Spearfish Lake Tales
Contemporary Mainstream Books and Serials Online
Peggy Erikson, the hospital receptionist, was a little surprised to see Lucille Williams walk in the front door. She knew Lucille; she’d been a patient there several times in recent years. The woman was eighty-one years old, and not in the greatest of health. “Good morning, Lucille,” she said cheerfully. “It’s good to see you, but you need to know that the hospital is closed except for the polio patients we’ve been getting.”
“I heard that,” Lucille replied. “I’m fine, for once. I heard Donna Clark was looking for volunteers to help out here, and I just wondered if there’s anything I could do to help.”
“Are you sure you want to?” Peggy said. “That stuff is awful dangerous. That’s why I’m wearing a mask, and I won’t go out back unless I absolutely have to.”
“I’ll help with anything I can,” Lucille replied. “I know it’s dangerous, but Peggy, I’m an old woman. I’ve lived my life. If there’s anything I can do for the kids who have polio, I’m willing to run the risk.”
“I’m sure there’s something you can do. I’ll go see if I can find Denise.”
Denise proved to be downstairs, cleaning up the admitting room. “Sure, we have plenty to do,” the nurse told her. “We can use all the hands we can get. Get her a mask, a gown, and surgical gloves, and I think she’d better have a shot of gamma globulin, just in case. Then she can help me get this place cleaned up. I know Penny Luce has something she wants to get started on, but we just haven’t had the hands for it.”
Half an hour later, Judy Lambeer, another volunteer showed up; it wasn’t clear if it was from Donna’s searching for assistance, or just because they knew help was needed. That they were at the hospital was enough; Penny Luce gathered everybody in an unused room. “All right, we now have enough people to do something we should have been doing all along,” she said. “We just haven’t had the hands for it until now.
Penny went on to explain that polio patients suffer from deep and painful muscle spasms. “It used to be believed that the stronger muscles would pull bones out of alignment when they were in spasm, and that was how permanent deformities were produced. So, to fight that, they put patients in rigid casts. About twenty years ago an Australian nurse, Sister Elizabeth Kenny, realized that was all wrong. In fact, she believed that the rigid casts contributed to the deformity.”
Sister Kenny – “Sister” being a rank roughly equivalent to an American registered nurse in the Australian system, closely allied to the English system – believed that hot packs would relieve some of the pain, and more importantly, improve blood flow. Along with that, if a nurse or technician could move the paralyzed patient’s limbs and joints though a series of movements designed to retrain the muscles, the residual paralysis could be much reduced. She was proved right – in one year of testing her techniques, the residual paralysis was reduced from eighty-five percent to fifteen percent.
“The earlier we can start the Sister Kenny treatments, the better it will be for our patients,” she announced. “We obviously can’t start on some of the patients just yet, but the Toivo girl and the Bell girl already should be on them. I’ve had a wringer washing machine set up in the utility room on the second floor, and we have some cut-up wool blankets. We need to soak those blankets in water as hot as we can get it, run them through the wringer, and apply them to the arms and the legs of those girls. Let’s get started with them. Once they’ve had the hot pack treatments, I’ll show you how to exercise the limbs. It may be the best chance these kids have to be able to walk again.”
“That doesn’t seem very hard,” Garth said.
“It really isn’t,” Penny said. “It doesn’t take a trained nurse to do it. It just takes willing sets of hands. The hard part is that the hot packs and exercising the limbs often hurt a patient, but we have to hurt them a little now so they don’t hurt for the rest of their lives. It needs to be done frequently, not just once or twice a day, and it may have to be done for weeks.”
“Then we’d better get started,” Lucille said.
Over in Brent Clark’s garage, work was under way on the second Popular Mechanics ventilator. The pace was steady, but not frantic – the workers knew it worked and how to do it now, and they weren’t wasting time. They were all worried that sooner or later there was going to be another call from the hospital saying that the unit was desperately needed, and they hoped to have it done before that call came.
“The heck of it is that it shouldn’t be needed at all,” Joe commented at one point. “My wife was saying that none of this would have happened if that Boy Scout hadn’t brought the stuff to town.”
