1938: Polio puts it paralyzing hand on America

Ria Avila, guest writer


It was a scary time to be a child due to the paranoia of the possibility of catch the paralyzing disease polio. It was so effortlessly spread through a hand shake, contaminated food, and water. Parents lived in fear for their children’s lives and their own as it was possible for adults to also catch polio, although it was more popular among the children.

This Sunday started off as another regular Summer morning. I woke up and got ready to play baseball with Robby and Jimmy. Before I could dash out of the door, my mother called out from the kitchen.


“Yes, Momma”

“Come eat your breakfast before you go to the ball field.” she said sweetly.

With all the excitement to play ball with my two best friends, I had forgotten about breakfast.     “Okay, Momma” I replied a little disappointed that I had to wait to play with my friends.

The aroma that hit my nostrils as I rounded the corner into the bright yellow kitchen made me forget that disappointment. Momma had laid out a big spread for the family this Sunday morning. The table was filled with fruits and fluffy pancakes. As soon as I saw it I exclaimed,

“Pancakes! My favorite!”

“I knew you would be happy about that,” Momma laughed.

“Now come and sit down,” I went to my set right next to my Papa who was reading the morning newspaper.

“Morning, Papa!” I greeted,

“Good morning, Sport!” he replied. “What’s the plan for today?”

“Well, I’m gonna go play some ball at the field with Jimmy and Robby.”

“Sounds great!”

“Yeah I can’t wait!”

After I inhaled my breakfast, I politely asked to be excused and said my good-bye’s to my parents. As I was riding my bike to the fields, I was reflecting on the school year and how happy I was to be on summer break. Being in 4th grade was hard work. I was glad to be spending the first day of summer with my best pals.

Jimmy and I had been friends since birth. And Robby was the shy, new kid we later found to love baseball as much as we did. We had a great time talking at break about our favorite players and how we desperately wanted to make it on the town’s little league baseball team. As I got closer to the field, I could see Robby and Jimmy throwing the ball back and forth. I hopped of my bike and laid it against the fence.

“Hey guys!”

“Hey Toby,”Jimmy and Robby exclaimed.

“Ready to practice some pitching?” Robby asked.

“You bet I am!”

After a few hours we decided to cool down with a Coca-Cola at our go to spot: Bob’s Corner Store. Mr. B. was an older fella who always had a smile on his face. He always had these marbles that he would let us play with outside his shop. We could sit outside his shop playing that game all day if we could.

“Hi Mr. B. how’s it goin’?”

“Hi Sport! Can’t complain.” he said. “Have you been plain baseball?”

“Yeah, we just came for a drink to cool down.”

“Alright what’ll it be?”

“Three Coca-Cola’s please.”

As I was waiting, I overheard two gentlemen in the shop discussing The Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938. The Actrequired, “a minimum wage of $2.13 for tipped workers with the expectation that wages plus tips total no less than $7.25 per hour since September 1, 1991. The employer must pay the difference if total income does not add up to $7.25 per hour (Fair).”               After grabbing the drinks, Robby and I went outside to find Jimmy setting up for our game. We played our game until lunch time. As I was getting onto my bike to go home I felt a strange tingling sensation in my legs. I shrugged it of as fatigue from a long day of baseball.                      When I got home it was a few minutes past lunch time. I sat down and ate lunch with my family. My Papa was going on about how thebook publisher Simon and Schuster had just been founded. My father worked for the Smith and Son’s book publishing company so this would mean competition for him. After lunch papa and I sat on the couch and listened to the radio. I watched him switch the radio station from the new Bing Crosby song “I’ve Got a Pocketful of Dreams.” To the news, the radio host was going on about the Naval Expansion Act finally being passed. Which my father agreed with. I remember him talking about it a few days before. The whole time the tingling in my legs would not subside. A few hours passed and I began feeling sick. My muscles felt weak and I had a splitting headache. Mama told me to just sleep it off.

I woke up shivering and glanced at the clock. 3:20A.M. I cried out “Mama! Mama!” She came rushing in.

“Toby, honey, what’s wrong?”

She saw me in a cold sweat and knew right away it was something serious. She put a cold rag on my head and gave me Medicine for my fever of 102.9 and I feel back asleep.

When I awoke in the morning I still felt quite sick. Momma made me soup and I spent the day in bed reading and listening to the radio blaring swing jazz,my favorite variety of music. The next day I still had a high fever. Momma called the doctor and he made a house call. I remember waking up from a nap and seeing him talking to Momma and Papa. I asked him why I couldn’t feel my legs and they all gave me a look of pity. Mama and Papa came to my bedside and explained what polio was. I would most likely never walk again.

The rest of my summer was spent in a hospital getting tested. I began to get weaker and weaker, until eventually I could not breath on my own. I entered the iron lungs,a huge machine that used negative pressure ventilation: “A continual displacing and replacing of the air inside the machine. To compress and depress the chest, simulating respiration. I could do little else besides look up at a mirror reflecting the room behind me upside-down and backwards”(Resnick).

I spent two weeks in that machine never giving up hope that I would recover. And with much prayer, I did. I still couldn’t walk without my leg bracesbut I was alive. Throughout the whole time in the hospital I learned to never give up hope and hold on to Jesus. A few months later president Roosevelt, who at the age of 39, contracted polio and lost mobility in his legs passed the March of Dimes Act.

The March of dimes act was not its original name. The name was, “funded originally through the generosity of wealthy celebrities at yearly President’s Birthday Balls, the foundation could not raise money fast enough to keep pace with polio’s continued toll on America’s children and, during the Depression, the polio epidemic worsened. In 1938, Roosevelt decided to appeal to the general public for help. At one fundraiser, celebrity singer Eddie Cantor jokingly urged the public to send dimes to the president, coining the term March of Dimes. The public took his appeal seriously, flooding the White House with 2,680,000 dimes and thousands of dollars in donations”(Franklan).

The March of Dimes Act greatly helped my family with the hospital bills that accumulated through the two and a half months I spent in the hospital recovering. Without the help of President Rosevelt’s Legislation My family would be in debt. We would have been unable to afford the Medicines needed to treat Polio, and I may have never recovered. For that I am eternally grateful to President Rosevelt.