Today’s COVID-19 pandemic reminds many of another health scare 70 years ago
The young mother was a little concerned that night when her 10-month-old son ran a fever and vomited. She couldn’t help but worry that somehow he had caught that terrible virus that had been going around the country for years but recently had become more prevalent.
The next night, in their little apartment in Gainesville, she pulled the little boy’s baby bed next to hers.
“When I woke up the next morning, he was already awake,” she recalled. “I talked to him, and he grinned. I reached over to pull him to stand up, and his legs just fell out from under him. I knew something was wrong.”
She took her baby to the local doctor, who examined him and told her, “You need to get him to Columbia as fast as you can.”
Lyndell Strong, now 91, still remembers every agonizing moment of that time 70 years ago when she frantically rushed to get help for her son Joe, who would soon be diagnosed with polio.
Her husband, Utah, a truck driver, was out on the road, coming back from Iowa. There was no way to call him, but he got home later that day. “We didn’t own a car,” Lyndell said, “but we borrowed Bug Farel’s pickup, and Utah drove us to Columbia.”
John Lonzo “Bug” Farel and his wife, Grace, owned the Gainesville cafe where Lyndell had worked as a waitress. Bug and Lyndell’s father were first cousins.
The Strongs rushed to Columbia, where other Ozark Countians were already being treated for the dreaded disease that had crippled Franklin Roosevelt in 1921 and had been declared a “national threat” by President Harry Truman in 1946. By 1950, the highly contagious virus had, according to an online source, had paralyzed or killed more than 500,000 people worldwide. The trend would continue every year for several years before a vaccine was developed in the mid-1950s.
Most polio survivors carried lasting impacts of the virus that posed challenges but let them carry on normal lives. Other survivors were left permanently crippled, either unable to walk at all, or able to walk only with crutches.
COVID-19: a reminder of polio
The current COVID-19 virus pandemic that has many of us on edge these days is not the first serious worldwide health threat many Ozark Countians have faced. Not by a long shot. There have been many others, including the influenza epidemic of 1919, and, more recently, HIV, SARS and MERS, for examples. But for many older residents, the current pandemic is reminiscent of the worldwide alarm caused by polio.
One of the other Ozark Countians who was already being treated for polio at University Hospital when Joe Strong was admitted there was Dorcas Farel Rackley, Bug and Grace’s daughter, who had married Don Rackley soon after her 1947 graduation from Gainesville High School. By that May 1950, Dorcas was the mother of 2-year-old daughter Barbara, and she was two months pregnant with their second child.
Dorcas ran a fever for two or three days and “ached all over,” she said. At first, she thought the symptoms were related to her pregnancy, but when she sought treatment at the Gainesville office of Dr. M. J. Hoerman, he gave her the same orders he had given Lyndell – and several other Ozark Countians during the past year. Dr. Hoerman told Dorcas to get to University Hospital as fast as she could. That same day, she and Don left Barbara in the care of her parents and rushed to Columbia, where a spinal tap confirmed the diagnosis.
One of the polio treatments Dorcas remembers involved heavy, wet blankets. “They would wet them and then get them hot in a big cylinder. Then they would put one on the bed and have us lie on it and then put more hot packs all around us – arms, legs, front. The packs were so hot you couldn’t stand it, and they would tie the packs together to keep in the heat. Oh, I dreaded those treatments,” she said.
One day soon after she was admitted, Dorcas said, “I was in my room in the hospital and looked through the door and thought, ‘That looks like Lyndell and Utah.’”
She called to them, and Lyndell stood in the doorway – as required in that polio ward – and told her sadly, ‘We brought Joe in.’”
Lyndell’s heart still aches, remembering that day. “They said they would have to keep him, and he would be quarantined. They didn’t know what caused it, so all the polio patients were quarantined. They said they would have to keep him, and we would have to leave,” she said, adding sadly, “I thought I would lose my mind.”
That night, little Joe’s cries were heard throughout the polio ward.
“One of the nurses came to me and said, ‘Does he know you? Do you think you could hold him?” Dorcas said. “So they brought him in to me, and I held him awhile.”
It was something Lyndell and her husband would not be able to do for two long, agonizing months. “We would go back, and they would let us peep through the window, but they didn’t want him to see us,” she said. “The nurses all fell in love with him because he was the youngest one there.”
An iron lung parked outside the door
A short while later, Dorcas’ condition deteriorated, and she was having a hard time breathing. She remembers the evening when a large medical device known as an “iron lung” was moved into the hallway and parked outside her door. The apparatus, which helped patients breathe, completely enclosed them except for their heads. Fortunately, Dorcas made it through the night. The next morning, a nurse told her the iron lung had been parked outside her door because the medical staff had thought she would need it.
Dorcas soon got a roommate, Helen Marie Luna, another Ozark Countian who had been afflicted with polio. Their husbands, Don and Joe, would make the five-hour drive to Columbia together to visit their wives. The men were allowed into the polio ward but not into the room their wives shared.
Dorcas’ daughter Barbara wrote about the husbands’ visits for a 2017 edition of the Old Mill Run: “Mom and Helen had a room toward the end of the hallway. One day . . . [the husbands] were in the hall outside their room visiting with them. One of them said (Mom couldn’t remember which one), ‘I don’t care what they say, I’m not leaving without kissing my wife.’ One was the lookout for nurses while the other one went inside to kiss his wife, and then they traded places.”
