Anna Mae Vetter, 83, of New York Mills, has vivid memories of a ride she took in a cab from Chicago to Evanston, Ill., in 1943.
At 6 years old, little Anna Mae was increasingly having trouble walking. Trekking the long distance to school was eventually aided by her uncle carrying her. It was at first just brushed off as nothing serious. But not long after, she recalls sitting on her mother’s lap in that cab. In her mother’s embrace she remembers the cab driver picking on her about being such a big girl to still be sitting on her mother’s lap.
"I can remember that ride like it was yesterday," Vetter said.
Anna Mae’s mother kept quiet on the ride to the hospital in Evanston that day as her mind likely raced knowing that her daughter’s health was in question, and fearing the diagnosis she had worked to keep from her family.
Shortly after exiting the cab, the cab driver was informed that the little girl in his car had polio and he and his car would have to enter into quarantine for two weeks. If this sounds familiar, remember this was over 75 years ago.
Before moving to Chicago to live with extended family, Vetter lived in Perham with her mother and siblings. They had to make the move to Chicago when they were no longer able to afford the home in Perham while Vetter’s father was serving in the infantry in Italy during World War II.
Vetter remembers her mother took the virus seriously and had all the kids wash off in a big galvanized tub before entering the home during that hot 1943 summer. They bathed again once they were in the house. It was what they could do at the time when kids wanted to be kids and a virus was sweeping the world. Parents had reason to be concerned as the polio virus primarily infected children under age 5. While the first outbreaks were recorded nearly 50 years earlier, there was still much to be learned about the disease and it would be another 10 years before vaccines started entering the population.
Polio seemed to spread through the country in the warm summer months, hitting towns with epidemics every few years. Though most people recovered quickly from polio, some suffered temporary or permanent paralysis and even death. Many polio survivors were disabled for life. They were unfairly chosen as visible reminders to generations of people of the toll this virus took.
The moment it became real is when a doctor asked Vetter's mother to have her daughter touch her chin to her chest. She couldn't. That simple action was the deciding factor that she had polio. In the days and weeks ahead, Vetter lost feeling in both her legs. When doctors told Vetter she had polio, she was living in an apartment with about a dozen of her relatives. Amazingly and thankfully she was the only one to get symptoms from the polio virus.
She began treatments, which consisted of placing steaming hot wool rags on her skin. She can’t remember exactly when she started to get feeling back in her feet, but she can’t seem to forget the bad food and terrible nurses that cared for during her stay.
"I hated every moment of it," Vetter said. "I can still see it, they would pull out steaming wool rags and wrap around me," Vetter said.
The hot pack method had only just made its way in America and found its beginning in Minneapolis in 1942, thanks to the efforts of Australian Sister Elizabeth Kenny. Her methods were unlike others who primarily used braces to hold limbs rigid. Kenny suggested that limbs were stiff rather than paralyzed. In many cases where paralysis was only temporary, her method of heating muscles and encouraging movement slowly brought limbs back to use. It was the start of rehabilitation-based treatment and became the Sister Kenny Institute, according to an article on Kenny by the Minnesota Historical Society.
During her stay in that hospital, she was able to get a visit from her father. The Red Cross provided him a trip home but the two could only look at each other through the window. She was in the hospital nearly three months.
"I can still picture (her family) standing at the window," she said. "I didn't get the hug."
Not fully aware of what the disease had done to her and too young to let it be her focus in life, that 6-year-old girl grew up trying to be as normal as she could. She never had the prettiest of shoes growing up as she had to wear special shoes to work for her different feet. The one set back was that her one leg is a bit shorter and generally smaller in size. In a surgery, she had a tendon from her leg added to her foot to help her operate more effectively. She gets around fine still with a cane but she had to concede early in life that she would never be an award-winning runner.
"I never did ice skate. It's limited me in distance walking or standing," Vetter said. But she recalls she was not the last one to be picked in a game of softball as she had a knack for smacking the ball "like you wouldn't believe it" to at least allow her teammates to score.
"My polio doctors from 60 some years ago would be very proud of how I turned out because they just did not know how I would turn out," Vetter said. Much like the worry surrounding the current COVID-19 pandemic, so much was unknown about polio and its after effects.
She was encouraged to find a career that didn't require her to be on her feet all day. That turned out to be teaching. She was an English teacher for two years in Wadena before starting to have children. She later took on a Chapter I position in Perham for about nine years and continued educating when she began cueing to deaf children.
Vetter said her husband Jim passed away about two years ago. He served in the Air Force for 21 and a half years. He dealt with leukemia, esophageal cancer and related issues to exposure with agent orange. One concern early on was that Vetter may be unable to have children. She had no trouble adding four daughters to the military family.
It would seem her time in hospitals and education had a major impact on Vetter''s daughters. Laure (Laughlin) of Bluffton, works to spread word of public health issues working with Wadena County Public Health; Mary Perius (recently deceased) worked as a nurse in Alaska; Teri Nissen of Nebish is a band director; and Kelly Larson of Hawley works at a healthcare facility.
Vetter notes that she's had a good life. She remains a proponent of getting vaccinated. As someone who was adversely impacted by a virus in her youth she knows that some diseases can have a lasting impact far worse than the prick of a needle.
Editor's note: This story is the first in a series taking a look back at polio, the people it affected and the club that worked to bring it to end around the world.