David was transferred to the acute rehabilitation unit in the hospital. It was a nice change of scenery. Nobody was wearing isolation gowns and his family could come visit him more often. Not only that, but the word “rehabilitation” brought with it the hope that maybe he’d walk out of this hospital.
On the day of his transfer, David was unable to move his legs at all, although they seemed to spasm on their own. He knew it was a long way to go from that to walking on his own, but he was confident he’d be able to do it. Other guys did it, after all. This was a time of healing and recovery.
David’s new room was much brighter than his old room and he shared it with three other guys. The first was Walter, a fifteen year old whose spine was so badly curved that he was awaiting surgery so that he’d be able to use a wheelchair. The second was Henry, who was fourteen and already walking pretty well with braces. Last was Tom, who was eighteen years old and clearly resentful of being stuck in a ward with a bunch of kids.
Walt was the most talkative of the boys, because he had to spend his days lying flat on his back and was desperate for some entertainment. David hadn’t been allowed to use a wheelchair yet, so he was in the same situation as Walt. Walt gave him the lowdown on all the other guys in the ward, told him who was nice and who to look out for. Walt warned him that their roommate Tom was the meanest of them all. “I don’t know what his problem is,” Walt said. “But you should stay out of his way.”
David noticed that Tom, who was mobile with a wheelchair, liked to torture Walt, who was bed-bound. Tom threw spitballs in Walt’s direction, then wheeled out of the room before Walt could retaliate. The other thing Tom did a lot was to move Walt’s radio out of his reach, then shut it off.
“Just wait till I get into a wheelchair,” Walt said to David. “Then there will be some payback.”
David’s family came to visit him during his first day in rehab. His parents brought his little brother Richie along too, and David nearly started bawling at the site of his whole family together. “I missed you a lot,” he blurted out. “I can’t wait to come home.”
“It won’t be long, sweetie,” his mother said.
David noticed that his brother Richie was very quiet and kept looking at his legs. David knew that Richie looked up to his older brother, the football hero, and he hated that he couldn’t be that role model anymore. He wondered if Richie realized that he couldn’t move his legs at all. “D’you think you’ll be able to play football this year, Davey?” Richie asked him.
“We’ll see,” his mother said, before David could answer.
“As soon as I get out of here,” David said confidently.
When his family left, David felt a deep sadness come over him. He wondered if things would ever get back to the way they were before.
David had initially been eager to begin his “treatment” for his paralyzed muscles. The pain in his legs had subsided a bit and he was sure that his muscles would respond to any therapy he was given. However, if he had known what the treatment involved, he wouldn’t have been so eager.
David received the traditional “hot pack treatment” which, in his opinion, was more like a “hot pack torture.” The nurses would dip wool cloths in boiling hot water and run them through a wringer to cool them off a bit and get rid of the moisture. By the time the cloths were placed on David’s legs, they were still boiling hot and still damp. The first time he felt the scorching material on the skin of his thigh, he let out a loud yelp. The nurse jumped back in surprise. “Do you want to get better or not, David?” she scolded him.
“I do,” he managed. He bit his lip and endured the heat of the cloths placed on his legs.
That first day, they replaced the hot packs constantly. After that, they were changed every two hours. The heat of the packs was made worse by the summer air blasting through the window. While it was a relief when the packs cooled down, they quickly became clammy and uncomfortable. Still, it was always worse when they new hot packs were placed on him—he came to dread the sound of the cart in the hall.
David was instructed to keep his feet placed flat against the footboard. It wasn’t the most comfortable position to stay in 24 hours a day, but the nurse threatened to tie his feet to the board if he shifted positions. He tried to listen to music on the radio, talk to Walt, and forget about the pain he was in.
Then there were the stretches. A physical therapist named Paul came in to do these stretches twice a day. Paul never said a word to David, only came in and began stretching out the muscles on his legs. David didn’t know the purpose of this exercise, only that it was painful enough to bring tears to his eyes. “It’s so your muscles don’t get frozen,” Walt finally explained to him. “Hurts like the devil, don’t it?”
“When do I get to learn to walk again?” David asked him.
“Walk?” Walt snorted. “Can you even sit up on your own yet?”
