We think of it as ancient history—a disease that was long ago eradicated. But that’s not true—It was widespread around 1950, and so there are quite a few Americans still living with it, including around ten to fifteen in the Amish community where I live.
This morning I did something I’ve been wanting to do for a long time… I spent some time with Wheelchair Mary (as she calls herself). Mary Miller is the only surviving wheelchair-bound polio victim in this area, and I wanted to hear her story.
Mary told me it started one morning when she was 18 months old—in 1952. Her mother came in to get her out of bed, and Mary (who was a vigorous walker by then) couldn’t stand up in her crib. Her mother knew immediately what was wrong… Eight other young children in their church district already had polio. One of them, a little boy, died while visiting relatives in Iowa and was brought home in a casket.
As Mary told me, “America was rich with polio in the early 50s, before the vaccine.” She says adults who got it typically died, but children usually didn’t. The doctors didn’t even know what to recommend… Keep them warm? Cool them off? Try to make them exercise their limbs? Make them rest?
Eventually, with funds from the March of Dimes, Mary was sent to the polio hospital in Warm Springs, Arkansas when she was five years old. (This hospital was founded by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt in 1927, and he continued to go there until his death in 1945.)
Mary lived in a ward which held 25 young girls—5 rows of 5 beds each. She spent seven months at the hospital, separated from her family and everything she had ever known. Her mother had packed her Amish clothes, but the hospital clothed her like the other girls, since she was the only Amish patient and they didn’t want her to feel awkward.
Since only English was spoken there, Mary quickly picked it up, and before long she entirely lost her ability to speak Pennsylvania Dutch, so she had to relearn it from scratch when she returned home. She said that when her father came to get her, she was shocked to see that, unlike the men at the hospital, he had a long beard! Upon returning home, her closest sister, Irene, didn’t believe this English-speaking girl was her dear sister and said to their parents, “Let’s go find the real Mary!”
While she was at Warm Springs she was encouraged to use her braces and crutches in order to keep her spine strong. She had a variety of therapies while she was there. Her knee and hip muscles had contracted to the point that she was losing her ability to stand up, so she also had surgery there to release them. Quite a lot for a five-year-old girl to endure, far away from home!
Her brother Mervin got polio in 1955—three years after Mary did. It didn’t affect his legs or arms, but it nearly destroyed his mind. He spent the rest of his life under the care of his family, living with Mary in his later years, and he died recently. No one else in the family was affected.
Mary said her school days were a struggle, as you can imagine. She “walked” with braces and crutches in those days, but she says her arms did all the work and her legs were useless. She went to Honeyville Elementary School for the first four years. But grades 5 to 9 were on the second floor—so she and her closest sister, Irene, were transferred to Topeka Elementary School. (There were no Amish schools yet.) She says the other seven girls in her class would take turns helping her—but many times they would forget her and leave her outside at the end of recess!
Besides using her braces and crutches, the other kids pulled her around in a little red wagon that was obtained just for that purpose. Then in sixth grade she got a “school wheelchair” (she already had one at home), and she says that helped a lot. But Mary wanted to run, jump, and play with the other kids. She said she often sat off to the side with a lump in her throat, crying on the inside.
As a youth, she couldn’t go to the Sunday night singings and other social events, and she says that made her rebellious inside. She said she was fifty years old before it stopped bothering her. I remarked, “It’s hard to be different”—and Mary said, “Yes—you hit the nail on the head!” She says it’s been a lifelong struggle to let go.
What is Mary’s life like today? After the death of her father, she and her mother and her disabled brother moved into the lovely home where she now lives alone. She does, however, have a young niece named Amanda who lives downstairs and does her laundry and housecleaning. Amanda’s dog Cody spends much of his time upstairs, keeping Mary company. Mary’s food is supplied by many friends and neighbors who bring her frozen leftovers to heat up, which works out well for her.
The garage portion of Mary’s home contains her special wheelchair buggy and also her “road scooter” on which she can travel a couple of miles, to go to church or to visit another home. (Quite a few of her family members live within that distance.) She told me she can get out of bed and into a wheelchair on her own, but she said, “It takes about twenty steps to do it!”
Mary’s life has definitely had meaning... I was stunned to see a copy of the large book that she has authored. With the help of an expert Old-German-to-English translator, she has created an amazing resource for the Amish community—a large reference book on the rituals, songs, prayers, articles of faith, and other treasured documents of the Amish church, translated from the Old German into modern English, side-by-side on the pages. As Mary says in the foreword:
These hymns and prayers are sacred to us, written under conditions we can hardly imagine. We would not wish to lose this part of our heritage. Yet we must admit, we are not as much at home in the German language as our forefathers were. Therefore it takes more of an effort—yes, a real dedication—to keep the true spirit of these songs, prayers, and our German heritage alive… This book is a small effort in that direction. It is a collection of translations.
Some backstory here: The Amish are a tri-lingual people:
(1) The “Pennsylvania Dutch” they learn first, which they speak at home and to each other, and which their church uses for the preaching. It is mainly only a spoken language;
(2) The English they learn when they begin school at age seven and use when speaking to outsiders like us, which is also the language they use when they write; and
(3) The Old German which is the language of their Bible, their church hymnbook, and many of the rites and rituals of their church, and which they learn in the upper grades at school—but they don’t necessarily become fluent in that one. And that, dear reader, is where Mary’s book fills a gap for the Amish community.
This incredible project took Mary about twenty years to complete. The first edition was published in 2000, with a revised edition in 2008. Here, below, are two samples: one of the Articles of Faith, and a portion of the Amish marriage vows.
One time as a child, Mary sat watching a ball game with her father—she loved watching and cheering, but longed to play. Her father told her, “Don’t look so sad—try to always wear a cheerful smile. Then people will come to you—since you can’t go to them.” She said it was good advice… and as she told me, “Many times, you just have to be a good listener!” When asked if her days seem long, she said, “No! No, not at all!”
Mary said she still has lots of visitors—which today included my friend Ruth and me. It was one of the best ways I’ve spent a morning in a very long time.
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For more about polio, look here. Or see a brief timeline of polio in the USA here.
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