Poliomyelitis in the family

Until 1955, when a vaccine became available, poliomyelitis was a feared scourge of families worldwide.

In the Chippewa Valley, as elsewhere, the summer season, especially, meant the possibility of a family member becoming infected and paralyzed by the disease. Also known as “infantile paralysis” or “polio,” it struck terror in every community. When it happened, the affected person and the family had to deal with a myriad of problems. They included finding proper treatment, paying unexpected bills, balancing the needs of the sick person with the rest of the family, and developing a protocol for the care of the child or adult who came home from the hospital with muscles in the body damaged or destroyed. The following story is about the Birger and Dorothy Gabrielsen Family of Eau Claire, as told by their daughter, Carolyn Gabrielsen Barstad. Her sister, Faye Gabrielsen Lokken, was severely affected by the disease.

Many parents feared polio, and Carolyn recalls that her parents did too. The Salk Vaccine was distributed in limited amounts before 1955, and Mrs. Gabrielsen had tried to get some for her daughters, but, at that time, the supply was not readily available to everyone, and her efforts had been unsuccessful. “I think, mostly, I remember our parents didn’t want us to be in big groups of people. I think that was a major part of it. We would stay home from certain things – the beach, the fair, etc. But nobody understood it – how it was transmitted from one person to another.” She goes on to relate the scattered knowledge of the time. “Polio was such a dreaded thing at that time, and researchers were working very hard on it. But it took years to get to the point where they understood that there were three different types, and all of them had to be part of the vaccine.”

The Gabrielsens’ worst fear was realized in August, 1955, when Faye was stricken with the disease.

Faye was ten years old, and Carolyn was fourteen. Faye had been ill for a couple of days with what was thought to be the flu, but when she awakened during the night and could not stand on her right leg, her parents took her to Luther Hospital. Faye was diagnosed with polio and admitted to the hospital immediately. At that time, the rules concerning contagion did not allow any family members to enter the hospital room with her.

However, Mrs. Gabrielsen insisted she be allowed to be with her daughter, and the staff reluctantly let her stay – with the understanding that she not leave the room for a period of two weeks. She agreed and lived there for the next two weeks, so Faye did not have to be alone through that tumultuous time. Carolyn says, “My biggest memory from that two week quarantine period was going to the hospital with my dad, and there was an iron lung outside of Faye’s room. Because the polio was progressing through her limbs, the doctors thought she might get to a point where she could not breathe on her own, and she would need it. That woke me up to the fact that this was far more than just not being able to walk on one leg. Thankfully, the disease ran its course and Faye did not need the iron lung. But my parents were devastated that this had happened to their child.”

The disease affected Faye from the neck down by the time it had run its course – paralyzing her entire body. She was in the hospital from August until Christmas, when she went home for a few days. Then she returned to the hospital until Easter 1956, when she was released to go home for good. While she was in the hospital, she had physical therapy, hot packs, and medication, so she began to regain the use of some muscles, including her arms, hands, and torso. She could sit up and feed herself after two or three months. “However, ”Carolyn states, “Faye could wiggle her toe, but the muscles in her legs never came back.”

The hospital staff was excellent and tried to do all the right things for Faye. But, at that time, all over the nation, some of the treatments were not fully understood, and Faye had to endure some painful mistakes during those months. For instance, until protocols for therapies were fully standardized, the hot packs for treating muscle paralysis were often too hot and burned patients’ skin. “And that was a daily thing,” says Carolyn. “It wasn’t just once in a while; it was daily and a couple of times a day, so what she went through was really awful.” She notes that she is not pointing a finger at a particular nurse or therapist. In fact, Carolyn recounts, “Faye’s regular therapist, Pete Parisi, was outstanding. He was gentle, kind, and stretched her muscles just enough. She loved him.” But, occasionally, a substitute therapist came in and over-stretched her, and Carolyn says, “It was really torture for her; she remembered it until she died.” Faye spent the rest of her life in a wheel chair. During her teens, she underwent several experimental surgeries at Fairview Hospital in Minneapolis, Minnesota, to stabilize her spine, which was pulled into a scoliosis “S” because of lack of muscles on one side of her back. Surgeons took bone from her hips to stabilize her spine in the first surgery and used steel rods in her second surgery. Faye’s mother stayed with her throughout her many months at Fairview Hospital. Mrs. Gabrielsen had a room about a block from the hospital and lived there that whole period of time.

After spending many more months in a body cast at home, Faye was able to “get on with” her life. However, during the last ten years of her life, Post-Polio Syndrome weakened her muscles and caused her to have pain with movement, so it became more difficult for her to move and to be comfortable.

