Living in terror of crutches and iron lungs
Ginger Visel Ford, sixty-nine, can remember being an energetic four-year-old, playing tag with her brother Charlie at her heels. Just as he tagged her, she ducked under sheets hanging on a clothesline. Winded and laughing, the children sprawled on sweet-smelling grass, listening to their 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 Kalamazoo wood stove in her family’s home on the outskirts of Dexter. By nightfall, she was delirious and shivering with chills, calling repeatedly 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 came out, took Ginger’s temperature (104), and 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.
When the child’s 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 St. Joseph Mercy Hospital.”
At the emergency entrance, a medical attendant asked about Ginger’s symptoms. He said bluntly, “I’m sorry, sir. I don’t believe our facility can help your daughter. A contagious disease is on a rampage.” He directed the family to the U-M medical isolation building, a former laundry where patients were quarantined.
When Ginger awoke there, she saw an elderly doctor, masked and dressed in white, holding a 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.”
Poliomyelitis had victimized children, terrified parents, and perplexed scientists for thousands of years. According to a 2009 PBS documentary, when Ginger fell sick, “infantile paralysis” was Americans’ second-greatest fear after nuclear war. By early in the twentieth century doctors had learned 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 for its symptoms.
The family doctor’s misdiagnosis was common: first symptoms resembled the flu. Lucky patients never experienced anything more, but in cases like Ginger’s, the virus infiltrated the nervous system. In the spinal cord, “paralytic” polio caused severe headaches, stiff neck, and rapid 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 struck repeatedly during the first half of the twentieth century. In 1941, a U-M postgrad named Jonas Salk began studying virology under Dr. Thomas Francis, who played a key role in developing the first flu vaccine. In 1947, Salk took a position at the University of Pittsburgh medical school. With funding from the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis–now the March of Dimes–he set to work developing a vaccine for polio.
In 1952, two years after Ginger fell ill, the United States suffered its worst epidemic to date. Of 58,000 cases, 3,145 people died, while 21,269 were left with mild to debilitating paralysis. That same year, Salk performed the first human tests of his vaccine. Its success led to a national trial that inoculated 1.8 million schoolchildren.
The U-M’s Dr. Francis oversaw the trial. On April 12, 1955–the tenth anniversary of the death of America’s most famous polio patient, president 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 children in Dexter came down with polio that year. One died and one was paralyzed. Ginger and the fourth child eventually walked with the help of 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 squeal of delight, 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 said.
“I could tell it was hard for my mom, but I felt betrayed,” Ford recalls. After five minutes, a nurse shooed her mother out. At Christmastime, her sisters Donna and Frankie rapped on the viewing window and held up gifts: coloring books and a box of crayons. When she asked why she couldn’t see her family, nurses just shook their heads.
In early January, she was transferred to the children’s polio floor in the U-M Hospital. As a transporter wheeled her down the hall, she glimpsed children in what looked like giant tin cans. Only their heads stuck out of the iron lungs. “The face of one boy still haunts my dreams,” Ford says. “His eyes were reflected in the viewing mirror that hung over his head, and they were filled with grief.”
The hospital fitted her with high-top shoes bolted to a metal bar. She had to wear them all night long. “The night was filled with heartrending cries,” Ford 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 told her mother that Ginger would probably never walk again. But eventually, nurses encouraged her to practice standing, holding onto something or someone to steady herself; otherwise, she collapsed into a heap–“like a wet noodle,” she says. She learned to transfer herself into a wooden-slat wheelchair. She was fitted with two full-length leg braces, orthopedic shoes, and crutches, then started therapy by holding onto two parallel bars while a nurse held the back of a belt wrapped around her waist so she 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,” Ford says. On her fifth birthday, she was held up to the tenth-floor window so she could see her brothers and sisters far below. They were doing cartwheels and acting silly, trying to make her laugh. Several weeks later, she finally went home.
In June, she had her first outpatient visit, and 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 while 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 long cast.
“The next two weeks, my nurses turned me into a pincushion, poking me with pain shots and penicillin shots to reduce the risk of infection,” Ford recalls. “At one time, my bottom was so black and blue from shots, the nurse said she didn’t know where to put the next injection.” When the cast was finally removed, her leg was stiff–the knee hadn’t bent in six months. The pain was excruciating.
In the midst of tending to her large and growing family, Mrs. Visel supervised her daughter’s physical therapy. They visited a nearby lake whenever possible, for water therapy.
When X-rays showed she was growing rapidly, doctors expressed concern about how the spurt would affect the curvature of her spine. After discussing a spinal fusion, they instead had her fitted with a back brace.
Two sturdy metal bars ran down her back and two more ran under her arms. They were covered in leather and attached to a circular frame around 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, Ginger had surgery to cut the muscles and tendons around her left hip, an effort to help her stand straight. Her pelvis and leg were cast in an extended position. Two weeks later, the same surgery was done to the right hip. To Ginger’s horror, she awoke to find herself encased in a bright turquoise body cast: “I looked–and felt–like a beached baby whale: blue and totally incapacitated!” she says, shuddering. “No one had so much as hinted about a body cast. I cried an ocean of tears.” When she was finally sent home to convalesce, her uncle hauled her lying in the back of his station wagon. She returned to school on crutches. When 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 the Fresh Air Camp at Patterson Lake. In 1962, doctors operated on her left knee, hoping to stabilize it so she could walk without a full-length leg brace. It failed, and the brace went back on.
But she resolved not to let her disability interfere with her enjoyment of life. She graduated from St. Thomas High School in Ann Arbor and went on to earn her teaching certificate from Madonna College and a master’s degree in special education from U-M. She married Eric Ford in 1983, and they have two children.
Using two canes, and wearing long skirts to conceal her braces, she taught elementary education in Dexter schools. Then, at age fifty, she confronted a new challenge, post-polio syndrome, which affects 80 percent of all polio victims and can include muscle weakness and fatigue, damaged nerve function, poor tolerance for cold, muscle twitching or cramps, breathing difficulties, and voice changes. Those issues forced her into early retirement at the age of sixty.
She finally succumbed to nearly full-time wheelchair use last summer. She now spends most of her time with her large and active family and completing a memoir, STEADFAST: A Memoir of Faith, Family, & Polio.
For decades, the world believed Ford’s generation would witness the last of the dreaded epidemic, but recently polio has reappeared, in Asia, Africa, and the Middle East as wars have disrupted health-care systems and Islamic terrorists have targeted vaccination teams. “That breaks my heart,” she 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 probably wouldn’t have appreciated every little achievement life offered me. My teaching probably benefited the most. I understand what it’s like to have problems. Polio breeds a special kind of empathy for others. I am very aware of people in pain–all kinds of pain.”
In the August, 2015 issue of Ann Arbor Observer