Porky Pig Punches Polio
Cassie: A Polio Survivors Story
World Polio Day is October 24th –as recommended by Rotary Club International. It is also the birth date of Jonas Salk, the inventor of the Polio Vaccine. Distribution of this vaccine became available in 1955. Rotary Club International is an agency trying to make sure that every person worldwide can have the Polio Vaccine.
However, before 1955, there are real-life stories such as Cassie’s.
Let’s meet Cassie
It is 1953 and Cassie, a 7 year old girl, and her mom have returned from an exciting day at the circus in Hamilton. They are now back home in Burlington. Her blonde ponytail bouncing and her blue eyes sparkling, Cassie was bubbling. Bubbling from all the joy and excitement of her day. Her mom had treated Cassie to this fun filled day because she was so proud of some school accomplishments that Cassie had recently made.
Unknown to Cassie, her parents had previously argued about taking her to the circus. Not because she didn’t deserve this adventure. Not even about the cost of the trip which involved 2 buses So what did they argue about? The danger.
The Danger called “Polio”
Polio? Yes. A Polio epidemic was running rampant in the neighboring community of Hamilton. Thousands were ill from this very contagious viral infection. It was running out of control. There was no sign of it slowing down its horrible spread of despair over families in the community. Children seemed to be its preferred target.
Homes were being government quarantined. Sick patients (usually children) being removed to hospitals. Health outcomes unknown. Although, many survived, there was also a high number who would suffer deformities and health issues for the rest of their lives. Including Post-Polio Syndrome.
And there would be the unknown financial burden on the family. You see, this is before the OHIP program came into existence. No Ontario Health Insurance Program (OHIP) or any other provincial health program in fact.
Life returned to normal
It is now just over a week since Cassie and her mom had that exciting day trip to Hamilton to see the circus.
Cassie, a bubbling, typical 7 year old girl was her usual self. Her dad, a local butcher/grocery store owner was busy at work. Cassie’s mom was home from work that day, and her two older sisters, were off playing in the house somewhere.
Cassie remembers running across the room to excitedly show her mom something when all of a sudden—Cassie collapsed. She crumbled to the floor like a rag doll, or a puppet whose strings had suddenly been clipped. Cassie remembers not being able to move. She was paralyzed from the neck down.
Horror and fear
Horrified her mother rushed to her side. All Cassie could do was look up at her mom. Looking at her with blue eyes wide like saucers, also in fear. Her mother called the doctor, whose heart also sank. Was Cassie the first person in Burlington to fall victim to Polio?
The Doctor had to notify the Health Authorities who quickly roped off the house with the dreaded “Quarantine” signs. Cassie’s dad was notified at the butcher shop that until further notice, he would not be allowed home. He would have to find housing elsewhere. He was also strictly ordered not to have any physical contact with his wife and 3 daughters.
As this wave of fear, grief, and despair flowed over Cassie’s dad, in through the store doors come his mom and dad.
The Whispering of the Holy Spirit
That morning, Cassie’s Grandfather woke up, and said to his wife–
“Something is wrong. Get up and get dressed—we are driving to Burlington today.”
It was a drive that took several hours. Cassie’s Grandparents drove straight to their son’s house. They were greeted with the ropes, “Quarantine” signs, and Health Authorities clothed in protective attire. The health authorities were almost ready to transport Cassie to the hospital in Hamilton.
Seeing that they weren’t going to be able to find answers here, Cassie’s grandparents drove straight to their son’s butcher shop.
Cassie’s Grandfather’s thoughts of something being wrong were confirmed. As soon as he saw his son’s face, he knew it wasn’t good. One word described his son’s face– grief-stricken.
Cassie’s dad shared with his parents what little information he had. Which wasn’t much. He himself was now homeless and would have to go and live with some friends willing to risk his presence in their home. Disturbed and deeply concerned, Cassie’s Grandparents returned home, again traveling several hours.
The next morning, Cassie’s Grandfather died in his wife’s arms. The worry and concern for his son and family proved to be too much for his heart.
Family grief now doubled
Not only does the quarantined family have to deal with Cassie and her unknown paralyzing condition, now this. The sudden death of the family patriarch. It was discussed and agreed by the family not to tell Cassie at this time about her grandfather’s sudden death. And of course, during quarantine, there was no way to attend his funeral either.
