In the 1940s and 1950s when the spread of polio was at its height, before any cure or means of prevention existed, people were understandably afraid.
David Oshinsky writes in his Pulitzer Prize winning book, Polio: An American Story, “polio inspired such fear because it struck without warning and researchers were unsure of how it spread from person to person. In the years following World War II, polls found the only thing Americans feared more than polio was nuclear war.”
With the current COVID-19 pandemic, it’s helpful to me to remember other times in history when we faced comparable and even greater challenges, with fewer ways to improvise and far more isolation without access to communication. This whole situation has brought to mind a story my mom told me when I was a kid.
About the time when the first grade class she was teaching helped make history.
My mom was teaching at Sam Houston Elementary in Wichita Falls, Texas, in 1952. She had a class of 48 first graders that was chosen to participate in Dr. Jonas Salk’s development of the polio vaccine. In order to develop the vaccine, they first needed blood samples from schoolchildren in different parts of the country. A team of nurses went around to the schools that were chosen and drew blood from the children in those selected classes.
Knowing how scary it would be for children to have even the smallest amount of blood drawn, my mom set out to prepare her class for something which could’ve otherwise been very traumatic. The first step, she said, was to present the idea to the kids in a way that would help them want to participate.
So she told them the truth – that she needed their help with something very important.
Something that would help other children all over the world.
Something that would help keep other children like them from getting sick.
Step two was to dispel their fear of the unknown. She looked around at home and found some unused syringes that her diabetic husband had had to give himself shots of insulin with before he died. The next day she took the syringes to school, along with a few oranges. My mom wanted her class to know every step the nurses would take to draw blood from the students’ arms. She showed them exactly what to expect by first wiping the orange with alcohol on a cotton ball, then inserting the syringe into the orange. There was only one twist – back at home, she had filled the oranges with red food coloring. So when she began to draw blood from the orange, it looked like real blood! Ewwwwww, they all shouted! They giggled and squirmed in their seats and put their hands over their mouths with squeamish delight. Then after the demonstration, she let each child come up to the front of the room and insert a syringe into one of the oranges and draw out some red colored orange juice. By the time she finished preparing them for what to expect, they not only weren’t scared – they were anxiously awaiting their turn to give blood!
The day arrived and my mom walked her class single file – all 48 of them – down the hall, into the cafeteria where the nurses had set up. Mama always bragged that not one of her kids flinched during the whole ordeal.
When the nurses got to the last little boy in line, they said they had enough for the sample and that he didn’t have to give any blood. The nurses expected him to be overjoyed, but he burst into tears! My mom had to explain to the nurses that the boy had been so looking forward to helping and could they please just take some extra?!
She was a wonderful teacher. She had a way of seeing the positive aspect of any situation.
I came from a woman who lived through the stock market crash of 1929, the Great Depression that followed, and World War II.
From ancestors that survived all kinds of hard times.
From a culture that was built by incredible resilience, ingenuity, and strength.
From centuries of people driven by curiosity and the desire for knowledge, understanding. Accompanied by the need not only to survive, but to thrive.
For God made us so.
And lest you forget, my friends, you came from this heritage, too.
Don’t forget that.