Won 8th Place for Journalism: Writer’s Digest Writing Contest
In Ginger Visel Ford’s earliest memory, she is four years old, running and squealing, with her brother Charlie at her heels. Just as he tags her, she ducks under sheets hanging on a clothesline. Winded and laughing, the children sprawl on sweet-smelling grass, listening to Mother sing, “Oh, What a Beautiful Morning.”
“My internal stopwatch freezes this moment like a scene in a movie,” she says. “I was the happiest girl on the planet. If only every day could bring such simple pleasures.”
But life had other plans. On a gray November day a few months later, Ginger woke with a raging fever, sore throat, and stiff neck. She spent a miserable day huddled by the family’s Kalamazoo woodstove in their farmhouse outside Dexter, Michigan. By nightfall, she was delirious, shivering with chills, begging for water.
The next day, she could barely raise her head and she screamed if anyone touched her. Frantic, her parents called the local doctor, who took Ginger’s temperature (104), then examined her ears, eyes, nose, throat, and lethargic limbs. The diagnosis: “Just a bad cold and the flu.” He prescribed bed rest, aspirin, and liquids.
But as the day progressed, the little girl’s symptoms worsened. When her grandmother visited, she offered Ginger a dollar if she would raise her leg. She couldn’t.
“We need to get her to the hospital,” her father announced.
“In 1950, hospitals were a last and rare resort,” Ford says. “Bundling me into a blanket, Dad carried me to the car and deposited me into Mom’s waiting arms. He rushed us to the hospital, driving faster than I ever saw him drive, before or since.”
At the emergency entrance, a medical attendant asked about symptoms, then said bluntly, “I’m sorry, sir. Our facility can’t help your daughter. A contagious disease is on a rampage.” He directed the family to the University of Michigan’s Medical Isolation Building, a former laundry where patients were quarantined.
When Ginger awoke, she saw an elderly doctor, masked and dressed in white, holding a huge, terrifying needle. “Turn her on her side and hold her still,” he ordered the nurse.
“Years later, I realized the importance of that spinal tap,” Ford says. “It would determine whether I was infected with polio.”
In 1950, a poll of American parents revealed two overwhelming fears: the atomic bomb and “infant paralysis”, or Poliomyelitis. This illness had victimized children, terrified parents, and perplexed scientists for thousands of years. By the early twentieth century, doctors had determined that polio was a virus contracted orally from contaminated saliva, food, or water. But in 1950, there was no vaccine, no cure, and only primitive treatments.
The family doctor’s misdiagnosis was common: first symptoms resembled the flu. Lucky patients never experienced anything more than those symptoms, but in cases like Ginger’s, the virus infiltrated the nervous system. In the spinal cord, “paralytic polio” caused severe headaches, stiff neck, and onrushing paralysis as the virus rapidly killed the nerves connecting the spinal column to the muscles. If the infection reached the brain, “bulbar” polio paralyzed the muscles used in breathing and swallowing, dooming victims to life in “iron lungs.”
Terrifying polio epidemics repeatedly swept through America. In 1941, a University of Michigan postgraduate named Jonas Salk began studying virology under Dr. Thomas Francis, who played a key role in developing the first flu vaccine. In 1947, Salk joined the University of Pittsburgh Medical School staff. Funded by the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis (now the March of Dimes), he labored to develop a vaccine.
Two years after Ginger contracted polio, the United States suffered its worst epidemic: 58,000 cases, with 3,145 deaths and 21,269 cases of mild-to-debilitating paralysis. That same year, Salk performed his vaccine’s first human tests, leading to a national trial that inoculated 1.8 million schoolchildren.
Dr. Francis oversaw the trial. On April 12, 1955—the tenth anniversary of the death of America’s most famous polio patient, Franklin Roosevelt—Francis announced, “The vaccine works. It is safe, effective, and potent.”
The vaccine effectively ended the menace of polio in the developed world. But it came five years too late for Ginger. Her spinal column and legs were irreparably damaged.
Although Ginger was the only one of seven Visel children to contract the dreaded disease, three other Dexter children were victims. One died immediately, one spent three years in an iron lung, and the third, like Ginger, eventually walked with metal leg braces. “There were no support groups or educational programs in those days,” Ford explains. “We were just expected to tough it out and try to live lives as normal as possible.”
Her first two weeks in isolation remain a blurred memory. “I do recall pain, excruciating pain,” she says. Twice a day, heated wool packs—as hot as the child could tolerate—were applied to her back and legs. “To this day, whenever I smell hot wool, my skin itches and my mind flies back to those early days,” Ford says.
After two weeks, her mother was allowed inside the isolation room, wearing a cap, mask, and long hospital gown. With a delighted squeal, Ginger held out her weak arms, sure her mother would pick her up and take her home. “Honey, the doctor says I can’t touch you,” her mother told her tearfully.
“I felt betrayed,” Ginger recalls. After five minutes, a nurse shooed her mother out. At Christmastime, her sisters rapped on the viewing window and held up coloring books and a box of crayons. When Ginger begged to see her family, nurses shook their heads.
In early January, she was transferred to the hospital’s polio floor. As a transporter wheeled her down the hall, she glimpsed children lying in what looked like giant tin cans. “The face of one boy still haunts my dreams,” Ginger says. “His eyes were reflected in the viewing mirror that hung over his head. They were filled with grief.”