The Gabrielsen home at 405 Lake Street was altered to accommodate Faye when she came home from Luther Hospital. The only bathroom in the house was on the second floor prior to Faye’s illness, so a large pantry on the main floor was converted to a bathroom, which was big enough for a wheel chair to maneuver. The main level also had another room, “a study kind of thing,” Carolyn says, which was converted to a bedroom, so Faye did not have to deal with steps.

Carolyn remembers the wonderful response to the family by the community. The pastor of First Congregational Church, where they were members, announced the onset of Faye’s polio and led the congregation in prayer. Friends immediately began supporting the family in various ways. During Faye’s recovery in the hospital, her Randall School friends would visit often and kept in touch. Neighbors were very supportive. Carolyn says, “I think, when somebody had polio, everybody in the Chippewa Valley knew it, and everybody tried to do whatever they could do that would be helpful.”

During the time Faye spent at Luther Hospital, a teacher came to the hospital twice a week, so Faye could keep up with her education. Later, when Faye had the surgeries at Fairview Hospital and spent time in recovery at home afterward, she was in high school, so her classes were taken through the University of Wisconsin Extension Program. “Faye had really hard classes that she had to cope with during that time,” Carolyn relates, “but she did it. It was different for her for that period of time, and then she went back to her regular classes at Memorial High School.”

Eau Claire Junior High School was directly across the street from the Gabrielsen home at 405 Lake Street. It was a three story, old fashioned turreted masonry edifice without elevators, so it posed some problems for Faye when she entered seventh grade. Those obstacles were immediately recognized by the people around her who pitched in and took charge of making her years there as normal as possible. Carolyn relates how it worked. “A bunch of her friends and one of the teachers, Mr. Van Camp, would meet her in between classes and if she needed to go from floor to floor, they would take her wheel chair and carry it up the steps or down the steps. I have to say she had a whole lot of confidence in her friends and teachers, because, had they dropped her, she would have been all over the place.” Her friends did that all through junior high. When she went on to Memorial High School, there was an elevator, and everything was wheel chair accessible.

Following high school, Faye earned a Bachelor of Arts Degree from UW-Eau Claire with a double major in Art and English and a minor in Sociology. She worked as an artist for an Eau Claire printing firm for two years after graduation and then at Chmel’s Dental Lab for 25 years.

Faye married Richard Lokken on January 20, 1968. She and her husband bought a lot on Riverview Drive and had a house built to give her the total openness and freedom she wanted. The doorways were wide, and the house had an elevator and a spacious deck. Faye and Dick had three sons: Caleb, Lucas, and Seth. Faye was thrilled when her son, Cal, married Melissa Berg, and, when their daughters, Makyah and Cambree, were born, Faye became a grandmother. Her happiest times in her last years were spending hours drawing with her granddaughters. Carolyn says, “I remember her often sitting in her kitchen, where she had an island at just the right height and a view of the Chippewa River, and that’s where she would make chocolate chip cookies for the kids, write letters, prepare meals, and work on her art projects.”

Faye’s response to her illness and disability was to take the high road and accept what had happened as part of life. Carolyn gives her impression of Faye’s attitude. “I never, ever heard her say, ‘I feel sorry for myself.’ I never heard her say, ‘Why did this happen to me?’ I never heard her ever question what had happened to her. She was so brave, always, and so ready to work at getting better – always with a smile on her face. So, I think she reacted heroically.”

The positive response to her condition was helped tremendously by Faye’s parents. They went all out to assist her in making her life a happy life. Carolyn relates, “My parents had an open house on a regular basis, and, in fact, I remember going to the store with my dad and getting cases of pop when there were all those flavors – grape pop, orange pop, strawberry pop – on a weekly basis. And we lived in a big old house and had lots of room, so my friends and Faye’s friends were always welcome there.”

Later in life she had other discussions with her sister. “Faye had a lot of friends. We talked about it toward the end of her life – and how blessed we were to have the parents we had. Faye said, ‘What if I had polio, and my parents didn’t want to have kids in the house? Or, what if I had polio, and they didn’t want me to go to school?’ Faye gave me all different kinds of possibilities. I’d never looked at it that way, but I was thinking how blessed I have been to have the life I’ve had, and she was telling me the same thing. We were both very fortunate to have the wonderful parents we had. They made all the difference.”

Faye died on July 27, 2007, at home. Through everything, Faye always had a smile on her face, met all challenges bravely, and lived life to the fullest. She was a kind and loving daughter, sister, wife, mother, and grandmother, as well as an inspiration to many.

All the content in this article was taken from a September 2011 interview of Carolyn Gabrielsen Barstad conducted by Dale Gable and Heidi Heideman. The order of the content may have been adjusted for article flow. CVM community historian Jim Alf prepared the article, with a few additions from Carolyn Barstad herself, as part of a project funded by the Wisconsin Humanities Council. Click here for details.