‘I think I was one of the lucky ones’
“They put me in this room with a whole bunch of other women that had polio. I could reach out my arms and take a hold of somebody’s hand on each side of me. That’s how crowded we were inside the hospital.
Shirley Yeager, 85, of Webster City, was diagnosed with polio in the summer of 1952. Polio, an infectious disease caused by the poliovirus, affects the central nervous system. It can lead to temporary or permanent muscle weakness or paralysis, most commonly in the limbs. It’s highly infectious and spreads from person to person, especially in children.
Neither Yeager nor her 3-year-old son, Randy, had been feeling well. As the week went on, their sickness worsened. She was supposed to bring lunch to her husband, Bob, in the field but was unable to do so.
“He hadn’t felt well. I wasn’t feeling real well either, so I was upstairs in bed and Bob was out in the field,” said Yeager. “He called and wanted me to bring him out something. I went downstairs to get on the phone and talk to him and tell him I wasn’t up to it.”
At the same time, Randy told her: “Mom, I can’t raise my arm.”
She called the doctor.
Her son couldn’t pull himself up. The doctor wanted to see him immediately.
The boy was diagnosed with polio at a hospital in Des Moines. He was placed in a room on the first floor of Blank Children’s Hospital. Because polio was so contagious, visitors had to climb up a ladder on the outside of the hospital to see the sick children inside.
The next morning Yeager, who was only 21 at the time, felt worse and called her doctor. She went to Fort Dodge where she was diagnosed with polio. Her doctor signed papers and arranged for her to stay in Des Moines at the Methodist Hospital to be closer to Randy.
Yeager went to Des Moines, leaving her husband to care for their 6-month-old daughter, Kristi, at home. Throughout her stay at the hospital, her mother and his family stepped up to provide support on their farm.
She remembers that seeing friends and family was challenging. As visitors were not allowed in the hospital, individuals had use creative methods of communication.
“I was over by the door and I was up on the second floor,” Yeager recalls. “The only time you knew you had company was when somebody would holler through the window. And the window was, of course, clear on the other side of the room.”
Communication was stifled amongst the women in the hospital room as well. According to Yeager, there was never much conversation between patients.
“So many were dying. We’d wake up and one of them was already gone during the night.”
Not only did Yeager experience overwhelming physical pain, she was surrounded by heartache. The woman who took up the cot next to her never made it out of the hospital. She died holding onto one of Yeager’s outstretched hands.
“She was pregnant and the baby was due anytime. She was Catholic. She and her husband had three kids at home. He did not want to save that baby. He said he absolutely couldn’t take care of it — of four little kids,” Yeager said.
The loss of not one, but two lives hit the nurses and Yeager hard.
“The nurses were so upset,” said Yeager. “They didn’t want to let that baby go with her. It just tore my heart out.”
Another woman who was at the hospital with Yeager was placed in an iron lung and later died from the virus.
“To me at that time it looked like a big casket,” Yeager said, referring to the iron lung. “Only it looked like it was made out of steel. You could just see their head.”
Yeager was treated with hot wet packs on her back and legs. Her arms and hands were not affected by the virus. As the treatments began to take effect, she took great care in working her muscles. Little by little, she regained full use of her legs.
It was weeks before she felt comfortable and confident sleeping through the night, though.
“I was afraid I would get stiff again, so the doctors would get me up every hour so I could walk,” Yeager said.
For more than a week, she roused herself from her hospital bed to keep her joints from stiffening. She gradually progressed from half-hour intervals to hour intervals and was eventually able to sleep through the night again.
“I wasn’t going to take any chances going to sleep and waking up and not being able to walk again,” she said.
It was three weeks before Yeager was strong enough to go home.
Randy came home a week later.
“I think I was one of the lucky ones,” Yeager said. “There were some that never did come out of it.”
Doctors told Yeager she wouldn’t be able to have children after surviving polio. But she beat the odds and had two more children: sons, Jeff, in 1957, and Mitch, in 1959.
The Salk vaccine for polio was licensed and introduced in the United States in 1955, three years after Yeager and her son contracted the virus.
“It was such a blessing when it came out,” Yeager said. “Everybody I knew got it as quick as it came out.”
She was able to return to her normal life on the farm. Today, she has minor back problems, but is in overall good health.