Both Helen and Dorcas survived polio and were later discharged. But both still struggled for a while with muscle weakness. Dorcas, still pregnant and the mother of 2-year-old Barbara, returned to the small home she and Don shared in Gainesville that had no running water, no indoor bathroom or washing machine. “My mom and dad would come every day to help,” she said. Friends and relatives also brought daily meals and came to clean the Rackleys’ house and help in other ways, Dorcas said.
On Nov. 13, 1950, suffering “kidney poison and high blood pressure” and stomach muscles that weren’t holding up, according to Barbara’s article, Dorcas was admitted to the little hospital in West Plains – actually a converted house – and gave birth by C-section one month early to their daughter Kay, who weighed 2 pounds 12 ounces.
“Kay couldn’t cry when she was born,” Barbara wrote. “There was no incubator in the ‘hospital’ for . . . [premature babies] so they placed hot water bottles around her. Mom’s cousin Jurhee came to take turns getting up to feed Kay through the night. It was said that Kay could fit in a shoebox because she was so small.”
Strong enough to get into mischief
When Lyndell and Utah Strong were finally told they could take Joe two months after he was admitted, Lyndell was relieved that “he still knew us. He called me Mom.”
But polio left a lasting impact on the boy. He had to wear “double-leg braces with a big belt around his waist” for several months after he was discharged, Lyndell said. “We had to carry him everywhere. I had to take them off every so often and exercise his legs, and he would cry when I put them back on.”
Eventually Joe graduated to having one full-leg brace and then to having a shorter brace connected to special shoes. “We had to take him to St. Louis to have the shoes made,” Lyndell said.
For a short time, the Strongs lived in North Dakota, where Utah worked with another Ozark Countian, the late Frank McClendon, on the construction of Garrison Dam. “We lived in a little old shack, and I had to wash on a tub and board. One day I left a big bucket of water out where I’d rinsed Utah’s old coveralls, and Joe took off his shoe that was connected to the brace and washed it good. I had to dry it all off, and I told Joe, ’Now, don’t you do that anymore.’ And I’ll bet it wasn’t 30 minutes before he was giving it another shower. There was a bush handy, and I broke off a limb the size of a toothpick and switched him. I thought Utah would kill me when he found out about it,” Lyndell said.
Despite his leg braces, little Joe found plenty of ways to get into mischief as he was growing up. “Joe tells everyone we had a peach tree while he was growing but we never had a peach because I kept all the limbs broke off, switching him,” Lyndell said, laughing. “One night I remember laying there thinking, Maybe I wasn’t as good a mother as I thought I was.”
Joe was still wearing the brace when he started school. “He tried to play ball, and he would fall down. Kids would want to help him up, but he would say no. He wanted to get himself up,” she said.
Joe wore the leg brace until he was about 10, she said, but even then, “his foot would drop, like someone who’d had a stroke.”
Lyndell doesn’t remember Joe ever being able to ride a bicycle. “But then one day, his daddy got him a horse – and cowboy boots. That was the best thing we did for him,” she said. “He and Dan Wade would ride together all the time. But one day when he was about 12, they were off somewhere, riding their horses, and Dan came hurrying back and said, ‘Lyndell, Joe’s hurt bad.’ I got on Dan’s horse and took off down there where they were. One of the horses had kicked Joe and broke his bad leg.”
(In later years, Lyndell remembers, that incident got Joe out of a traffic ticket. Dan, now an attorney, represented Joe in the matter and asked the prosecuting attorney to throw out the ticket. As Lyndell tells it, when the prosecutor asked why the ticket should be dismissed, Dan replied, “Because when we were little, my horse kicked him in his bad leg, which is damaged from polio, and broke it.” The prosecutor replied, “OK, case dismissed.”)
Life after polio
Several other Ozark Countians were attacked by the dreaded polio epidemic before Jonas Salk developed the first vaccine in the mid-1950s. In fact, some sources cited this area as a “hot spot” for the disease. The virus afflicted patients in different ways. Some couldn’t breathe and had to stay in iron lungs, even at home. Others had to wear leg braces or were permanently disabled.
The three polio patients mentioned here – Dorcas Rackley, Helen Marie Luna and Joe Strong – continued to cope with health challenges related to polio but went on to have active, fulfilling lives. Dorcas, now 90, is the mother of five children and the grandmother of dozens of grandchildren, great-grandchildren and great-great-grandchildren. She moved into Gainesville Health Care Center two years ago. Her oldest daughter, Barbara, in 1968 married Don Luna, one of the twin sons of Helen Luna, her roommate in the polio ward. Helen died in 1971. Kay Young, the daughter Dorcas gave birth to shortly after her go-round with polio, is also a mother, grandmother and great-grandmother.
Lyndell, who had two other children, Jack and Jerri Sue (Crawford), still leads an active life and is serving on or has served on several community boards, including the Gainesville City Council. Joe, now 70, is a cattleman and champion roper who has won dozens of roping competitions around the country. He and his wife, Sandra, now parents and grandparents, live in Gainesville.
Like now, when the fear of COVID-19 is widespread, the time when polio raged was also a scary time. “No one knew what was happening or what was causing it or who would get it next,” Dorcas recalled. “But eventually, it got less and less, and then the vaccine came.”
Today COVID-19 is causing respiratory distress and even death. But no one doubts that eventually, it too will pass, and, most likely, a vaccine will be developed. And like the Ozark Countians featured here, those who are impacted by the virus will have a story to tell.