Where is my Mother? | Part 2 of 3

by Elouise

Sister #3
It’s 1949. I’m 6 years old. Sister #3 is 6 months old and still nursing.  She’s sitting on my parents’ bed with Father and me. He’s playing with her—a little game of reach and grab. He asks me to watch and see whether she’s moving her left arm. No, she is not.

He tries holding her right arm back. She doesn’t reach for anything with her left arm—not even her favorite toys. She has a little cold, but no other symptoms. The doctor tells my parents she has polio. It has paralyzed her left arm and weakened her left hand. The polio will heal, but the damage won’t.

My father begins taking her regularly for physical therapy for her left arm and shoulder. He watches the therapist to see how to help her at home. If she isn’t careful she might get other problems, especially in her back. She also needs to do regular exercises to strengthen her weak left hand as much as possible.

Two weeks later I’m sitting on the big piano bench with my mother beside me, teaching me to play the piano. Just the way she plays it.  Mother is 28 years old.  Suddenly she says she’s tired.  She stops the lesson so she can go upstairs to rest.

A few days later I get up one morning and walk through my parents’ bedroom on the way to the bathroom. Mother is trying to say something to Father. Her voice sounds strange—not at all like her regular voice. It’s raspy.  I can hardly tell what she’s saying. Father wants to understand her, but can’t.

I listen intently and tell him what I think she’s trying to say. She nods her head. For one small moment I feel proud and happy that I could help her. She has to go to the bathroom, but she can’t get there by herself. Later that day she tries to sing one of her favorite hymns. It comes out all garbled.

It doesn’t occur to her doctor that she might have polio. Two weeks later, in the emergency room, she finds out she has bulbar polio, the life-threatening kind.  It’s possible she got the virus from Sister #3, even though Sister didn’t have that kind of polio.  For the next two weeks Mother is put in isolation; later she’s moved to another hospital for long-term rehabilitation. She doesn’t come home for 2-3 months.

Mother never said much about what it was like to have polio, just as she never said much about what it was like to grow up without her mother. When I was 50 years old she gave me part of a letter she wrote in 1992 to a missionary who had similar problems. The letter focuses on speech and swallowing. However, Mother’s legs were also paralyzed, along with the left side of her face.

In the letter she describes what was going on in her body, mind and spirit. I’ve included parts of it below in honor of her valiant effort until the day she died. Mother died on February 17, 1999.  She was 78 years old.

In Mother’s Voice

My very personal interest in your situation stems from my own experience in 1949 when I was 28 years old, still nursing my 6-months-old daughter (our 3rd)….

I had been in good health, though rather exhausted. At supper one evening I swallowed some water which came back out my nose. Swallowing food because impossible as solid food refused to enter my throat. A doctor prescribed a liquid sulfa medication, saying my throat was very inflamed. (I denied feeling any soreness as usually associated with sore throat.)

Back home I strangled on a teaspoonful of the medicine. Only a small sip of water poised on the front of my tongue could be made to enter my throat. Nighttime became virtually unbearable with pain, especially in my back, with fever and chills, and nightmares which ended with my sitting up in bed to force myself to breathe. My husband spent much of those nights in prayer in an adjoining room, rarely lying down. I began to have a problem speaking, also.

An osteopathic physician friend then saw me in his office. He thought I was totally exhausted, but did not pick up on anything else. He gave me intravenous feeding in his office.

A few days later he detected the beginnings of facial paralysis. My left eye did not blink and my mouth pulled to the right giving a distorted appearance, and my speech had become very difficult to understand because of inability to enunciate my words properly and the effort of making myself heard (symptoms similar to those of stroke). He had my husband take me to the Osteopathic Ward of the LA County Hospital.

In the Emergency Room we were told (two weeks after onset) I should have been dead from what they diagnosed as bulbar polio. I was placed in isolation for two weeks. I shall never forget the blessing of God’s presence those days as I struggled to remember the words of all the verses to my two favorite hymns, The Love of God, and Great Is Thy Faithfulness.

I could hardly talk, let alone sing, but I thought all the verses through word by word and tried to give voice to them. I did my best to tell the nurses what I was doing, but conversation was not really an option. Only the very patient ones understood what I tried to say.

My left eye would not focus or blink and drops were used to lubricate it. I had no mirror to see it, but my face became very distorted if I smiled or tried to talk. I was told that the seventh cranial nerve which controls all facial movement was damaged. I was shown to medical interns as an example of possible nerve damage if that nerve was severed in surgery.

On transfer to a long term rehabilitation facility I could finally have visitors, but my own girls (except the baby) were uncomfortable with me because of my distorted face and strange sounding voice. I worked hard learning to swallow and talk again. After a time of intensive therapy I was allowed to go home.

This is already too long, but a word about therapy. I was put on pureed food to help swallow. Eating remained painfully slow and difficult for many months. Other therapy included keeping the room warm, hot packs to my back and extremities, stretching unused muscles in my legs (very painful the way it was done!), hydrotherapy (seated in water to my neck in a near 90 degree whirlpool), and electrotherapy. The last was a stylus giving electric shock to stimulate nerve pathways in my face. I watched with a hand mirror to try to imitate the response that the current had produced. The therapists always took time to have me try to sing. . . .A year after my own illness the Salk vaccine became available. It was effective against bulbar (life-threatening) and spinal (crippling) poliomyelitis.

Homecoming and Another Move
Mother’s homecoming was almost surreal. Was this Mother? According to her I looked at her face, burst into tears and ran into another room. Years later she told me she felt rejected.

In June 1950 we moved across country to a mission home on the Southeast Coast. It was not a communal house. This was, according to the doctors, better for Mother’s health—quiet, with no other residents, and fewer mission people coming and going. My parents hadn’t lived in a private mission home since their marriage in 1942.

In September 1950 I entered the 2nd grade and celebrated my 7th birthday.

Part 3 of 3 yet to come. . . . [Here’s a link to Part 1 and Part 3.]

© Elouise Renich Fraser, 15 February 2014