virginia’s granddaughter, remember that her grandmother told her that her own mother brought  “knitted hats, and little trinkets for the kids. And books, books were very important.”

After leaving the iron lung she spent additional years in the hospital. Many of the skills she had before she went in were lost and had to be relearned: she was back in diapers, and had to relearn to use a restroom, something that took years; she could no longer walk.

She left the hospital as a teenager who could barely walk. Heather says: “My Nana was warned she would never walk again, she proved them wrong – only used a cane in winter until she was much older and required a wheelchair for long distances or grocery shopping. She wore special shoes because polio caused blood flow to her pinky toes to be cut off. She has special inserts as foot muscle tone was affected. She showed me her braces once – from the bottom of her hip all the way down to her ankles. Doctors were amazed,  I remember her doctor she saw in Toronto, I must have been 8 or 9, saying she was a miracle, to be able to regain so much muscle tone after polio. She couldn’t walk far but made it around the house ok by the time I was around.”

“She wasn’t really welcome back to her town,” Says Heather. Getting her life back together was hard in other ways too. While in the hospital, Mary Virginia’s education was patchy. The hospital tried to provide education, but it was not equivalent to what a school would have given. Mary Virginia had to relearn to write (though she kept reading through her hospitalization). She was not allowed to go back to her regular school, and had tutors working with her. It must have been lonely. But she overcame this obstacle too: she got through high school, attended university and taught home economics – cooking and sewing – for years.

Her physical development was also impacted. She only grew to 4 feet 8 inches in height. Her doctors were also pessimistic about her ability to have children, and here too she beat the odds, having five children in six years, almost dying while birthing her youngest in an emergency C-section.

Mary Virginia worked hard to overcome the obstacles polio put in her way. As said above, she graduated from college and worked, teaching until the early 1980s. She and her husband, a lawyer, had five children. She cooked and cleaned every day, rejecting the help of housekeepers as part of her determination to be independent. Cooking was not easy for her, since her short stature – a memento from the polio – made reaching shelves hard, but she persisted, and taught her son and granddaughter how to cook. She gardened, and loved anything “outdoorsy”, says Heather, who remembers her as “strict but very loving.” She stayed friends with one of the women who was admitted into the hospital in the same year she was, someone who could identify with her experiences.

In 2002, Mary Virginia caught pneumonia. Heather says: “Her muscles were already so damaged from polio as a child that when she got sick essentially her lungs were too weak to work properly and she did not want to be intubated, she wanted to be awake until she couldn’t any longer.”

In June 2003, she died. Her family misses her keenly. But Mary Virginia built a good life for herself, in spite of obstacles, and Heather is grateful for having had this remarkably, brave woman in her life.

Acknowledgements: I am grateful to Heather for sharing her grandmother’s story and to Alice Warning Wasney for her comments and help with the draft.

Share

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *