Survivors share their childhood experience with Polio and offer perspective on current Coronavirus pandemic

While a patient at the West River Crippled Children’s Hospital in Hot Springs, current Edgemont resident George Darrow was pictured in a newspaper article about the facility. He is shown in the picture on left, standing behind fellow patient Eddie Davies who is featured in a wheel chair and reading a book.

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By Eric Harrold

Staff Writer

EDGEMONT – For a few folks in Fall River County, the current Coronavirus pandemic has an unpleasant familiarity to it. They’ve been confronted with a pandemic before, although its been a while. The good news is that they’ve lived to tell about it, and either their words, actions, or both can be viewed as perspective on what American society is faced with today.

Anyone living today who was a child in the 1940s and 50s usually can recall something about the Poliovirus. If they were fortunate enough to get the vaccine before contracting the virus, they mostly remember what their peers went through who weren’t so fortunate. And for those who did contract the virus, memories are etched in their minds about the experience in spite of their young age at the time.

Pat Spencer who resides on a ranch north of Edgemont remembers being 4 or 5 when she had to undergo surgery on her left foot. Polio impacted her left leg and foot, rendering the leg shorter and the joints in both weaker than those of her right. Today, Spencer says she uses inserts in her left shoe to even up the sides and improve her mobility.

George Darrow of Edgemont says he contracted polio in 1954, which was a long time ago as he points out. Darrow’s recollection of those days is aided by items that were kept in a scrapbook due to the efforts of his mother who felt it important to chronicle the experience. Today he can share cards, newspaper articles, and hospital bulletins from those early years that indicate just how much of an impact polio had on school-age children.

When first admitted to the West River Crippled Children’s Hospital and Polio Center in Hot Springs, Darrow says he couldn’t move anything on his left side. Once in the hospital, he received daily therapy that included his feet being pressed against a board, soaking in a hot water bath, being placed in a body sling and put into a heated pool.

Darrow says that after lunch, school lessons and assignments were completed in bed. Parents could visit children twice a week at the facility, which admitted more than 1,200 patients in 2 ½ years.

Darrow recalls the dedication of his parents after he was released to go home, wrapping him daily in hot towels and blankets before immersing him in a hot bath. His father would give him therapeutic exercises for all limbs and joints twice a day to promote his recovery.

When asked about the impact of the vaccine for polio on those confronted by its emergence, Darrow responded bluntly. “The vaccine put an end to polio,” said Darrow. “Every kid in every school got a polio shot.”

When asked if he felt that getting the vaccine for Coronavirus was in his best interest, Darrow responded, “Absolutely.” In his opinion, the present vaccine isn’t likely to end the Coronavirus epidemic, but it should be effective enough to ward off the worst symptoms and give medical experts the time to come up with the next round of treatment.

Darrow recalls that whether to get the polio vaccine was not optional for school children. “You lined up and a nurse administered the shot,” said Darrow.

Dave Batchelor, 81, of Hot Springs was 8 years old and in 2nd grade in 1948, when the polio epidemic was raging. He recalls that there was a group of kids that congregated to play ball in a field off of 5th and Jennings. All but one of the group according to Batchelor, contracted polio at the same time, with the other contracting it four years later.

“I can remember very vividly being quite sick and throwing up,” recalls Batchelor. “My mother was quite concerned and took me to the hospital where Dr. Butler administered a spinal tap and confirmed it was polio.” Batchelor says that Butler became world-renown for his ability to diagnose and treat polio and was instrumental in the establishment of the polio center.

Batchelor was admitted to the hospital and placed in a room with a 6th grader Bill Harnageo who later attended West Point according to Batchelor. Batchelor laughed when he recalled Harnageo’s mother would bring chocolate chip cookies and his own mother would bring Pepsi, keeping the two constantly supplied with these sugary treats.

As with Darrow, being a patient at the hospital didn’t mean that Batchelor and others got out of school work. He said that teachers would bring assignments once a week and collect the work the following week.

Batchelor said that no one in the group of kids he referenced had to be confined to an ‘iron lung’, as the maladies they experienced were described as muscle infirmities. Batchelor says that his lingering reminders of being inflicted with the disease amount to a slight abnormality in his left leg that causes the sole of the left shoe to wear out faster than the right. As a youth, he was still able to play sports, which he says makes him feel fortunate relative to many others that contracted the virus.

While no one wants to be in the hospital, Batchelor doesn’t think his stint as a patient was all that bad. “The only thing that was really bad were the ‘hot packs’ which consisted of a moistened, highly-heated blanket. He says he actually enjoyed time in the warm water pool located in the basement of the hospital. After group therapy, kids could stay in the pool longer if they so chose.

Retired Hot Springs math teacher Bill Coffield was 14 when he was confronted with the polio virus. Coffield recalls that people didn’t question the medical experts at the time or put up a fight about getting the vaccine.

When asked about the role of politics and social media, Coffield seemed to think that medicine wasn’t  as politicized back then as it appears to have become today and he thought that social media and the 24-hour news cycle have enabled the politicization of most aspects of society. And there’s one other matter according to Coffield, and that is the effect of time.

“Polio is a new thing for a lot of people living today, even for young doctors, because they don’t have any direct connection to it in their practice,” said Coffield. “Some may have heard of it, but that’s about the extent of it.”

Some of the former polio patients were asked about how living through the polio outbreak colored their view about the present Coronavirus pandemic, particularly with respect to the issue of vaccination. Spencer and Darrow both expressed an inclination to get vaccinated, but both declined to speak for others, saying that people should be able to decide for themselves. Batchelor on the other hand, didn’t mince words. “I think anyone who doesn’t get the vaccine is foolish,” he said bluntly.

Fall River County Herald Star

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