Betsy Dawson was only 3 when paralytic polio grabbed her. She was paralyzed from the waist down, rushed by ambulance from her home in Buena Vista, first to Lynchburg for a spinal tap and then to the hospital in Charlottesville. She didn’t come home for three months.
But today’s Betsy Barker considers herself one of the fortunate ones, as far as polio goes.
“I was one of the lucky ones. There were so many children in iron lungs,” recalled the retired nurse.
Few of today’s children and younger adults have ever seen an iron lung, much less had to live inside one in order to breathe.
On Saturday, Oct. 17, people will be able to see one of the original iron lungs used in Salem. It will be on display from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. at the Salem Walmart, during Rotary International’s World Polio Day. They can also donate money to fight polio in the four countries where the virus still cripples and kills.
In Barker’s case, the polio virus only affected her right leg. “I got to come home on Christmas Eve because doctors felt there were so many children in the hospital with polio that if their parents could take care of them, they should go home.”
She remembers wearing heavy iron-and-leather braces and had a cast on her leg every summer for a number of years to strengthen the tendons in her right leg, Barker said. “My mother would bring me on the train from Bluff City where we lived then when I was a little girl, to see Dr. Hoover who was the crippled children’s doctor in Roanoke.
“I can remember my father saying the March of Dimes helped all children in the 1940s, and that’s why he always contributed to it.”
When she was in nurse’s training in 1959, Barker remembered the whole top floor of Roanoke Hospital was for isolation, for people with polio. “Our senior year in nursing school the vaccine had been developed. We treated those children for years.”
Even though most of her paralysis went away and physical therapy helped her to walk, like so many people, Barker had permanent reminders of polio.
“I had surgery when I was 16 to lengthen the tendon in my leg. I had surgery again last summer to try to correct the foot drop, ’cause things get worse as you get older,” she said, laughing.
Sandra Greenwood is a familiar sight at the Salem Farmers’ Market, selling vegetables and fruit she and her family grow on their farm in Copper Hill. Shoppers probably don’t notice her left leg is shorter than her right, causing her to limp, because Greenwood leans on the tables in her stall to get around.
She was 2-1/2 years old when she contracted polio. “Mama said I was playing in the floor, and just fell down.”
“The polio epidemic was all around. We didn’t have any polio vaccine in those days. I was in the hospital at Fishersville for 7-1/2 months,” she recalled, “in one of the quarantine wards.”
She remembered when she first got sick, she was quarantined away from the rest of her family. “I had a brother and sister, and my family was afraid they would take it, too.”
When she was about 8, in 1956, Greenwood was the polio poster child for Virginia.
Her left leg didn’t grow, she said, “It’s skinny and my foot is like a baby foot.” She has two pairs of specially adapted shoes, her tennis shoes she wears to the market, and her shoes for church.
Like Barker, she had casts and braces, which she still wears. Greenwood remembers going to crippled children’s clinics when she was a child. “We went to clinics in Roanoke and Rocky Mount and Martinsville. We’d be there all day long,” Greenwood said. “They weren’t orthopedic doctors then. We called them polio doctors.”
Even today, polio is a constant factor in Greenwood’s life. She’s one of the polio victims who has post-polio syndrome. “It’s very bad. It affects my muscles, my walk. It’s not good for me because I’m a goer. This thing is trying to slow me down, and I don’t like to slow down,” said Greenwood, who wears a brace all the way up her left leg now and a brace on her good leg from the knee down.
Doctors plan to do surgery on her good leg’s foot and knee within the year or so, she said, “all due to weakness in my other leg.”
Still, she feels fortunate. “I think how lucky I am. There are so many people so much worse off than me.”
Sandra Greenwood will be at the Salem Rotary Club meeting on Nov. 19, when the club has a program on polio.
Salem Rotarian June Long arranged that. Long is Polio Chairman for District 7570, encompassing Rotary clubs from east Tennessee to Front Royal.
Long had a special reason for accepting the chairmanship three years ago.
Her father, Wallace Hall of Elliston, had polio when he was 15 months old.
“My dad never talked about having had polio. He could never play with us, though, because he could not run. Danny (her brother) and I both played high school sports, and our dad never missed a game. He was right there on the front row.”
It was her father’s left leg that was affected by polio. “His leg was real small and very crooked. My dad’s shoe was built up so much.”
Long and her husband, Bill, obtained the two adult-sized iron lungs and a baby one that will be on display Saturday. “All three were from Salem. Originally the rescue squad had them and they were stored at John M. Oakey and Son funeral home in the basement.”
The Longs cleaned up the iron lungs and bought a special trailer to haul them around.
Their passion to end polio has taken them half-way across the world, to inoculate children in India in 2005. India is one of the four countries where polio is still a real threat. The other three countries are Afghanistan, Pakistan and Nigeria.
Due to the development of vaccines and years of inoculation programs, polio is no longer a threat in the United States.
Long remembers her dad’s emphasis on her and her brother staying safe from polio. “He made sure we had our polio inoculations. The first ones were shots. Then we had the sugar cubes.”
Today, most polio inoculations are drops placed in a child’s mouth, but when she and her husband were preparing to go to India, they got polio booster shots, she added.
June Long has more plans for the polio display she and Bill haul around. “I’m looking for an old pair of braces polio victims used to wear,” she said. “They were made out of iron, and they were so heavy.”