Thank God for Mama! (The Polio Story)

Deborah & Alvin Sather 1938

Deborah and Alvin (Taken 1938)


Thank God for Mama!

 Mama – Deborah Graff Sather 

10-15-1917 —- 11-05-2010

This child has polio.

Just after the school term began, Deborah’s children became ill.  Being farm children, exposure to circumstances conducive for contracting infectious diseases was very limited. When she learned that polio was endemic in the area in the fall of 1946, Deborah further reduced the risks by keeping the school-aged child out of school for the term and the entire family as isolated as possible. Only necessary trips to town for supplies were made.  Still the three children, approximately 8, 4, and 3 years of age, became ill.

The first to fall victim to the dreaded poliomyelitis was Dean, the youngest of Deb’s children at the time.  The family had visited Deborah’s brother and his family the day before, where the children had played on a pile of gravel/sand. Dean, young and a little unsteady in the sand, had fallen and bruised his face on a wheel.  The next day, Monday, he complained of neck pain.  When Deborah noticed a decreased ability to rotate his head, she worried that he had injured his neck in the previous day’s accident and decided he needed to see a doctor.

“The fall against the wheel turned out to be a lucky thing,” she said.  “Otherwise we may not have realized it was polio so quickly, and early diagnosis was important.  Some children in the area were not diagnosed immediately, and their treatment was not as effective.”

Since there was no doctor in Greenbush at the time, Dean was taken to a doctor in Thief River Falls.  After a quick look at the child and lifting his limbs, the doctor said, “This child has polio.”

The Sister Kenny Institute in Minneapolis was the hospital of choice for polio victims from Northern Minnesota, but they were overwhelmed with polio patients and at the time of Dean’s diagnosis had no beds available.  Deborah was told to take the child home, apply hot packs, keep the room temperature at 80 degrees, and give him the pills the doctor supplied.  So, the family, including Dean, returned home.  It was the beginning of a winter of woe.

The next day, the middle child was cranky and complaining of flu-like symptoms.  Deb immediately made her own diagnosis, and Eunice was promptly subjected to the same treatments Dean was receiving.

The following day, Wednesday, the oldest, Alvin, was startled during his morning routine.  “Mama,” he called in a voice filled with surprise, “I can’t tie my shoes.  I can’t reach.”

Mama knew her third child had succumbed to the dread disease.  All of her children now had polio.  This was later confirmed by the doctor who came out to the house to check on the family (a housecall!).  “He told me that all three children had polio.  I already knew that,” Deborah said.  With all three unable to move, there was little question.


The children experienced pain as the muscles contracted, pulling their heads back and arching their backs.  The doctor had recommended hot packs, preferably 100% wool, kept hot by changing them every three hours and pills that apparently were either sedatives or muscle relaxants or perhaps both. Soon the children could lie flat on their backs, but were unable to change position.  In a matter of a few days, Deborah’s feisty, active children had been reduced to motionless, bedridden patients who could move only their eyeballs, and breathe and speak.

“But they didn’t say al,eunice,dean,dogmuch,” said Deborah. “They slept a lot. The doctor gave me pills to add to their food.” She doesn’t remember what kind they were, but along with the hot packs, the pills seemed to make the children both drowsy and more comfortable.

The neighbors

Like the majority of their neighbors, the family had no phone.  Still, the news traveled quickly.  Reluctant to expose themselves and their families to the dreaded virus, the neighbors wanted no close contact, but they were concerned.  They’d drive into the yard, stop near the barn, and call across the yard to ask how the children were doing. When they learned the family was in need of things easily supplied without exposure to the disease, the neighbors rallied.

The Sathers needed 100% wool for hot packs.  Did anyone have blankets that could be cut into strips?  People had blankets, but they weren’t 100% wool.  Who had woolen cloth?  The ultra-conservative wife an old farmer who wore only 100% woolen underwear had packed his old, worn-out, woolen underwear away. Though everyone wondered why she’d kept the old ragged things, the underwear solved the problem! They were brought out, cut up, and pressed into service for hot packs. Other neighbors gathered up old shirts for “hospital gowns” for the children.  Uncle Ove, whose wife had died, supplied a bedpan he no longer needed.

”So the children were dressed in men’s old shirts and wrapped in old Charlie Haug’s ragged underwear,” said Deborah with a chuckle.

Doctor’s orders

As per the doctor’s instructions, the hot packs were wrapped around the muscled areas of their bodies, avoiding the joints.  Although the children were completely paralyzed, their joints were mobile, enabling Deborah to lift and move limbs when applying the packs.  She also could prop their bodies at a slant to feed them soups and liquids. “They couldn’t lift their arms or even curl their fingers around a cup, so they had to be fed like little birds,” Deborah said.  To avoid choking, no solids could be fed, but with Deborah’s cream soups, the ever-ready cod liver oil, and lack of exercise, the children more-or-less maintained their weight.

A couple of days after Dean’s visit to the doctor in Thief River Falls, Deborah received a call informing her that a bed was available at the Sister Kenny Hospital.  By that time, her other children were sick.  “I didn’t want one sick child in Minneapolis and two in Greenbush.  I thought I may as well keep them all at home.”


“Old Home Hospital”

The family lived in a tall old house with a small footprint — only a kitchen, pantry, living room, and one bedroom on the first floor.   The house had no bathroom because there was no running water (as some wag said, we only had running water when someone ran out to the well to fetch it). The kitchen boasted a wood-burning range with a reservoir where water was stored and ‘‘automatically” heated when the range was stoked.  For larger amounts of hot water, an oblong copper tub that spanned a two-burner area of the range served as the “water heater.”  Someone, of course, had to carry buckets of water to fill the reservoir and the tubs.  Someone also had to carry wood to heat the water.  Since Alfred, the father of the family, avoided dealing directly with the illness, the fetching chores fell to him.

For nursing convenience after the polio struck, the children needed to be on the same floor and in separate beds, which limited choices.  The oldest was given the bed in the downstairs bedroom.  For the youngest, a crib was placed in the living room, and the middle child was placed on the living room couch.  By default, Alfred was relegated to one of the upstairs bedrooms – the only “non-hospital quarters” remaining. With the kitchen being the water-heating and hot-pack-prepping center and the living room and bedroom patient rooms, the entire main floor of the house was essentially a medical center/hospital with a medical staff of one.

Medical staff

Deborah dedicated herself entirely to the children for the duration.  The doctor had recommended hot packs and the pills he’d given her.  Deborah felt pressured to keep to the hot-pack schedule to reduce the chances of permanent paralysis.

And the hot packs were hot!  Deborah used a stick to remove the packs from the copper tub.  “When applying them to the children,” she said, “I’d handle them with the tips of my fingers, and they were very hot.  I worried that the children would blister, but the field nurse told me not to worry, because they wouldn’t blister. She was right, none of the children blistered.”

Deborah diligently prepared and changed the packs every three hours, often completing a round of changing packs and feeding just in time to begin again.  When she could finish the round with a little time to spare, she’d collapse at the foot of the bed of the oldest child to nap for a few minutes.

Household staff

That’s if she had the time, because clothes had to be washed.  This wasn’t a matter of throwing a load into an automatic washer.  “We did have the convenience of a gas-powered agitator washer, though,” said Deborah.  And soup had to be made. “For the first time, Alfred had to make coffee and sandwiches to go with the soup, if he wanted a meal.  I didn’t have time to prepare meals.”

Surprisingly, the family was not officially quarantined, but there was no household help, hired or volunteer, to be obtained.  Still, without quarantine, Alfred could go to town for supplies so they did not have to rely on people dropping off supplies.

Deborah avoids answering questions about her fears for the children’s futures.  She says she didn’t have time to think about that.  But she couldn’t know what the outcome would be; she couldn’t know if the children would be crippled for the rest of their lives. So we can only imagine the fears, tears, and prayers that had to have accompanied the difficult routine of caring for her three paralyzed children.


In the spring, Deborah was wearily changing packs on the oldest child yet again when she noticed he moved a toe!  She couldn’t believe her eyes!  She asked him if he could do it again, and he complied!

Alfred was in the kitchen having a cup of coffee.  “Alfred!” she called, “Alfred! Alvin moved his toe!”  Alfred rushed in.  He wanted to see it for himself, so they asked Alvin to do it again. Again he complied, so Alfred saw it, too!  Although he could not move his leg, he had actually moved his toe!  This was an exciting day!