“No,” David admitted.
“Just be patient, Mr. Football Hero.”
David hated that everyone seemed to know that he used to play football. Some guys had overheard when Richie asked him about football and word spread quickly around here. With every day that went by with no recovery, David began to realize that his football career was over.
John learned to both hate and love the iron lung. He hated it because it was a prison. He was trapped inside, completely dependent for precious oxygen, fearful of any breaks in the power that might shut it off for a few minutes. He knew was stuck in the hospital until he became less dependent on the machine.
But he had to love the lung because it was what was keeping him alive. When the nurses opened the lung to clean him and tend to his bodily needs, he was left gasping for air. Some of the patients could breathe on their own for a minute or two, but John couldn’t do that. He was completely dependent on the lung. If it was shut off for more than a minute, he passed out from lack of oxygen.
When John’s fever broke, there was some talk of weaning him off the iron lung. Even though he desperately wanted to get out of the lung, the idea of leaving it even for a few seconds terrified him. Some of the other patients were able to “frog breathe”, which meant breathing with their neck muscles, but John had difficulty with even this.
From the conversation he had overheard between the doctors and his parents, John found out that the doctors believed he would always be dependent on the lung. “Our goal is to make it so that he can leave the lung for an hour or so at a time,” the doctors explained. “Possibly even longer. If he goes home, he needs to be able to breathe on his own for a short time in case there’s a power outage.”
The early attempts to wean from the lung were very painful. The method was to keep him out of the lung for longer and longer periods of time, but John’s respiratory muscles refused to comply. No matter what, it seemed like he couldn’t get his own lungs to work properly. He did his best to frog breathe, hoping it would lead to better breathing habits.
Now that the disease had run its course, John made attempts to start moving his arms. Every day, he spent at least an hour trying to move his fingers. He had no success and it was very frustrating. Even though he had full sensation, his limbs were completely paralyzed. He was dependent on the nurses for every single one of his needs, including eating, bathing, toileting, and being turned.
The bane of John’s existence was an older nurse named Miss Foley. Most of the nurses were fairly sensitive to the patients who were most dependent on the lungs, but Miss Foley didn’t seem to care. She would open up the lung to attend to his body and not close it until he was close to fainting.
It was very uncomfortable to be able to feel his body yet not be able to move it. Sometimes he felt like one of the bones on his back or buttocks was digging right into the table. As Miss Foley would pass by, he would meekly ask her, “Would you turn me, please?”
“Well, I’ve got about five hundred things to do, John,” she would invariably reply.
He tried to wait patiently, because he knew that if he asked again, it would just prolong the amount of time it took her to turn him. There were mirrors set up over his head that allowed him to see the rest of the room, and he would watch Miss Foley’s activities, hoping she’d stop by his corner next. Sometimes when she passed by, he tried to get her attention, thinking maybe she had forgotten his request to be turned. “I’ve never seen someone be so much trouble,” she would scold him. “You’re a nineteen year old man and you’re acting like a two year old boy.”
When she finally got to it, she would throw the respirator open wide, causing John to start gasping for air. She would take her sweet time, pulling one of his legs over the other to turn those first, then turning his upper body. Sometimes she’d change his diaper then too, always making a comment on the “mess” he made. She had to know how humiliated he was that he needed a diaper and that she only made things worse by calling attention to it.
Naturally, Miss Foley got wind of John’s difficulties being weaned from the lung. “Everyone else does it,” she told him. “So you’re going to do it too.”
“It’s not that easy,” John said through his teeth. He couldn’t believe Miss Foley didn’t know how badly he wanted to be able to breath on his own.
“Sure it is,” Miss Foley said. And with those words, she flipped off the respirator and walked away.
Almost right away, John felt that crushing sensation on his chest. He wanted to scream, but he couldn’t. He tried to take a frog breath, but he was too panicked and couldn’t do it. As the minutes passed and Miss Foley was way across the room, showing no signs of returning, he felt himself becoming very dizzy and saw black spots before his eyes. He knew he was on the verge of passing out.
Then, all of a sudden, he felt the air coming into his lungs. He could breathe again. Someone had turned the lung back on.
