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Whatever Happened to Polio? home page
Subsections of How Polio Changed Us are Disabilty RightsSocial EffectsScientific and Medical Legacy March of DimesFranklin D. Roosevelt The Medical WorldRehabilitationAssistive DevicesThe Iron Lung and Other Equipment
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How Polio Changed Us, The Medical World
Sister Kenny and two nurses applying hot packs to a child in bed next to a tub of water
Sister Kenny (right) applying hot packs, 1943

“[Sister Kenny] looked me right in the eye and said, ‘I’m here to try to help you. But, before I can help you, I’ve got to hurt you.’”
—Edmund Sass, 1996

Elizabeth Kenny, or Sister Kenny, as nurses were called in Australia, came to the United States in 1940. Her methods of hot-pack applications, stretching, and muscle massage were unconventional and controversial, but eventually became part of standard care for polio.

“I had no idea how painful the treatment could be. I’d fight to control myself, but inevitably I’d end up screaming…. She would actually pull up the pectoral muscles, getting her thumb underneath and tormenting and pulling, stretching them to their limit, and then beyond. I knew it was for my own good, but I dreaded each visit…. And oddly enough, as much as it hurt during the treatment, afterward I seemed better.”
—Larry Alexander, 1954

Left photo. Operating room with patient and doctors during spinal fusion surgery
Right photo. Boy with crutches lifting his leg cast
Left: Spinal fusion surgery performed at Rancho Los Amigos, 1955 Courtesy of Rancho Los Amigos National Rehabilitation Center
Right: Boy in cast and crutches after surgery to fuse the bones in his foot and lengthen his Achilles tendon, 1948 Courtesy of Jack Warner

“The morning of my operation, I felt brave going in. While I was under anesthesia, the surgeons took out sections of bone from my arms and legs and put the pieces on my lower spine, where it curved. The curvature of my spine, called scoliosis, makes it hard for me to breathe and impossible to sit up straight. The surgeons also put an iron rod down my spine to straighten it, in hopes that I could sit up enough to use a wheelchair.

When I came out of surgery, seeing stars on the acoustic ceiling tiles, I wondered if I was dead. My right leg was in a cast, and I was in terrible pain; it felt as if the bones had been beaten to powder. Everything hurt, especially when I was lifted. Back in the little kids’ room, I felt miserable, and time passed very slowly.”
—Mark O’Brien, 2003

Photo of surgical staples
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Surgical staples, used to stop limb growth (epiphysiodesis) when one leg develops faster than the other Courtesy of Tobin Siebers

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    Richard Owen, 1996  
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