It was more than 60 years ago. I had graduated from Needham Broughton High School in 1951 and was a scholarship student at the Indiana University School of Music. Another year and a half and I would have a Bachelor of Music degree and be on my way to a career in performance. I had cut my musical teeth playing with dance bands in Raleigh (guitar, vibraphone), playing with the Broughton Band (tuba), and singing with the Glee Club, a barbershop group and local church choirs. I had even done some part-time band directing in Wendell and Zebulon.
Summers were spent leading my own trio at the Blue Ribbon Supper Club, an upscale restaurant and bar in Morehead City that catered to the dog racing set, nearby military personnel and vacationers at the beach. It was the end of the summer of ’54, the club work was winding down, and I was getting ready to return to Bloomington, Ind., for the final semesters of college.
Then suddenly I didn’t feel well. The doctor was called, but he found nothing out of the ordinary. Another couple of days and I was sicker yet and also complaining of a stiff neck. This time the doctor ordered me to the local hospital for a spinal tap. The diagnosis: polio. I recall the initial description was “a slight case.”
Into the iron lung
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It was Sept. 4, 1954, and polio meant the iron lung (more accurately, the “Emerson Respirator,” standard treatment for that disease at midcentury). But the closest facility with a true polio ward was Rex Hospital in Raleigh, and I was 150 miles east in Morehead City. So the ambulance was called (in those days from the local funeral home), and with a relief driver plus an attendant, we started the trip west late in the afternoon. I was beginning to have trouble swallowing, so there was a suction machine available to clear my airway.
My parents in Raleigh were called, but they were not told of the ambulance trip, and they started to Morehead on their own. We obviously crossed paths somewhere in between, but neither driver knew about the other. I arrived at Rex Hospital late at night and was immediately put into isolation. Everyone who came into the room was gowned and masked. After driving all the way to Morehead and then turning around and coming back, my parents arrived at the hospital in the early morning hours. My mother was frantic.
My head physician was Dr. Charles Styron, who had been our family doctor ever since we moved to Raleigh from Frederick, Md., in 1947 because of my father’s position with Texaco. Dr. James Wright was the EENT person on the case.
By the next morning I had to have constant suction, and Dr. Wright inserted a tracheostomy tube in my throat to provide a clear path for breathing. Then I was put into the respirator for the first time, with several baby diapers cushioning the fit of the collar around my neck.
The iron lung was a horizontal tank that accommodated a bed and provided viewing ports that could be opened for medical procedures. The patient’s head passed through the collar and remained outside the tank. The diapers were a soft fill for the gaps between the foam rubber collar and the patient’s neck. Thus the tank was held more or less airtight with as little abrasion as possible to the skin of the occupant. But “little” didn’t mean “none,” and the scars on my neck still show.
A leather diaphragm at the foot of the tank was moved in and out by a motor-actuated lever. As the diaphragm flexed in, the pressure in the tank rose, pushing on the patient’s chest so that the person exhaled. When it moved out, the pressure fell and the reverse took place – the patient inhaled. The process was not unpleasant, essentially a gentle push and pull on the chest.
If polio or any other illness had taken away one’s ability to breathe, the iron lung would do it artificially. Medical terminology labeled the device a “noninvasive, negative-pressure ventilator.” It has been replaced today by modern jacket-type negative-pressure ventilators worn over the chest and abdomen.
I remember being put into the respirator for the first time, but not very much after that. The rest of September 1954 is virtually absent from my memory.
Bulbar polio a killer
Of the two distinct kinds of polio, spinal and bulbar, I had some of both, which is referred to as bulbospinal. My right foot was affected, and I lost some diaphragm action. But the more serious effects were those of the classic bulbar disease: speaking, swallowing, chewing, tongue deviation and facial asymmetry. While the bulbar variety made up only 2 percent of all polio cases, 25 to 75 percent of those instances resulted in death. Bulbar polio was the killer.
During those latter weeks of September my temperature rose unbelievably.
Rumor later put the peak at 107. My father (who interrupted his life completely during my illness) helped pack ice into the respirator to try to combat the fever.
The prognosis was the worst it could be. My parents were called twice to come to the hospital for the end. When that didn’t occur the doctors warned that my brain could not remain fully functional after such a long siege of high temperature. Kenneth would not be normal, they feared.
Out of the fog
But somehow that grim prediction didn’t hold true. Sometime in early October the fog lifted to the point that I sensed what was happening and roughly where I was. With my head protruding from the iron lung, long musician hair falling below the pillow, and the incessant venting of air from the mechanical breathing operation, I saw my father standing next to me. He saw my opened eyes and immediately bent down to see if I would try to speak, following doctors’ orders to use his finger to close my tracheostomy tube so that I could do so.
With my severely affected speech and machine-controlled breathing, what came out was barely intelligible. Now 60 years after the fact those words (barely distinguishable sounds, actually) seem almost humorous. But in the 1954 polio ward of Rex Hospital, one month after admission under the worst prognosis possible, they brought tears up and down the hall. Consistent with what has always been my frugal nature I asked: “Who’s paying for this?” Kenneth was going to be normal!
Slow but steady recovery
From that moment on my condition improved, slowly but steadily. I had wonderful, round-the-clock, private-duty nurses during my entire stay at Rex.
I remained in the iron lung at all times until mid-October when the doctors decided to let me try breathing on my own. First it was for five minutes. The respirator was stopped and opened and, thankfully, nature took its course. Then 10 minutes, then longer. When my 21st birthday arrived on Oct. 19, there was a party and I was taken out of the respirator and supported upright on the edge of the bed for a few minutes. Again the tears flowed.
