This morning I met with a student who is working on a piece of historical fiction about distant family members who were settlers in the Dakotas. As we spoke about her writing, she mentioned fire that had burned the upper floor of this family’s mansion. The student had found a report in the town newspaper about a similar fire. The town fire crew had turned out with their hand-pumped firefighting apparatus and fought the blaze. The house owner expressed gratitude to the fire brigade, and that one had been harmed in the fire. We mused that escaping from, and fighting, fires back in the 1890’s must have been chancy activities, indeed.
Her story set loose an old memory, giving it new meaning. Sixty years and a few months ago, I was in the iron lung, catastrophically ill with Polio. One night a fierce storm knocked out power to the hospital; the back-up generator also fail. I was entirely dependent on the iron lung for breathing. Initially the nurses and staff probably operated the bellows by hand, surely an exhausting activity. It was the wee hours of the night, yet word quickly spread throughout the air force base that aid was needed immediately. Soon a line of people, a block long and more long, stretched from my room through the hospital.
One after another people climbed aboard a bicycle by my iron lung and rode. The bicycle was attached to a generator and peddling created a flow of electricity to the iron lung. As I had a fever of about 108F, I have only, literally, the shadowiest memories of them. Aid came, one person at a time, throughout the night, each person who came into my room risking infection. Many of those who came to my aid were students at the military school on the base. Polio’s routes of infection were not know with certainty at that time, and those treating persons ill with the virus sometimes became infected themselves. Surely my rescuers knew that people who developed Polio in their teens and twenties, as most of them surely were, were at much higher risk of severe illness.
I am acutely aware that each person who came to my aid did so at great personal risk; they came because there was a child in desperate need. I had all three known strains of the virus, and the expectation was infection might well be lethal. My life is a gift to me from those courageous individuals. I am deeply grateful.