1954, Part 2

The day David said goodbye to Marilyn for the summer, he was almost too sick to get out of bed. His mother joked that he was “love sick” but being love sick didn’t give you a fever and make you feel like throwing up. David’s younger brother Richie had been sick a few days ago and it seemed like David had caught the same bug.

“You look terrible, you poor baby,” Marilyn cooed, as she hugged him at the train station.

“A little back seat bingo might cheer me up,” David said, trying to smile. He felt bad enough with his fever, worse thinking about Marilyn leaving for the summer.

“When I get back,” Marilyn promised.

David watched the train carrying her away from him. Two months without seeing Marilyn’s sweet face. It seemed like forever.

David drove back home, his car swerving as he tried to ignore his growing dizziness. It was a miracle he made it back to his house without hitting anything. When he got out of the car, he had to hold onto the hood for a good minute, willing up the strength to walk to the front door.

Richie was sitting in the living room, watching TV and tossing a football up in the air. Ordinarily, David would have reminded his younger brother that their mother would kill him if she saw him throwing a football in the house, but today he was too tired.

Richie’s face lit up when he saw David, “Hey Davey, do you wanna play football in the yard?”

Richie Barnett worshiped his older brother. Richie practiced with the football every day for the chance to get on the team when he got to high school. He had never missed one of David’s games. It was nice that Richie admired his big brother so much, but David felt like it was a lot to live up to. He wasn’t nearly as great as Richie thought he was.

“Maybe tomorrow,” David said. “I’m not feeling so great.” As he spoke, he grabbed onto the banister of the staircase, wondering how he was going to get up the stairs to his room. Everything felt like it was spinning.

Richie’s face fell, but his expression quickly turned to concern. “Wow, you look terrible. I’ll bet you have a fever.”

“I’ll be fine,” David reassured him. “All I need is a good night’s sleep.”


David woke up the next morning feeling even more feverish than the night before. He had hoped to be all better today so that he could go to work at the soda shop, but it looked like he was going to have to call in sick again. He stumbled out of bed to go take a leak.

The next thing he knew, he was lying on the floor. His left elbow had smashed into the floor and smarted something awful, but his elbow wasn’t the worst of it. David had been getting out of bed every day for seventeen years and nothing like this had ever happened to him. What was going on?

He held onto the edge of his bed and pulled himself to his feet. Immediately, he realized why he had fallen—his ankles were extremely weak. There was also a terrible pain in his lower legs. He could stand up without holding onto the bed, but it was difficult. David felt an awful sensation in his chest... he was terrified that he knew what this was. “Mom!” David screamed. “Mom!”

David had lowered himself back onto his bed by the time his mother arrived at his room, but his arms were still shaking. She was slightly breathless from running up the stairs, wearing an apron, hands dirty with flour. “David, what’s wrong?” she asked.

His eyes met hers, “Mom, there’s something wrong with my legs.”

“Are you sure?” she asked, biting her lip.

David nodded. “I... I can still stand up, but it’s difficult...”

“I’m calling Dr. Pritchard,” his mother said.


David insisted on getting dressed before allowing his mother to drive him to their family doctor. As he put on his pants, he noticed that his knees too were slightly weakened and painful. He went over in his mind the symptoms he had experienced in the last few days and he knew there was only one conclusion anyone could come to.

His mother had to help him down the stairs. David held onto her with one arm and gripped the banister with his other arm. He hadn’t realized how high the staircase was until now. “You’re going to be okay,” his mother kept saying, although neither of them believed it.

Dr. Pritchard gave his mother instructions not to come to his office. He advised them to go directly to a hospital several towns away. It seemed like a strange choice until David realized that not every hospital was equipped to put patients in mass isolation.

David’s mother drove him to the hospital. His legs were really hurting by now and he was acutely aware of every bump in the road. His head ached and his cheeks were flushed with fever. He had never felt so sick in his life. He wondered if he was going to die.

They parked right by the emergency room entrance. David was feeling dazed at that point, but he was determined to walk into the hospital on his own two feet. He made a deal with himself that if he could do this, if he could walk on his own into the hospital, then he would be okay. He had to lean heavily on his mother, but he made it into the emergency room.