Polio treatments were always experimental, always torturous, and varied widely from hospital to hospital. U-M Hospital fitted Ginger with high-top shoes bolted to a metal bar, which she wore day and night. “The night was filled with heartrending cries,” she recalls. “I had to sleep on my back without a pillow because doctors thought this might keep my spine from curving. That awful foot contraption hurt! Nighttime was crying time.”
A doctor announced that Ginger would probably never walk again, but nurses encouraged her to practice standing, holding onto something or someone to steady herself; otherwise, she collapsed into a heap “like a wet noodle.” When she learned to transfer herself onto a wheelchair, she was fitted with full-length leg braces, orthopedic shoes, and crutches. Then she started therapy, holding onto two parallel bars while a nurse held a belt wrapped around her waist, so Ginger wouldn’t fall. “She walked behind me and pushed my right leg forward with her knee, then repeated the same thing with the left leg,” Ford says. “Trying to swing my legs from my hips with heavy braces on was exhausting work.”
In March, Ginger’s seven-year-old roommate, Blossom, was wheeled away for a repeat operation on her spine. She never returned. “The children on my ward lived with the fear of death every day.” On her fifth birthday, she was held up to the tenth-floor window so she could see her family far below. Her brothers and sisters were doing cartwheels and acting silly, trying to make her laugh.
Several weeks later, she finally went home. In June, during her first outpatient visit, a crowd of male doctors and interns studied her X-rays and her body. “I was mortified that I had to walk in front of them practically naked. I listened to them talk about me as if I were a piece of furniture. When the doctor pointed out that my left knee buckled without warning, I snuck a glance at the solemn expressions of the audience and wanted to race back home and hide.
“I hated being put on exhibit. I felt shamed and degraded.”
In 1954, Ginger returned to the hospital for the first of six surgeries. The surgeon performed a triple fusion, inserting three screws in her left ankle and mid-foot and lengthening two tendons to help balance her foot, which was turning outward. The leg was encased in a cast. Lying helpless on her bed, she was accosted by a male attendant on night. “I never told anyone until # ME TOO.”
Meanwhile, the nurses turned her into a pincushion, poking her with pain medications and penicillin shots, Ford recalls. “At one time, my bottom was so black and blue that the nurse said she didn’t know where to put the next injection.” When the cast was finally removed, her leg was stiff and the pain was excruciating. While tending to her large and growing family, Mrs. Visel supervised her daughter’s physical therapy, swimming in a nearby lake whenever possible for water therapy.
When X-rays showed Ginger was growing rapidly, doctors expressed concern about how the spurt would affect her spinal curvature. After discussing a spinal fusion, they decided to fit her with a back brace.
Two sturdy metal bars ran down the little girl’s back, two more under her arms. They were covered in leather and attached to a frame circling her waist. “The brace turned me into a marionette, stiff and upright. It was barely tolerable.” She wore it for eight hours every day for two years. “Some of the girls in my class bragged about getting training bras. They couldn’t imagine what I wore under my clothes!”
When she was ten, surgeons cut the muscles and tendons around Ginger’s left hip, hoping to help her stand straight. Her pelvis and one leg were cast in an extended position. Two weeks later, the same surgery was done to the right hip. To her horror, she awoke to find herself encased in a bright turquoise body cast: “I looked like a beached baby whale: blue and totally incapacitated!” She shudders. “I cried an ocean of tears.”
When she was finally sent home, her uncle hauled her lying in the back of his station wagon. Once the casts were removed, she returned to school on crutches. After her hip healed, she was fitted with an additional leg brace and began using a cane.
During the ensuing years, she tried to live as normally as possible. Her brothers and sisters, now totaling ten, included her in all their activities, with modifications if necessary. She spent seven summer vacations at a Fresh Air Camp (“a great gift—that was the only time I felt ‘normal’”). In 1962, doctors operated on her left knee, hoping to stabilize it so she could walk without a full-length leg brace. It failed. The brace went back on.
But she refused to let her disability interfere with her enjoyment of life. After high school, she searched for a college that would accommodate people with physical disabilities. Michigan had none, so she flew to Florida. After the Americans with Disabilities Act, she earned a master’s degree in special education from U-M. She married in 1983, and had two children.
Using two canes, and wearing long skirts to conceal her braces, Ford taught elementary school until age fifty, when she faced a new challenge: post-polio syndrome, which affects 80 percent of all polio victims with muscle weakness, fatigue, damaged nerve function, temperature intolerance, muscle twitching, cramps, breathing difficulties, and vocal changes. Those issues forced her into early retirement. Two years ago, Ford succumbed to full-time wheelchair use outside her home and decided to finish her memoir, Ginger Stands Her Ground.
For decades, the world believed Ford’s generation witnessed the last of the dreaded epidemic, but polio has reappeared in Asia, Africa, and the Middle East. “That breaks my heart,” Ford says. “But good things do come out of bad. Without having to deal with polio, I never would have become as determined as I am. I might not have appreciated every little achievement life offered me. My teaching probably benefited the most. Polio breeds a special kind of empathy for others. I am very aware of people in pain—all kinds of pain.”
This article will appear in Jan 2019 Writer’s Digest.
A version of this article appeared in the Ann Arbor Observer in August 2015.