Worst fears realized—Polio confirmed
Yes, Cassie has Polio and is paralyzed from the neck down. She has been admitted to the children ward at the Hamilton Hospital. She will call this “home” for the next seven months.
The Strength of Mom
Over the next seven months, Cassie’s mom diligently visits each and every day. She takes one bus to work every day. After work she takes two different buses to Hamilton. And the return trip home involves two buses. Every day, for seven months. Cassie refers to her mom as her “hero”. She said that if it hadn’t been for the strength that her mom demonstrated, she wouldn’t have made it.
Her mom wouldn’t let Cassie quit. She pushed her to keep trying. Everyday a neighborhood boy across the street would bring Cassie’s schoolwork over for Cassie’s mom. Mom would then bring the schoolwork to the hospital. Although Cassie was now starting to regain some movement, she continued to be paralyzed on her right side. Being right handed, and her right arm being paralyzed, she now has to learn to do schoolwork with her left hand. Polio wasn’t going to stop Cassie from doing schoolwork. Her mom diligently worked with Cassie, not just on schoolwork, but also on physiotherapy.
Mom passively exercised Cassie’s right arm and left leg. She actively moved her daughter’s limbs every day to keep the muscles stretched and moving. Gradually Cassie started regaining movement on her own.
Cassie’s mom wasn’t easy on the nursing staff either. During hot summer days, the staff would open the windows in the hospital wards. Meaning well, to allow some fresh air in, however, the air was not fresh. Cassie’s ward and bed was at a window overlooking a tarred flat roof of another section of the hospital. So instead of fresh air, Cassie and her roommates were breathing in toxic tar fumes. Within minutes of arriving to visit, Cassie’s mom would leave the room. Next a crisply, starched nurse would enter and shut the windows.
With a hospital full of primarily children from top to bottom, imagine the antics. Many would be there for 6 months, a year or more. After all, kids will be kids, even when sick. Yes, think about it—what does a hospital full of kids do?
Comic books for one! Comic books were the one constant gift that family members sent to everyone. So comic books got swapped, traded, and hidden from the nurses. So, as kids regained strength, they would sprawl on their beds, resting on elbows, reading comic after comic. Alas though, all this leaning on elbows would tend to result in bedsores.
Guess what the starchy Head Nurse of the ward did to her little rambunctious group of children.
Seeing the bedsores and not being able to keep her wards off their elbows—she ordered straight jackets. Imagine Cassie’s mom’s horror when she arrived to find a ward full of children all strapped flat on their backs in their beds—immobilized.
Cassie’s mom spun on her heels and left the room. She quickly sought out not just the Head Nurse, but the Hospital Administrator. Within a short period of time, an army of nurses arrived and started untying the “prisoners”.
Porky Pig Arrives
Although Cassie’s Grandmother was unable to visit, she was able to send letters. One day, a special gift arrived. Grandma sent a Porky Pig Piggy Bank. Attached was a note giving instructions to Cassie to fill it with coins. But she could only put the coins in with her weak arm. The right arm affected by the Polio. Porky Pig Punches Polio.
The entire family got in on this Porky Pig punching Polio scenario. Everyone was to save their coins. Coins for Cassie to exercise her arm and fill that Porky Pig.
Cassie loved that Porky Pig. She looked everyday for her mom to arrive with any coins that her sisters might send. She then would proudly show her mom how she could move her fingers to pick up the coins, one at a time. Next she would try really hard to lift up that right arm towards the back of Porky’s head. Then the challenging job of moving fingers, holding her arm steady, to line the coin up with the coin slot. Success! Ting! Another coin hits the others in the bank.
Dual Purpose Porky
Not only did Porky provide a place to save precious coins. He provided specific arm exercises. Exercises that would lead to helping Cassie to regain her strength and recover. Cassie practiced over and over. Painstakingly picking up coins. Lifting her arm. Slowly strengthening and stretching those muscles. Over the months, Cassie got better at doing this movement.
Polio Affects Everyone Differently
For Cassie, the Polio virus affected primarily down the right side of her neck. This resulted in the initial paralysis going from her neck right down the right arm to the fingertips. But it also more mildly affected her left leg as well. That was more challenging to address.