His vision cleared and he found himself staring into two of the prettiest eyes he had ever seen. “Hi, I’m Clara,” said the eyes. “I’m your new nurse.”
As the weeks passed in bed, David’s legs began to slowly improve. The muscles in his back strengthened and his quads got a lot of strength back, especially on the left. He still had a lot of trouble flexing or extending his right knee and he couldn’t bend his ankles at all. David had hoped he’d have more improvement by now, but it was better than being completely paralyzed. He still had a long way to go.
It was a relief when he began to be able to pee on his own again. The first few times, he didn’t manage to get the bedpan out quickly enough and wound up wetting his pants, but he had been pretty good since then. There were still no signs of an erection again, but David was hopeful. Every time an attractive nurse came into the room, he would stare at the curves of her white uniform, then check under the sheets to see if he had responded. Walt noticed him doing it once and started laughing. “I’ve got the same problem, Davey,” he said. “I’m ready, willing, and unable.”
His happiest day from when he first started rehab was when they brought him a wheelchair to use. He felt like he had been confined to bed for years and now he could finally explore the ward on his own steam. He wheeled all over the ward, watched the guys going through physical therapy on the parallel bars, said hello to all the passing nurses. It was great.
David managed to actually work up a sweat through exertion for the first time since he got sick. His shirt was sticking to his chest and he had to stop at a water fountain for a drink. He was pleased to see that there was a fountain at the right level for someone in a wheelchair.
While he was in the middle of taking a drink, David felt something ram into his chair. He started choking on the water and as he coughed and wiped his face, he looked up to see his roommate Tom staring at him, his red hair reflecting the hall lights. “So I heard you’re a big jock?” Tom said.
They had been sharing a room for a while and this was the most Tom had ever said to him. David tried to smile, “Well, uh... I guess.”
Tom rammed his chair into David’s once again. David grabbed onto the armrests to keep his balance. “Must be hard to be stuck in a wheelchair after being a football star,” Tom commented.
David didn’t say anything. He didn’t want to get drawn into a fight.
“How about a race?” Tom said.
“Nah,” David said, trying to turn his chair away. Tom stopped him by ramming his chair again.
“Are you afraid of getting beat?” Tom asked him.
“Then why don’t you want to race, you cripple?”
A few other guys had come over and were listening to the dialogue between David and Tom. David looked his roommate over, wondering if he had any chance of winning such a race. He could see that both of Tom’s legs had been affected by the polio as well as his right shoulder. Tom had much more experience wheeling, but David probably had a little more upper body strength. But it was a moot point, since Tom wasn’t going to take no for an answer.
David had already seen at least a half dozen boys racing in the halls today, but this particular race seemed to have sparked more interest than the others. There was some urgency to get started, because racing officially wasn’t allowed and the nurses would come break it up if they found out. David and Tom lined up at one end of the hallway, their hands poised over the wheels of their chairs.
Before David could get started, Tom pulled out one last dirty trick. He knocked his chair against David’s, strategically throwing him off balance. For a second, David worried the chair might tip, sending him sprawled out onto the floor, but he managed to keep his balance.
Once he started wheeling, however, David found that he was more than a match for Tom. His old competitive instincts kicked in and he zoned in on the end of the hallway. He pushed himself as hard as he could, knowing his arms would ache for it tomorrow. Just before the end of the hallway, David edged ahead of Tom to win the race.
Most of the other patients disliked Tom and had been rooting for David, so the cheering echoed across the hallway. David felt his face flush with joy—even though he was in a wheelchair, he was still able to compete and win. It was a good feeling.
David noticed the frustration on Tom’s face and felt some fleeting guilt. He stuck out his hand to shake. “Good race,” David said.
Tom took his hand. “So you won. Big deal. You’re still a cripple in a wheelchair, you know.”
Tom was hitting him where it hurt. “I’ll walk again,” David responded quietly.
“Oh, really?” Tom said. “That’s not what I overheard the doctors saying about you.”
David stared at him. What had Tom heard the doctors saying? No, he’s just trying to get to you. “It doesn’t matter what the doctors said.”
But Tom knew he had succeeded in tainting David’s victory. Tom shrugged and smiled, then wheeled back in the direction of their room.
To be continued...