As time passed, the children began moving more and more, and the hot packs gave way to tub soaks. The children sat in a galvanized tub of hot water for twenty minute intervals, which soon became a boring stretch for them.  When Alfred made a run to town for supplies, Deborah asked him to pick up something to entertain the children while soaking in the tub.  He brought yellow rubber duckies.

Soon the children were moving around enough to look for entertainment outside the tub, as well.  Because warmth was a consideration and the floors were cold, the couch was put into double bed position so Dean could be removed from the crib and placed with Eunice where they could crawl around and play.

The doctor from Thief River Falls made another house call one day when the children were crawling around on the couch.  He took one look, grinned, and confirmed Deborah’s assessment, “Yup, they’re getting better.”

By the end of the school year, Alvin was doing well enough to be taken to his little country school to take his exams to determine whether he had passed his grade. After he was sufficiently on the road to recovery, Deborah had been home-schooling him.  He passed, of course.  Mama had tutored as she did everything else – effectively.

Alvin, the oldest polio child, remembers

Al, the oldest, remembers the children falling ill, but remembers nothing of the time of paralysis. He recovered first and remembers being brought in to see his sister after all those weeks of illness.  “This may not sound very nice,” he says, “but I remember looking at her and thinking, “Oh, yuck!”

He cannot recall what prompted the comment, but agrees that it may have been that she looked ill – or that after all that time, he’d forgotten he had a sister and wasn’t thrilled about it.

Eunice, the middle polio child, remembers

Eunice remembers nothing of the time of paralysis, but does recall riding in the car and mother exclaiming over Dean’s inability to turn his head properly.  In this memory, it seems that the moment is quite intense.

She also recalls the long soaking baths in a round galvanized tub and the yellow rubber duckies they were given to entertain them in the tub.  These were perhaps the first toys the children had received in months. Deborah says these soaks were twenty minutes each time, but Eunice remembers that they seemed long, hours long!

Eunice remembers learning to walk.  She has a snapshot memory — they were in the kitchen in front of the door leading to the upstairs near the kitchen range.  Mother was holding her up and Father kneeling in front of her coaxing her to come to him.

“Eunice had the most trouble learning to walk again.  It seemed her legs were disconnected from her brain and no messages were getting through,” said Deborah. “I held her hands to keep her upright and her father crawled along pumping her legs trying to show her what to do.”

Dean, the youngest polio child, remembers

Dean, too, remembers the incident in the car involving his inability to turn his head normally.  The time of paralysis is a blank to him, too.  But he does remember the oblong copper tub upon the space heater in the living room.

The space heater was a new one.  “We got a new heater so we’d have better control over maintaining a constant 80 degrees as the doctor recommended,” said Deborah.  The tub full of water for hot packs sat there simmering day and night for months.

And he remembers learning to walk.  “Mom held me up and Dad pumped my legs,” he says.

Exercises and tears – the children remember

All the children remember the exercises–the horrible dreaded exercises, the painful   stretching of the cords.  Oh, how we hated “exercise time.” Every night we’d have this wonderful “family experience” with the three kids complaining and crying while Mama encouraged and enforced. Daddy apparently hid out somewhere.

It was discouraging; we didn’t seem to make any progress.  We’d stretch and stretch those cords, and they seemed to “shrink” before the next evening, because we had to stretch them again. Growing exacerbated the problem—as our bodies grew the cords either didn’t grow or didn’t keep up.  And that stretching hurt!  Oh, the tears!

The leg exercises were the most painful.  One of the hated exercises consisted of standing with legs straight–no knee bending—and reaching down to touch our toes. It hurt; we’d cry, Mama would try to encourage us by exercising with us.  She could do the most amazing thing!  She could reach down and put hands flat on floor!  None of us could do that, and Mama was old (or so we thought).

The most horrible of all the exercises, though, was to sit on the floor with legs outstretched–no bending of the knees–then bend the torso until the head touched the knees.  We’d try and try, and it would hurt so much.  We did not get an A for effort.  We did not get excused for pain. If we couldn’t do it, if we couldn’t get that head all the way down, Mama would push until we got there.  Oh, how it hurt!