Between the hospital full of kids, and overworked nurses. Each child was strictly restricted about being able to get up and get walking. Cassie recalls that some days she would be allowed to sit up in a chair out of bed for an hour a day. Other days, not at all.
Quite often, Polio also directly affected the bone growth plates of its young victims. For some, this resulted in very visible deformities. In Cassie’s case, it wasn’t quite as noticeable to the eye. As Cassie talked with me, now in 2016, she stretched her arms out. The left arm was stronger and had the expected muscle mass and look for a woman her age. Her right arm and hand though, surprised me. They were visibly shorter than her left by almost 2 inches (5 cm).
Not only shorter, but more slender and delicate looking as well. In fact, the thought that crossed my mind was that her right arm was that of one belonging to a young teenager.
Cassie said that her left leg is about 1 inch (2.5 cm) shorter than her right leg. So although, she doesn’t walk with a noticeable limp—she is aware of the challenges that this presents. She also considers herself fortunate too. Cassie remembers others who had lost enough leg length that hip and knee replacements would be reality for them later. Cassie didn’t have that situation.
The Shoemaker and Braces
In Hamilton, across from the hospital was a Shoemaker and his store. This Shoemaker was commissioned by the hospital to custom design and build leg and arm braces. He diligently worked on these and was a constant visitor at the hospital. He was, single handed, measuring each child and assessing their required assisting device. Then the Shoemaker would return to his shop to build each arm and leg brace.
As children gained their strength and got equipped with their respective braces, one by one they were able to return home. One day it was Cassie’s turn.
It had taken seven long months from the day Cassie first collapsed on the floor like a rag doll. But she had come so far. Her arm was still weak and she had trouble lifting it up to do actions such as eating. So the Shoemaker made her a leg brace, and a swinging arm brace. This way Cassie was able to feed herself with her right hand with the help of the swing arm. It also strengthened her arm as the brace allowed her to do more things.
And Porky Pig continued to punch polio.
Cassie’s Recovery Continued at Home
Cassie returned home. She would still continue to deal with some paralysis that would take another year to more fully overcome. So with the help of her Grandmother’s gift—Porky Pig and the arm brace from the Shoemaker, Cassie continued to regain her strength. Coin, after coin, after coin. In they dropped. Each clink making Cassie proud, not just by her growing wealth, but her continued strength.
Cassie had been in the hospital for 7 long months and was home before Christmas. Cassie was so excited and looking forward to seeing both her grandparents. It had been so long since she’d seen them. She wanted to show them how well she was doing at putting coins into Porky Pig. To show them how Porky Pig Punches Polio.
The day the family dreaded. They had to tell Cassie the truth. That Grandpa had died the day after Cassie fell ill with the Polio. It was a bittersweet Christmas as Cassie’s health improved, but Grandpa’s chair sat empty.
The Financial Strain
Now that Cassie was released from hospital, the medical bills were now due. Payment in full. The only problem is that the family is unable to pay it even after selling her Dad’s butcher shop. They lost it all. Home and business. But the family never complained. They had each other.
Even through all of that financial stress, the family stuck together. No one ever asked Cassie and Porky Pig to give up those precious coins.
In fact, Porky Pig Punches Polio was the symbol to the family of both the struggle, heartache, and success.
The Epidemic is Slowed
It turned out that 1953 was a huge peak year of the Polio Epidemic in Ontario. Cassie was one of two reported cases in Burlington in 1953. She was the first confirmed case. Today there are an estimated 11,000 Canadian survivors of Polio. Cassie is one of them.
Skip now to 2016, and Cassie is still a vibrant woman. Still sporting her blonde ponytail and sparkling blue eyes. She exercises faithfully at the local YMCA in an effort to still work on her muscle strength. Cassie admits that lifting her arm over her head is still a challenge. Especially if she has to hold it up for any length of time.
But as she was downsizing some of her possessions in order to simplify life, she showed me her precious Porky Pig.
After she had shared with me the priceless memories that Pork Pig holds for her, it was agreed—Porky Pig must stay.
Forever, the reminder that Porky Pig Punched Polio, and Cassie won !!