“I don’t think that’s quite true,” Brent pointed out. “I haven’t had much time to talk to Colonel Matson, but from what he said that kid never was in contact with any of the local kids. He was just driven into the hospital, was there for a while, and then was driven out to the airport. Besides, at least a couple of the kids already had it before he got here.”
“Boy, that’s sure not how my wife heard it,” Joe replied.
“I don’t doubt that all the rumor mills in town are going full bore,” Dan said. “I mean, it’s bad enough as it is, but all the talk around town is just going to make it worse.”
“I’m not sure that’s all bad,” Brent said thoughtfully. “If people will keep their kids at home, maybe they can stop it spreading a little.”
“I sure hope you’re right,” Joe replied. “But I’ll tell you what, I wouldn’t want to be one of those Boy Scouts right now.”
“Me, either,” Brent said. “They lost one of their buddies, and they had to give up their canoe trip to go to a funeral. That’s tough to deal with when you’re a kid.”
“Yeah, there is that,” Joe agreed. “I sure hope this thing isn’t needed, but I’m afraid it’s going to be.”
“I suspect you’re right, which is why we need to push ahead on getting it done.”
Joe was right: there were all sorts of stories going around town, most of them having little relation to the truth, including a dozen kids or more dying at the hospital. In truth, only one boy had died, the Boy Scout Bob Rathburn, and he’d died down at Madison, not in Spearfish Lake, not that it made any difference to the rumor mills.
Another rumor had dozens of kids sick at the hospital. Right at the moment there were still only a handful, although that was bad enough: Betsy Toivo, Alice Bell, Gail Saunders, Martin Holliday, and Thomas Perkins. All of them were in varying degrees of paralysis, although Holliday was the least affected. He was in considerable pain, especially when he had muscle spasms, but his breathing wasn’t affected, so at least morphine could ease the pain somewhat. The Toivo girl and the Bell girl were in worse shape, with apparently a greater degree of paralysis and also in considerable pain, but it was being managed.
Only Gail and Thomas were actually in the wooden lungs that had been hurriedly built in the last day. Gail appeared to be stable, but Thomas was sinking fast, despite Dr. Luce’s best efforts. Realistically, the doctor didn’t hold out much hope. Even with the respirator helping, it seemed like a long shot that the kid would pull through.
Worse, with five patients coming into the hospital so quickly, it seemed likely that more would be on the way. Every minute that passed without another one showing up was a relief.
In Wayne Clark’s big “cottage” out on Point Drive, Donna Clark was working her contacts hard. Not surprisingly it was difficult to find volunteers to help out at the hospital, but the example of Lucille Williams helped a little. She found several people who were old to downright elderly to help out; it stood to reason that a disease that mostly struck young people wouldn’t prey on the old as badly.
Donna couldn’t really fault those who didn’t want to work at the hospital, especially mothers who had young children. But a few people like Lucille, who could lighten the load a little, did volunteer.
But Donna was starting to realize that she would have a second problem in the near future: there was hope of the Salk vaccine arriving soon. She hadn’t heard back from the National Foundation yet, but it had been promised as quickly as possible. However, that meant a mass inoculation was going to have to be organized.
There were relatively few people in town who could be called on to help out with that: Dr. Brege, of course, and his wife; a former nurse named Beatrice; his office nurse, Marilyn Householder, Willie Halford, and perhaps a couple other retired nurses. That would have to be organized and be ready to go as soon as the vaccine arrived – it was the best hope for breaking the back of the epidemic in Spearfish Lake.
In between trying to get people to help out with varying success, Donna tried to spread the word that things weren’t quite as bad as the rumor mills said – bad, yes, but not quite that bad.
Donna had first gotten involved with the March of Dimes before she and Garth had broken up. It had seemed like a socially proper way to show some community involvement, but along the way it had become more of a mission for her. Now that polio had arrived in Spearfish Lake, she felt she needed to do what she could to help fight the epidemic. She had been willing to go over to the hospital and pitch in herself, but Fike had told her she might be of more use if she stayed away – there was plenty of work to be done by someone who hadn’t been contaminated there. The decision was little difficult, but she rationalized that it was the right thing to do.
