Jean’s Polio Story


Polio (poliomyelitis or infantile paralysis) triggers memories of closed swimming pools, parents building bonfires in the backyard to burn a child’s bedding, clothes and collections to prevent contaminating other family members, “Polio Ward Stop: No Visitor” signs on hospital floors, and March of Dimes campaigns urging people to send a dime to President Roosevelt to help a child walk again.

Hundreds of polio survivors were never in the iconic iron lung, but now experience the after effects of weakened muscles. Referred to as Post-Polio Syndrome, these survivors who overcame polio to lead productive lives as doctors, farmers, ranchers, lawyers, teachers, bankers, nurses, dads and moms, now have nerves and joints that hurt and throb after decades of doing too much work with too little muscle support. Symptoms of PPS include:

Generalized fatigue

Muscle weakness

Muscle atrophy or wasting

Joint pain

Cold intolerance

Swallowing and breathing problems

Sleep disorders

Jean Graber, Pretty Prairie, retired after teaching at USD 331 Kingman for 38 years and is a polio survivor. In 1952, more cases of polio were reported than in any other year of the polio epidemic that lasted 29 years.

“Now I take regular breathing treatments similar to those required by asthmatics. I also use a portable ventilator to “rest” my breathing muscles at night and part of the day,” Graber said. “Polio has not ruled my life.” This is Jean’s story.

People lived in fear. There was no cure, no way to stop polio and no where to run from it. Parents feared their child would be next.

It was September, 1952. Jean Graber was six-years-old and had a three-year-old sister, Susan.  The family had returned to their home in Meade from the State Fair in Hutchinson. Graber said she and her sister were very tired and cranky, and the next day had fevers and were nauseous. The family doctor came to their house and urged her parents to get the girls to Grace Hospital in Hutchinson (forerunner of Hutchinson Medical Center) immediately because he suspected polio.

Graber said her condition worsened during that first night in the hospital and she was moved to an iron lung (Collins-Drinker tank respirator). “The iron lung breathed for me twenty-four hours a day for six weeks,” said Graber.  “I will never forget its life-sustaining sound.” She described it as a tin can on wheels in which her entire body, except her head, was enclosed. A rubber gasket was drawn securely around her neck so that air couldn’t escape.

Life changed for Graber’s family, too. Her mother rented a room in Hutchinson to be near her daughter, and her sister, went to live with grandparents in Kismet. Graber’s father, an agricultural extension agent, drove to Hutchinson every weekend and many times during the week.

“After I stabilized, life in the iron lung settled into a routine.  My mother fed me, and I learned to chew and swallow on the machine’s exhale. Nurses turned, bathed, and toileted me through portals with rubber gaskets along the sides of the iron lung. My skin became so sensitive that I often cried when they worked on me. Mother read to me, holding the books above my head so that the pages were reflected in a mirror attached to the iron lung. I learned to mirror read before I read the conventional way!  My first grade classmates collected $35 to purchase a record player and records.  Cinderella, Bozo the Clown, Dumbo the Elephant, and others became friends who also helped fill my days,” Graber recalled.

When it came time time for Graber to breathe on her own, she said she was extremely weak and very scared.  Her mother hung a Cinderella wrist watch where she could see it and kept a chart of her progress.  Her goal: breathe on her own for an hour.  “I began with the lung turned off for 30 seconds and gradually increased until I could claim my prize.  It took much longer to be able to breathe on my own for twenty-four hours,” Graber said.

Then she relearned how to walk. During her six months in the iron lung, Graber had lost one third of her six-year-old body weight. The lasting visible effects of polio include a paralyzed left arm, partially paralyzed right arm, very weak shoulder and neck muscles, and upper back scoliosis.  “I am an ‘upside down polio’ – my legs are fine; only my upper body was affected,” explained Graber.

If you or someone you know had polio and is now experiencing diminished physical mobility, tell them about the Mobility Rodeo, hosted by Kansas Truck Mobility on Friday, October 3, Wichita.  It is an annual event at Kansas Truck Mobility, 8846 W. Monroe Circle, Wichita, and is free and open to the public from 10 am to 6 pm to help people understand what equipment, products, funding and support services are available to them to live life as independently as possible.

Other resources:; Central Kansas Polio Group at [email protected] or Wichita Post-Polio Support Group contact [email protected].

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