Living with polio

When I mentioned to a friend that I was starting to write a series of Heritage Highlights articles on the 1953 polio epidemic, his first comment was the events of that year were indelibly imprinted in the minds of many Manitobans still living.

I had no doubt what he said was true, but the extent of the anxiety and apprehension experienced by its victims, relatives and friends was vividly revealed when I received a call from Roberta De Marcky after the final article of the three-part series was printed.

“Reading the articles brought back so many memories,” she said over the telephone, her voice filled with emotion. “I was almost in tears.”

Roberta was not afflicted with polio in 1953, but she was a victim all the same, as was the rest of her family, when her mother came down with the disease. 

Similar to my uncle Peter Thompson, quoted in the first article, who was healthy one moment and afflicted with a “mysterious” ailment the next, Roberta’s mother Audrey was suddenly struck down by polio. However, while my uncle fully recovered after a three-month illness, Audrey would live the rest of her remaining years crippled by the aftermath of the disease.

Roberta remembers as a five-year-old child seeing her mother fall to the floor unable to get up. Audrey’s husband Joe, who’s deep love for his wife would carry him through the worst of the experience, had to pick her up and carry her to bed. When a doctor was summoned, his first comment was that Audrey had to immediately be taken to King George Hospital.

“It was a traumatic experience,” said Roberta. “My father was was so distraught. My mother was his true love.”

Roberta explained that her mother was originally a war bride from England married to a Canadian soldier, but shortly after her arrival in Canada they divorced and went their separate ways. 

“My father Joe met my mother on a blind date and they fell deeply in love,” she said.

Although not her biological father — someone she never knew — Joe was the man Roberta admired and loved as a parent.

Once in the hospital, Roberta’s mother was immediately placed in an iron lung. “It saved her life.”

Although she wouldn’t remain in the iron lung — about 20 polio victims at King George Hospital became long-term patients, encased in iron lungs for their remaining years — Audrey was permanently crippled by the disease at the relatively young age of 27. For the next 48 years, she was a quadriplegic, relying upon the benevolence of others to supply her daily needs, especially that of her husband.

What Audrey had contracted was  bulbar polio — the strain of the virus that crippled thousands across North America in the first half of the 20th century, including American President Franklin D. Roosevelt.

“I grew up in and out of hospitals from day one.” said Roberta. “It was a lot of sadness for a young child to handle. 

“My brother (Alan Franco, now a Winnipeg firefighter, but only 18 months old when his mother became sick) and I didn’t have the childhood we should of had. We grew up fast.”

Roberta said the patients confined in King George Hospital formed their own fellowship, comforting each other and providing encouragement.

“All the patients knew each other,” she added. “I bet my mother even knew your uncle.”

Roberta remembers visiting her mother while Audrey was encased in the iron lung.

“I’d walk up to the glass and look at her through the mirror and talk to her.”

When Joe knew Audrey would be returning to his care, he sought out a new home, a place large enough so that Audrey could also receive the full-time attention of an in-house caregiver.

He purchased a $7,000 wartime home, which he fixed up to provide a comfortable environment for his wife. 

It wasn’t easy, explained Roberta, as theirs was just a hard-working middle-class family eking out an existence, but her father wanted to provide everything he possibly could for the woman he loved. 

Roberta said the aftermath of the 1953 polio epidemic was a difficult time for many with an afflicted family member.

“There were a lot of divorces. One of the polio patients told her family she didn’t want to be a burden on them and to put her in a home.”

It was something the Franco family wasn’t prepared to do. 

“We all helped take care of her,” said Roberta. “We were never going to put her into King George again.”

It wasn’t all sad times, though. There was the time when the Winnipeg Football Club found out Audrey was a Bomber fan.

One afternoon “13 or 15” Bombers showed up at their home. “It was quite and experience,” said Roberta. “It was so wonderful, they were so good.

“She had tears in her eyes from happiness.” 

Audrey’s “true love,” Joe, died in 1985 and Roberta and her husband took over the care of her mother in their Garden City home.

Roberta said her mother’s 48 years as a quadriplegic must have been extremely frustrating, as her mother possessed a sharp mind.

“She was imprisoned in her body,” Roberta added. “It was a shame. She could have done so well if the disease hadn’t struck her.”

In 2000, Audrey found herself once again in hospital. For 48 years she had lived with the crippling effects of polio, but she was unable to muster the strength to mount a final battle against cancer. Audrey passed away on July 21, just after she turned 75. 

One thing Roberta vividly recalled from her mother’s last days at the Health Sciences Centre was a comment made by a young attending doctor. “He asked what was wrong with her (that is, why she was a quadriplegic),” said Roberta. “We told him she had polio.”

“What’s polio?” he asked.

“It was a complete surprise that the doctor didn’t know what polio was, and how many people now don’t know what polio is,” ended Roberta.