I did it! he thought happily.

Before he had much of a chance to pat himself on the back, a nurse came forward pushing a wheelchair. “You look like you need this,” she said to him. “I’ll take you to the examining room.”

David looked down at the wheelchair. “I can make it,” he insisted.

“David, just sit down,” his mother hissed.

He had to admit that it was a great relief to collapse into that chair. His legs were more painful than ever and his ankles felt very unstable. It was a miracle he hadn’t fallen again.

He was wheeled to an examining room, where the nurse took his temperature, then left him to wait with his mother. He looked down at his ankles and tried to move them again—they barely moved at all. Pain shot down his thighs and he shifted in the wheelchair, trying to do something to ease his discomfort. When he looked over at his mother, he saw there were tears in her eyes.

Eventually, a man in a white coat entered the room. “I’m Dr. Lewis,” he introduced himself to David’s mother. He didn’t even make eye contact with David. “I hear he’s having fever and weakness in his legs?”

His mother nodded, “Yes, ever since this morning.”

Dr. Lewis bent down and examined David’s lower legs. He tested his ankles and then his knees. David had thought his knees were okay, but he was unable to extend them when the doctor pressed against his lower legs. “Any weakness in your arms yet?” Dr. Lewis asked him.

David was haunted by his use of the word yet. “No...”

Dr. Lewis straightened up. “It’s polio, all right. I don’t even need to do the lumbar puncture. He needs to go into isolation immediately.”

David felt his stomach sink. He had suspected what was wrong with him, but it was still difficult to hear it out said out loud.

“Is he going to be okay, Doctor?” his mother asked.

“We’ll see,” Dr. Lewis replied. “The paralysis will probably ascend up his legs, possibly into his arms. The concern, of course, is that it may affect his lungs and he could stop breathing. But we have iron lungs here in case that occurs.”

David had seen photos of iron lungs and the thought of it filled him with dread. He didn’t want to wind up like that. But he was now at the mercy of the disease and it would be a while before they knew how bad it would get.


David lay in the bed, feeling dazed and sicker than he had ever felt in his entire life. He hadn’t appreciated to this point how healthy he had been through most of his life. This was the first time in his life when he feared that he might die.


David turned his head and saw there was a boy lying in the bed next to his. The boy was about his age, maybe a year or two older, and the sweat on his brow mirrored what David himself felt.

“Hey, new polio,” the boy said. “I’m John. What’s your name?”

“David,” he said. His voice came out a hoarse whisper.

“Nice to meet you, David,” John said. “It’s good to have someone my age around here. It’s all a bunch of kids.”

David shifted in his bed and that was when he noticed John was lying very still. He wanted to ask about it, but he was afraid.

“My body is completely paralyzed,” John volunteered the information. “Can’t move anything. But I can feel it... oh boy, I can really feel it.”

David felt a chill go through him. The disease had just taken hold of him and he didn’t yet know how far it would go, how much he would lose. He knew he could walk out of here or he could wind up crippled for life. He tested his legs to see if he could still move them a little.

“I wish I could turn over,” John said. “I just can’t get comfortable anymore, you know?”

“Can I do anything for you?” David offered.

John turned his head to look at David and smiled through his fever. “You? Can you walk?”

“Yeah,” David said. A little.

“Can you scratch my face?”


David sat up in bed and immediately his head began to spin. After a minute or so, the sensation went away and he just felt hot. He used his arms to carefully push himself up from the bed and stand on his own two feet. He felt very weak, but he didn’t fall. He took slow steps toward John’s bed and was grateful to sit down when he made it over.

“I thought you said you could walk,” John complained. “I could have gotten over the polio, learned to move again, and scratched it myself in the time it took you to come over here.”

David had to smile at that comment. “Where does it itch?” he asked.

“Left cheek.”

Thankfully, David’s arms still worked well and he was able to oblige John, who sighed gratefully. “That’s heaven,” John sighed.

