Hickory's Miracle-The Polio Hospital That Was Built In Only 54 Hours
In 1944 an enemy struck America and the target was the children who were the future and the pride of every parent. The assailant was not human but the polio virus, Poliomyelitis which most commonly attacks the spinal system and leads to paralysis of the legs. While brave men fought overseas for the freedom of the world, parents back home were fighting for the lives of their little ones.
This common form of polio causes the nerve cells to become inflamed leading to damaged motor neurons. When they die, degeneration causes muscle weakness because they are no longer receiving nerve impulses. The muscle becomes weaker and weaker until it fails to function and finally becomes to a point of total paralysis. Equally horrifying, the person retains feeling in the limbs but cannot move them. So every pain, twinge and cramp is intense and deep.
The polio virus sometimes took hold in older people and even adults but this was rare. The most well known adult was President Franklin Delano Roosevelt who was stricken in 1921 at the age of thirty nine. He became an advocate for a cure of the dreaded virus. But in 1944, perhaps a miracle was needed before a cure could be found.
The little town of Hickory sits in the foothills of Western North Carolina in Catawba County and is a peaceful and lovely place to live. It is on the direct route to the big city of Charlotte and the capital of North Carolina, Raleigh. In 1944, the little city had 15,000 people living on the banks of the beautiful lake appropriately named Lake Hickory. Life is laid back with lots of children having fun especially in the summer. And 1944 was no different-except for an outbreak of the deadly polio. It became an epidemic in the area and was to put this previously unknown and naïve town on the map.
The increased rate of infected patients brought desperate parents through Hickory on their way to seek treatment in Charlotte for their ill children. However polio was finding its way into the local population now and the first reported case was Linda Kiser, a toddler only seventeen months old. Only one day later another child, four year old Wands Scronce was taken ill. Both children were taken to Charlotte Memorial Hospital for treatment. Within a week two young boys were diagnosed with polio and also hospitalized in Charlotte and the total number swelled to ten from the Hickory area alone. The community fell in to panic and hysterical fear. Children under twelve were banned from public places including churches and schools. They were prohibited from entering swimming areas and parks.
The hospital in Charlotte reached capacity even though they had added tents wards and closed admission to new patients outside the area. The only other close hospital in Gastonia was also filled to capacity. And Hickory did not have a facility to treat polio patients. That was to change rapidly. A hospital facility was created in less than three days.
On June 22, 1944, three men involved in the fight to contain and eliminate the polio epidemic met to determine how they could help in this time of crisis. Dr. H.C. Whims, Dr. Gaither Hahn and Dr. C.H. Crabtree knew that Hickory was in the midst of it all and a treatment center was vital. They debated options and finally determined that a county owned facility was best preferred. Just outside the city and situated on Lake Hickory was a building made out of stone and set on 60 acres of woodlands. But there was a problem. Isn’t there always?
The chosen building was occupied by children, appropriately enough, was a camp for underprivileged children. The children were ordered to be returned home and subsequently packed up and the place was quickly vacated. This was Thursday morning and by Saturday afternoon the first polio patients were admitted.
The three men who were responsible for the creation of the “Miracle Hospital” worked hard to get everything ready and off the ground. Two Hickory architects were consulted and enlisted to design additions to the existing building. Literally within hours work began. Local lumber companies and tradesmen volunteered product and services and construction continued throughout the night, thanks to floodlights being donated and set up. Even a prison work team was brought out to help and the prisoners dedicated themselves to helping ill and dying children by hand digging a new water main. It stretched from Hickory to the hospital, a three mile trek.
The local Hickory Daily Record pleaded for assistance and the community responded beyond imagination. Like firemen the world over, local fire department members worked on their own time to install water hydrants. The telephone company provided and even installed a switchboard for the new hospital. Electricity was provided by Duke Power while trees, brush and debris were cleared from the site by the National Guard. Ladies from the Red Cross made gowns, masks and other isolation items. A polio essential, the dreaded iron lung even arrived from neighboring Morganton.
Just 54 hours after that meeting where three physicians came together in one accord, the Hickory Emergency Infantile Paralysis Hospital was finished and the first patients admitted for treatment. It was a miracle of loving volunteers and hard working areas folks from all over the area and was designated “The Miracle of Hickory.” It retains that to this very day. The National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis provided operating funds which help tremendously to offset the burden from volunteers and the community.
By Monday, June 26, 1944, sixteen children had been admitted and were in treatment. The staff was prepared to be inundated with sick children; the 12 nurses were kept busy and were all volunteers. Later on more nurses arrived which was great news because the facility was promptly expanded by the arrival of two military hospital tents. The kitchen was not finished or operational so local Hickory women prepared meals in their own homes to feed the hospital staff and patients. Volunteer efforts kept the place running efficiently as it continued to grow in size and influx of ill people. Within one week after opening, forty five patients had come through the admitting desk.
Many of the polio stricken patients were tiny toddlers and little children who required baby beds. The community again stepped up and brought in dozens of cribs for these little sufferers. But a grown man of twenty seven was the first to be placed in the iron lung, a machine which creates an airtight seal around a person’s body. Only the head and neck are outside of the device while the lungs have air forced through in a mimic of breathing. It is a frightening sight. Many who were placed in an iron lung never came out and lived that way until they died. A second iron lung was shortly thereafter received and put to use.
Three weeks later, the hospital had ninety two polio patients in its wards. Word was spreading about the emergency manufacture of this operational hospital and how it all came about through the hard work of dedicated volunteers. In July 1944, Life Magazine ran a feature on the little Hickory hospital that was changing the history of medicine and America was touched by the outpouring of local compassion and caring from Hickory residents. A documentary was also produced by Paramount Studios and the lovely movie star Greer Garson narrated the story that had been given the title of My Hometown.
As time passed, other, real, hospitals grew more equipped to deal with the polio and its victims. Nine months after opening the doors, the Miracle of Hickory closed. The 87 patients were transported to Charlotte Memorial Hospital. The caravan was a mile long, consisting of more than 70 cars and medical ambulances. A quick era had ended but 633 patients had been seen at the makeshift hospital. Of these, 528 had received the dread diagnosis of polio. It is to be noted that in a time of racial injustice, 55 African American and even one Native American were treated. The Miracle of Hickory did not discriminate as to color or gender. Though two thousand patients came through the hospital, there were only twelve recorded deaths. The combined strength and effort of a unified community saved many, many lives.
- In 1955 the miracle vaccine of Dr. Jonas Salk overcame the ravages of polio. Children stood in lines at churches and schools to get the lifesaving drops that had not come in time to save siblings and friends.
- The original stone building remains and became home to the United States Army Reserve Armory in 1957 and is currently part of the Hickory Parks and Recreation Department.
Life In An Iron Lung
- PMS-Poor Me Syndrome
Martha Mason lived more than 60 years in an iron lung after polio left her paralyzed and unable to breathe.
Through Jesus We Are Healed
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