Traces of a Childhood
In FDR's Polio Heaven
Susan Richards Shreve
(Mariner/Houghton Mifflin)Between 1950 and 1952, Susan Richards Shreve was a patient at the Warm Springs Foundation in Georgia. She went there for surgery and rehabilitation after being paralyzed in one leg.Warm Springs of sixty years ago was a different pot-of-fat than today's rehabilitation centers. The "cure" went on and on which was O.K. by those of us who ended up there. Once you got in the door, you were expected to stay around until you could make it in the world ... six months, a year, or two, if necessary.It was wonderful, a place of extensive care for newly disabled, people who liked to pretend at least for the time they were there that they were not disabled. It had been set up by an anarchist who happened to be president of the U. S. and who, like the rest of us, pretended he was not disabled. Warm Springs had a heady rich mix of country club and commune.
All there were assumed to be equal: the doctors, the staff, the patients. Because it was located in the deep south, there was also a spirit of leisure and ease that might have reminded one of a festive plantation.
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As I am reading Ms. Shreve's book I am reminded again of how weird the whole scene was. The grounds were stunning and immaculately kept. The buildings were designed in the Ionic mode by a man named Toombs (sic). We in our wheelchairs could get around as easily as those on foot.
The basic services were provided, mostly, by Georgia crackers or by vigorous young black men and women. The food in the great dining hall was spectacular. We knew we were in heaven, and often didn't want to leave. It was thus not a hospital. Who doesn't ever want to leave a hospital?
The patients were often allowed to be staff. Shreve tells us that for a time she volunteered to deliver mail and bedpans (what a mix!) in the Medical complex where she lived. She also helped in the ward with the polio babies. It was an unforgiving disease --- now thank god banished from America --- but those of us who had gone through it and survived had a place of our own. And we had a sterling example (FDR) on making a splash in the real world.
Throughout Traces, Ms. Shreve speaks of herself as a trouble-maker and maybe she was. She had contracted polio as an infant and, as these things do, it affected her whole family: her slightly neurotic mother, her painfully shy brother, her radio-announcer father. When he was offered a post overseas,
The story my parents told was that he had turned down the offer because I was too ill for him to go to London, and so [Edward R.] Murrow got the job. It was evident by the way my mother spent her time that she had given up her life for me. And my brother had given up his mother to me.
Shreve arrived at Warm Springs for surgery when she was twelve. She thinks she might have been in love with Father James, the resident priest, but he disappeared near the end of her stay. She confesses to a youthful passion for Joey Buckley on the boy's ward, but shortly after his own surgery she challenged him to a race on one of the steeper hills on campus. On the way down --- I remember that hill, it was a bitch --- his wheelchair toppled over and both of his cast-bound legs were broken. Shreve was given what would be called in other industries her walking papers and, apparently, she never returned.
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I read somewhere that the readiness with which the Warm Springs doctors resorted to surgery (fusions and transplants) might not have been for the best, that it was a quick fix at best, one that created immense agony for the children. Shreve says that she screamed in pain without letup for twenty-four hours after her surgery. In later years many of these same patients have gone through inevitable post-polio syndrome; the muscles that were transplanted have begun to fail them; they get to go through new weaknesses, a rerun of an old movie ... but there is no applause this time around.
In reading Shreve's story, I came to realize how different our lives at Warm Springs were. I arrived the same year she left. I was nineteen years old. Most of my friends were spared surgery. We were, like her, kept busy. John Longstaff and Hugh Gallagher and Leumel Doré and Janet Sloan and I formed our own clique.
Outside of our mornings and afternoons in physical and occupational therapy, we were allowed to play and to work on other things. Hugh took French lessons. John edited the "Wheelchair Review" newspaper. Leumel and I devised endless hiding places to experiment with love (I once suggested a broom closet in the new Roosevelt Hall; she had her doubts; she wasn't so sure we could get back up from the floor into our wheelchairs without calling for an assist.)
Since we were there for the better part of a year, we had the time we needed to graft our old psyches onto our new bodies in such a way that people would never guess (we thought) what we had gone through. Leumel once told me that polio left you with no pride, but she was talking about the first months of fever, movelessness, pain, indifferent doctors and nurses. The medical world was far more harsh, less forgiving back then.
We were made to feel that it was our job to reintegrate with the world. We were to pretend that we were the same kids that had disappeared into a moil of fever, loss, and scarring of the ego. Our bodies had turned seventy- or eighty-years-old before we were twenty. Once we left Warm Springs we would have to learn to deal with a new world, peopled by those who did not have the foggiest idea of the changes wrought in us by a nasty disease.
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Fortunately, we didn't have to think of these things at the time for, above all, we were free in paradise, free to love and play, free from the odious little hospitals that had passed us on to that place in the red-earth hills of northwest Georgia.
It was one of the great cure-palaces of all times. We laughed and sang and carried-on and got better, often losing our hearts in the process, while temporarily forgetting that we had to go back to another (and very foreign) world. Shreve tells us that like FDR, like the rest of us, she learned to hide her feelings ... at least for half her lifetime. "Sadness was not a feeling I allowed myself until I was almost forty," she writes.
Shreve and I and our peers had months to build new shells (and selves) before we had to return to the real world. For a writer to convey the implicit pain of such elision was, is, and always will be difficult. It must be laid out with humor, dexterity, and art. Sentiment is cheap, and is unacceptable.
In Warm Springs, Shreve succeeds in avoiding sentiment. But I do not believe she conveys the profound grief that was so much a part of our new lives. She admits to hiding from her feelings "for forty years." There is still a hint of that artful evasion here.--- L. W. Milam