When John was satisfied, David made his way over to the bathroom to take a leak before going to bed. He was still very unsteady, but he could walk several feet without having to grab onto anything. When he climbed back into bed, he didn’t realize that this would be the very last time he would ever again walk unaided.


David was still feeling feverish when the morning came. His cheeks still burned and his legs were in agony. As his eyes cracked open, he heard the sounds of doctors talking outside the room. Two of them walked in and stopped abruptly at John’s bed. David watched them yank the covers from John’s paralyzed body. Underneath the covers, John was completely naked except for a diaper he was wearing. David could see the pained expression on his roommate’s face.

The doctors conferred between each other as they lifted John’s paralyzed limbs, testing their range of motion. “Do we have an iron lung available?” one physician asked the other.

“I can breathe just fine!” John spoke up.

“You’ll be grateful for it when you need it, young man,” one of the doctors replied.

David didn’t like the way they discussed John like he wasn’t even there. He heard the words “quadriplegia” and “severe scoliosis” and “corrective surgery”. They left him uncovered when they moved on.

The doctors showed little more sensitivity when they reached David’s bed. “Still very feverish,” one commented to the other.

“I think I feel a little bit better,” David lied.

“Let’s see you move your ankle,” one doctor instructed him.

David made an attempt to flex his ankle and was dismayed to find that it didn’t move at all. He tried his other ankle and got the same result. “I can’t,” David whispered.

The doctors exchanged looks. “How about your knees?”

David found that his left knee still moved and his right knee moved only slightly. He could still move his hips fairly well.

“Stay in bed,” one of the doctors advised him. “If you try to walk, you’ll fall.”

“Am I going to get worse?” David asked. He was afraid to hear the answer.

“Most likely,” the doctor replied as they turned to leave.

The room became deathly silent after the doctor’s left. David rolled his head over to look at John, who was still completely exposed. David noticed that John’s paralyzed arms and legs were slightly bent, probably the result of contracted muscles. “Is it chilly in here or is it just me?” John joked.

David could barely manage a smile. He had to go to the bathroom, but there wasn’t much he could do because he knew his legs wouldn’t carry him that far. He turned to John, “What do you do when you have to pee?”

I get a catheter stuck in me,” John said. “You can call for the nurse and get a bedpan. Also, you can get the nurse to cover me back up, since you can’t walk anymore.”

David looked down at his legs, praying that the fever would break and this would all be over. He knew people recovered from polio. Some people walked out of the hospital—maybe he’d be one of those people. He’d been lucky his whole life and there was no reason that had to stop now.


David spent the next few days fading in and out of sleep. Nurses came in, draped in protective clothing, gave him his medicines, changed his soaked bedsheets, and hurried out of the room. In his feverish stupor, he was dimly aware of the paralysis creeping up his legs—every time he woke up, it seemed like there was a new muscle that he couldn’t move anymore.

After his ankles stopped working, next it was his knees, then his hips. By the fifth day, he was no longer able to sit up in bed anymore. Every day, he woke up with a new hope that maybe the disease had halted, but it never had. Each day it claimed a new part of his body.

Like John, David lost the ability to urinate on his own. His bladder became painfully full until the nurse came in to insert a catheter. This too was extremely painful, but he was relieved to empty out his bladder. The nurse assured him that most patients regained the ability to urinate, although she said little about him being able to walk again.

Each day, the nurse came in to ask David if he had a bowel movement. She always asked loudly, so that everyone in the room could hear. The third day in a row that David said no, she told him in no uncertain terms that they were going to get him to defecate one way or another. After a few laxatives were unsuccessful, the nurse came in to give him an enema.

By that point, David couldn’t roll over by himself anymore. The nurse helped him turn on his side so that she could administer the enema. His legs lay twisted on the bed and he gripped the side of the sheets with one hand as the nurse prepped him. There were no curtains and everyone in the room could see David’s fate. He bit his lip hard, facing John, who was watching the entire spectacle. “Does this entertain you?” David asked him.

“I take my jollies where I can get them,” John replied, grinning.

“How come you don’t have to do this?” David asked.

“Because I’m so loaded up with laxatives that I can’t hold it in anymore,” John explained. “Hence the diaper. I’m not sure which way is worse. Perhaps we should take a poll? A polio poll.”