Putting hot packs on the children and working their limbs was not exactly fun for Garth. He could see the hot packs were uncomfortable at best, and that exercising the limbs was very painful to a child already hurting and in other distress. Mostly he worked with Lucille, who was a tireless worker despite her age. For some reason, she could push the kids harder than Garth could, even though he knew it was for the kids’ own good.
Three kids were getting the treatment now; Penny had said that the Holliday boy needed them too. It was much too early to tell how much good the treatments were going to be, but she assured him that they would be worth the effort.
Finally there came a moment that they thought they could take a break. The hospital kitchen was still closed, but Fike sent Peggy down to the A&W for more burgers and root beer. By now Garth was getting a little tired of hamburgers, and would have appreciated something else, even one of Helga’s vegetarian concoctions.
Since there really was no other place to take a break, the people who had worked around the hospital all day gathered in the waiting room, just to unwind a little bit before the food arrived. Only Denise was missing; she was monitoring the patients upstairs, with special attention to the Perkins kid, who was still holding on, if precariously, several hours after having been placed in the emergency respirator. “I almost hate to say it since I don’t want to jinx anything,” Dr. Luce said, “but I’m beginning to think he may fight it off. I’ve given him way over the normal dose of gamma globulin, and maybe it’s helping.”
“We can hope,” Penny said. “I don’t want to say his vitals are getting better, but they haven’t gotten worse in the last hour, either.”
“That’s good news. I think I can safely say we’re holding our own so far. How much longer we’ll be able to hold on is anybody’s guess. Every time I hear a car go by I’m afraid it’s someone bringing some other kid in.”
“It’s been several hours,” Penny said. “Not since the Perkins boy came in this morning.”
“I can’t believe it’s over with yet. This could go on for a long time, and there’s not much anyone can do but what we’re doing. Even if we were able to inoculate the whole town with the Salk vaccine tomorrow we’d still have cases of kids who are already infected. As bad as it seems, I can’t believe we’re going to get off this easily.”
“What may be worse is that the rehabilitative work will have to go on for months,” Penny agreed. “We’re going to be doing that chore for a long time.”
“The one good thing about this,” the doctor said, “and I mean the only good thing is that I never got a chance to get started on the practice. It would be that much worse if I was trying to keep a practice alive and spending all my time here on polio patients. I mean, it would be nice to have the income, but at least this managed to hit right at the moment when I had the free time to deal with it.”
“Don’t worry about the income,” Garth said. “You’re covered. If the National Foundation won’t cover you for this, I’ll get together with Wayne Clark and we’ll see you get paid. Dr. Brege has been able to keep both practices afloat for months, and I can’t believe he’s not going to be able to continue that for the next few weeks.”
“Garth, that’s very nice of you, but I’m still worried about getting the practice going. I mean, I was looking forward to a nice quiet little country practice, not an extension of what Penny and I were doing down at Baptist.”
“I don’t doubt that you’re going to manage it just fine,” Garth told him. “You’re building a lot of respect around town for what you’re doing for us here and I don’t doubt that it will carry over to when you actually get your practice going.”
The phone rang just then, and Peggy picked it up from the switchboard. After a few seconds she said, “That was Dr. Brege. We have another one on the way. A little girl, nine, fever and stiff neck.”
“OK, I guess that means we’d better get ready whether the burgers are here or not,” Dr. Luce said. “I thought Dr. Brege was closed this afternoon.”
“Normally he would be,” she said. “I think he’s staying open to screen patients before he sends them here. I talked to his receptionist a couple hours ago, and he’s seen several kids with mild fevers and assorted aches. She said she thinks some of them may be mild forms of polio, and that he’s told the parents to keep the kids at home and isolated, but to monitor them and bring them here if they get worse.”
“Very good,” he replied. “I’ve been wondering why we haven’t been inundated with cases like that. It would make it hard to treat the really serious ones. I haven’t got the time now, but tell him to treat anything suspicious with gamma globulin.”
“He’s already doing that. He picked up some of what was brought in last night. I’m just glad we had it to give to him.”
In the late afternoon, both Dan and Joe were working on bolting the mechanism for the second Popular Mechanics emergency wooden respirator into place, while Brent and Ryan handed them tools and held things. “All right,” Dan said finally. “I think that’s it. We need to give it a test run to see if it works, and there are still some odds and ends we need to put on it, but if the hospital calls, we can run it over to them the way it sits.”
