On July 4th, 1948, my mother and her brother developed a fever, sore throat, and chills. A couple of days in, they fell while walking down the hall to the bathroom. She took them to the hospital. Her fears were confirmed — two of her three children were infected with polio, a disease that attacks the body’s nervous system and can cause paralysis and sometimes death.
They were in the throws of a 1940s polio outbreak. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention statistics, polio disabled an average of 35,000 people a year in the U.S., most of them children. The disease outbreaks would peak during the summer months, driving families to isolate and avoid public gatherings like movie theaters and pools. People did whatever they could to protect their children.
The “Metal Croissant”
My mother’s illness worsened to the point that she could no longer breathe on her own. So for several weeks, she fought for her life in an iron lung, a giant contraption that squeezed her rib cage to breathe for her as her body fought off the virus. She even gave the iron lung a nickname: the “metal croissant.”
My mom was in the hospital until the following February as doctors worked to restore as much muscle strength as possible. The main hospital in Charlotte was overwhelmed by the number of pediatric patients, so they sent the boys and girls to separate rehab hospitals outside the city. My mom was sent to a hospital an hour from her home. During this time, she was not allowed to have visitors — not even her parents. She could only see them through a window but could not touch them. She was three years old.