David laughed, in spite of himself. He didn’t know how he would have gotten through some of his worse experiences without John cracking his jokes. John kept in good spirits most of the time, despite the nurses who rarely turned or changed him. David had heard what the doctors said about John’s lousy chances for recovery and it seemed very unfair. Of course, what was fair about a bunch of kids getting crippled by a virus?

David knew that as long as his fever remained, the disease was still active. The paralysis was going to spread and his arms were undoubtedly next. He didn’t want to end up like John. But it didn’t seem like he had much choice in the matter.


John Gallagher lay in his bed, just like he had every single day for the last two weeks. His back ached and his nose itched terribly, but he was learning to live with the discomfort. He felt sure that it wouldn’t be much longer until he was out of the acute polio ward and in rehab.

John had graduated from high school the year before and he was now living with his parents and his two younger brothers while working in a factory, trying to save up enough money to move out on his own. Or at least, that was what he had been doing before the weakness set in. He had been walking with his mother to church when he had collapsed.

It was terrifying enough for John to lose control of his legs, but then his arms became weak too. Then the day finally came when he couldn’t even lift his arms off the bed. At that point, the nurses had to do everything for him. They fed him, they turned him, and they tended to the inevitable sores that resulted from not being able to move at all. They inserted a catheter in his penis and gave him a diaper to keep him from soiling the bed.

Unfortunately, the nurses were very busy and not able to attend to him as often as he needed. Most nights his food grew cold at his bedside while he waited to be fed. If he was uncomfortable and wanted to be turned, it usually took over an hour before his request was granted.

John knew what the doctors thought his prognosis was. They thought he’d be lucky to move his arms again, much less walk. Well, John intended to prove them wrong. What did the doctors know, anyway? He’d walk out of here, no wheelchair, no braces, no crutches, no nothing.

John was glad when David Barnett came into the ward. David was the only other patient in his late teens, who John could hold a real conversation with. Before David even opened his mouth, John had sized him up: football player, good looking, real popular. David was the sort of person who was going to have a hard time adjusting to life as a disabled person, if it came down to that.

“You think you’re going to walk out of here?” John asked him one day.

David’s eyes filled with fear. “Why? Did you hear something?”

“No, I’m just making conversation.” John felt a sudden itch on his leg and closed his eyes, willing it to go away.

“Sure I think I’ll walk,” David said. “Uh... how about you? Do you think you’ll move your arms?”

John had intended to tell David that he intended to do a lot more than that, but all of a sudden, he felt a loss of breath. His chest felt extremely heavy and he found himself gasping for air. He saw the panic on David’s face, which was the last thing he saw before he passed out.


David still felt his heart slamming in his chest long after John had been whisked away and placed in an iron lung. Considering that the doctors had discussed this possibility multiple times, he knew he shouldn’t have been surprised. Still, it was frightening to watch. Today it was John being placed in the iron lung... next week, it could be him. That was his greatest fear.

“Your friend’s in pretty bad shape,” the doctor told David. “He’s going to be a tough one to wean off the iron lung... I can tell that right off.”

David lay curled up in his bed, trying not to listen to John being wheeled away. He looked down at his hand and made a fist. Was it weaker than it had been the day before? This was like some kind of nightmare.

He hated lying in bed, knowing he couldn’t get up if he wanted to. He still felt sick, but not too sick to realize what was going on around him. And he kept thinking about Marilyn and how she’d never want him if he couldn’t walk.

As he thought about Marilyn, he realized that he wasn’t getting an erection the way he used to. Of course, there was a lot to distract him, but still... he was a young man and was used to getting hard at the drop of a hat. It seemed like the polio had claimed yet another muscle in his body. What if I can’t have sex after this? The paralyzed muscles in David’s legs twitched at this disturbing thought—it was even worse than not being able to walk. He wanted to ask the doctors about it, but he was too embarrassed.

Every time David closed his eyes, he saw the image of John being placed in that iron lung. He prayed that he would avoid that fate.

The next morning, his fever broke.

To be continued...