Without Mama’s daily encouragement and enforcement there is no doubt that we would have skipped the exercises.  Even as we grew older and knew, without the exercises, we could end up with useless, crippled limbs, I believe we would have found excuses to avoid exercising.  We didn’t want to be crippled, but oh, it hurt to exercise.  We hated those exercises so much!

Thank God for Mama!  Mama knew about tough love before it was a catchphrase!  Mama cared about our futures more than she cared about being popular with her kids!  But as I recall, Mama’s unpopularity usually lasted only about as long as each exercise session.  And not one of us entered adulthood with crippled or atrophied limbs. And all of us learned to deal with pain.  And I like to believe that our exercise sessions built character, too.

Post-polio syndrome

Alvin PPS

Only one of the children had any visible after-effects from the polio; Alvin had a barely discernable limp when he was tired. The limp was so slight, it’s doubtful anyone other than family noticed.  Though none of the children seemed as agile and limber as other children, this was not really noticeable either.

Deborah had asked the school to excuse Al from football when he returned to school.  At some point, though, Al did participate in football – and the next morning he required help to arise from the bed.  “I was so mad,” Deborah said. “After all the effort to get all the kids past polio, he was back to being unable to get out of bed.”  However, from this, too, Al recovered with no ill effects.

Al does not admit to post polio symptoms, but his gait seems to indicate leg muscle problems.  However, he has experienced severe back problems much of his life, which could also affect his gait. He also has some palsy in his hands as he’s grown older, and has some vision problems. He’s had cancer and a stroke, which may account for his symptoms.

Eunice PPS

In her twenties, Eunice found she could not tolerate dressing her long hair, which required holding her hands above and behind her head for sustained periods of time.  At the time, she thought little of it and merely did what was necessary – cut her hair.  Only recently, she’s begun to suspect it was the first onset of post-polio syndrome.

As Eunice edged into middle-age, late forties, early fifties, she began experiencing fatigue and pain in her legs that seemingly could not be totally explained by cardio-vascular disease, and some of her doctors began mentioning post-polio syndrome as a possibility.

Then over-all fatigue became a problem, enough to interfere with her routine.  It would often take two or three days to recover from a clinic visit or a shopping day; any unusual activity, trauma, or anesthesia seemed to exacerbate the problems.  As she continued to age, the over-all fatigue increased, as did the muscle fatigue – now moving into her thighs, hips, and lower back.  There were some issues with intermittent mental fogginess and visual fogginess, as well as memory problems.  Because of early onset of heart disease (she had artery by-pass heart surgery at about age 46, with placement of stents and carotid surgery about fifteen years later, a heart attack at 64, and a stroke at 65), it is difficult to pin-point these symptoms as post-polio syndrome.

Dean PPS

Dean also admits little regarding post polio symptoms (it seems to be a guy thing).  He does, however, have problems with his legs, which seem very similar to Eunice’s leg problems, albeit with a later onset.  He also seems to struggle with fatigue.  He is a long-haul truck driver handling a big rig, and the driving seems to have become more difficult for him, and he, too, is experiencing some issues with vision.  Dean also had early onset heart problems having had by-pass heart surgery at age 44, so again there is a question of whether the symptoms are due to post polio syndrome or cardiac disease. He has had strokes (TIAs), which may account for some of his symptoms.

Post Polio

It seems that many of the symptoms of post-polio syndrome mimic premature aging, in a way.  Muscle fatigue and the resulting pain seem somewhat normal in old age – the same symptoms at early middle-age and middle-age are not normal. Similarly, over-all fatigue, mental fogginess, and visual fogginess are more expected in old age.

How did Mama do it?

But the greatest difficulties of the Sather family polio episode lay not with the children, but with the caretaker.  The children remember little of the experience and the memories they do have are fraught with love. Thanks to Mama!

For Mama it was a different story – hard times, exhaustion, worry, tears, and prayers.

Deborah was asked, “How did you manage?  How did you get through it?”

Her pragmatic reply, a lesson for us all, “You did what you had to do.”

2 thoughts on “Thank God for Mama! (The Polio Story)

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