“I’ll tell you what,” Brent said. “I’m just glad we haven’t gotten that call, not because we didn’t have it ready until now, but because it means nobody else is sick enough to need it.”
“Yeah, that’s something,” Joe agreed. “You know, you see the pictures of kids in these things in the March of Dimes ads, and it’s pretty darn scary to look at. But I remember seeing the other one of these things breathing for those kids this morning, and I’ll bet that if they were awake enough to realize what’s going on and that it’s helping, they’d be darn glad to be in them.”
“Oh, they said it, all right,” Brent said. “Especially the Saunders kid when we put her in Ryan’s little cob job this morning. I mean, she couldn’t say anything, but the color in her face told us just how glad she was to be there.”
“Yeah,” Dan agreed. “That was worth the effort all by itself.”
“I guess I’d better go call the hospital and tell them it’s ready if they need it, but that there are a few things we’d like to finish up if they don’t need it in a big hurry.”
Brent was back a few minutes later. “Right at the moment they don’t need it,” he said. “They’re evaluating a kid who just came in, but it isn’t clear if he’ll need it or not. Let’s get this finished up and run it over to the hospital so they’ll have it when a patient comes in.”
“There’s not very much to do,” Dan said. “We can probably wrap it up in half an hour.”
“Let’s do it then.”
“Brent,” Joe asked, “are we going to have to build another one of these things?”
“I don’t know yet, and I doubt if they know, either. Let’s get this one done, then have some dinner. Maybe they’ll be able to give us a reading on it over in the hospital. But for right now I think we at least should pull together the parts we’ll need if they tell us to do another one in a hurry.”
Late in the day, Donna Clark was taking a break from working the phones when she received a phone call from the Western Union office. It proved to be the word she’d been anxiously awaiting, from the national office of the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis: NFIP REPRESENTATIVE WITH TEN THOUSAND DOSES SALK VACCINE AND REQUIRED HYPODERMIC NEEDLES ARRIVES TOMORROW. WILL ARRIVE MIDWAY AIRPORT CHICAGO SEVEN AM LOCAL TIME AND PROCEED TO SPEARFISH LAKE BY CAR. ARRANGE MASS INOCULATION SITE AND PERSONNEL. PLEASE ADVISE.
Donna felt a huge wave of relief wash over her. It was like the cavalry coming in some Western movie. The only problem was that it’s not a short drive from Chicago to Spearfish Lake – it could take most of the day to get there, so that meant a mass inoculation couldn’t get started until late the next day, or even the day after. That seemed like too long to wait.
She didn’t have to think about it very long. As soon as she was off the telephone with Western Union, she called over to the hospital, where she knew Garth had been busy all day. No matter what she thought of him – and what little she did wasn’t good, all the battles they’d fought over custody of the kids and anything else they could find to fight about – she had to admire him for sticking with the job. It was something she wished she had done, what she should have done. But no matter; there was nothing she could do about it now.
It didn’t take Garth long to get to the phone – he was taking a break from putting hot packs on the kids in the hospital beds, and working their limbs with the other volunteers. He’d been going for twelve hours now, with no end in sight, and expected to be going for even longer. “Garth,” she said. “I just got word the Salk vaccine will be arriving in Chicago tomorrow. What do you think the chances are that Phil Gravengood could meet the representative there and fly it up here? That way we could get going on a mass inoculation tomorrow, instead of the next day.”
“I don’t know. I haven’t talked to Phil all day. Try the house, he’s been staying with me since he doesn’t want to risk being around his kids, just like I don’t want to be around mine.”
“Are yours all right?”
“As far as I know. Helga has them out at the club and I told her to keep them there. That’s part of the reason I’ve been busy here all day, I don’t want to have free time to worry about them.”
“All right, I’ll try your house,” she said, not bothering to mention that it had once been their house long ago.
“If he’s not there, try Rose, or maybe out at the airport. If all else fails, send the sheriff looking for him. If we can save a half a day, that’s half a day saved.”
“Yes, and it might save some child’s life, too. And, Garth?”
“Thank you. Not just for today, but for everything you’ve done with this.”