Mary Ann’s story
WEBSTER CITY — Mary Ann Bailey Hammitt, 86, found out she had polio in 1954 when she was 25. She had soreness in her legs and was tired all of the time.
She also had bulbar polio and was unable to eat or swallow.
“My parents took me to the doctor in Webster City,” Hammitt remembers. “That was one of the largest years for polio.”
At the time, she had two boys, ages 3 and 3 months.
She was admitted to the hospital in Fort Dodge on Sept. 14, 1954. She was placed in the attic there along with more than 50 other women suffering from the disease.
“It was depressing,” said Hammitt. “The attic was full — all the time.”
Iron lungs were placed throughout the room. As polio affected the muscles, the iron lung helped patients breathe through a series of pressure changes in the chamber.
Hammitt described the contraption as a “horror picture.”
Because the virus was contagious, patients were not allowed visitors.
But Hammitt received dozens of cards during her stay from well wishers. She’s kept every message of hope in a scrapbook. There is even a special pencil drawing that was sent to her from her son, Doug, who was only 3 at the time.
“All they could do is look through a small window,” Hammitt said. “It was horrible. The only people I ever saw were the nurses.”
Although the attic was packed with polio patients, Hammitt didn’t interact much with the other women. But she grew attached to a 12-year-old girl from Eagle Grove who was in the cot next to her. After three weeks together in the attic, the girl passed away.
“She died right next to me,” Hammitt said. “I had become like a mom to that little girl, so I felt awful when she died.”
Hammitt was in the hospital for more than a month recovering from the havoc the polio wrought on her body.
Her main concern while recovering was not being with her children and husband, Larry. Hammitt’s sister-in-law took 3-month-old Jim for nearly a year. Her parents took care of Doug, the 3-year-old.
“My kids, more than anything, made me want to get out of the hospital,” she said.
“When my throat started to get better, everything did.”
After the Salk vaccine became available in 1955, all three of Hammitt’s children were vaccinated.
“I was so happy when that vaccine came out.”