Later, when I was strong enough to stand unassisted for maybe half a minute, a scale was put under me to record my weight. The scale read 95 pounds. I had weighed about 160 before getting sick.
Swallowing (and the danger of choking) was a major concern, so I was fed through a Levin tube that passed through my nose and into my stomach. By the end of November I was staying out of the iron lung all night and sleeping on a normal hospital bed. Sometime in mid-December the machine was wheeled out of my room, and I never saw it again.
Getting back to normal eating took time.
My first “meal” was a mixture of mashed potatoes and tomato soup – the first normal food that I had had in nearly three months. To this day I remember how good that tasted.
Being immobile in bed for such a long time while I was so very sick had resulted in serious bed sores, and the worst of the sores at the base of my spine was preventing any thought of my leaving the hospital. By the end of December the sore had closed sufficiently that I was permitted to go home for Christmas and then be discharged from Rex Hospital in time for the 1955 New Year.
My right foot dropped badly so I was fitted with a support brace that was attached to my shoe and buckled around my leg. I went to physical therapy regularly to try to improve that situation and was successful at doing so.
As with almost all bulbar polio victims, my speech was affected. Speech therapy helped lessen that, but although it has never prevented me from speaking in public (and I am a teacher), I am still asked fairly often to repeat what I say.
Playing a musical wind instrument became out of the question. I retained some of my ability to sing until perhaps 10 years ago. Although my musical ear is as good as it ever was, my singing range is much reduced and also much less steady than it was before I was sick.
Over the years my most serious residual from polio has been occasional difficulty in swallowing.
‘What saved me?’
What saved me? A quote from Dr. Styron that I heard many times during the years after my illness emphasized the gravity of my predicament: “Kenneth, I never saw anyone get so sick and live.”
There is no cure for polio. Wikipedia tells us: “The focus of modern treatment has been on providing relief of symptoms, speeding recovery and preventing complications. Supportive measures include antibiotics to prevent infections in weakened muscles, analgesics for pain, moderate exercise and a nutritious diet.”
I can’t explain my survival. I’ve been a science person for a very long time, and thus I look for a rational answer: the machine faltered but didn’t fail; the structure quivered but didn’t collapse; the pendulum swung wide but didn’t fall. Those with a different world view may think otherwise, and I respect their opinions. When asked the direct question I usually shrug it off by saying, “I got very sick, but then I got very well!” Perhaps the most sensible answer I have ever heard came from a medical doctor friend who attributed my recovery simply to “good genes.”
Putting polio in the past
The terror that polio wreaked upon civilization at mid-20th century has disappeared from all but a small number of countries, thanks to the vaccines that became available at about the time of my own bout with the disease. In the U.S. Dr. Jonas Salk’s “killed-virus” vaccine is now given to all children, and the country is polio-free, according to an April 20, 2004, article in USA Today, “Polio Vaccine hits landmark.”
As for the question I asked my father, “Who’s paying for this,” the answer was The National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis, better known as the March of Dimes, established by Franklin D. Roosevelt in connection with his own struggle with polio. The foundation set up a patient aid program and also funded the research of Dr. Salk and his competitor, Dr. Albert Sabin. Now with polio eradicated in the U.S., the foundation has turned its attention to preventing birth defects and infant mortality.
A normal life
The fall of 1954 is a fading but still-present memory for me. As I continued to recover, with time on my hands and a new grasp on life, my career focus shifted gradually away from full-time music.
I graduated not from Indiana but from Duke, and then re-entered undergraduate school as a chemical engineering major at N.C. State. Finishing that degree in 1961, I went to the University of Illinois for a Ph.D. and then started as an assistant professor in the Chemical Engineering Department at the Polytechnic Institute of Brooklyn in New York City, almost exactly 11 years after that fateful ambulance ride from Morehead to Raleigh.
In 1970 I moved to Iowa State University in Ames and have recently retired as full professor. My interests lie in traditional process engineering but with an emphasis on visual modes of learning. I hope to initiate a national professional organization for science and engineering teachers who promote visualization as I do. Music (jazz) is still an important part of my life, and I play regularly in the Ames-Des Moines area. I was recently inducted into the Des Moines, Iowa, jazz organization’s Hall of Fame.
And here the story would normally end. But polio can have a “trailer” effect that has no respect for the rules against double jeopardy. As many as 50 percent of those who contracted paralytic polio early in life suffer an additional muscular weakness 30 or more years later, called Post Polio Syndrome. Five years ago, after a 30-year regimen of exercising and short-distance running, I began stumbling occasionally on any rise that occurred in the floor or pavement. I found I was having difficulty raising my left foot. It drooped slightly and would catch on almost any rise. To date there’s been no serious damage beyond scrapes and bruises. But I can no longer run, and I would imagine that some type of support brace lies ahead.
Polio has certainly had its way with me, but on balance I think I have won the battle. At 81 years old I am healthy, active, productive and optimistic about the future. In response to the USA Today article mentioned earlier, I published my own letter in that paper acknowledging the “splendid medical and nursing help” provided by Rex Hospital. I also praised the polio foundation for its financial assistance and the North Carolina Vocational Rehabilitation Services for its extended support of my education.
It was unfortunate that I got the disease, but I’ve been very lucky in the wonderful help I’ve had combating it and returning to a normal life.