The Clinton Herald, Clinton, Iowa

September 11, 2013

Polio and Pinky McDonnell

By Gary Herrity
Special to the Herald

It was the year 1949. The entire City of Clinton, like many communities, was periodically going through the terror of “polio” or poliomyelitis, or Infantile Paralysis as it was also called. During the 40’s and 50’s, this plague scared the wits out of the county, because, even though it’s incidence was not high, it left behind in its wake small children sitting in wheel chairs or with braces on their legs. Movie theaters everywhere advertised to “Give to the March of Dimes!” However, the scourge struck close to home in my hilltop neighborhood near St. Mary’s, in 1949, when young Teresa McDonnell succumbed to it and became paralyzed. We had feared the illness all summer during an epidemic and were beginning to feel relief as November’s chill set upon us, but it struck anyway. Our parents began making us talk to friends Leon and Dick McDonnell from across the street, for fear of contagion.


I clearly recall the day that Teresa’s brother, Tom “Pinky” McDonnell had the painful spinal tap which verified the disease and then he walked out of his home and got into the waiting ambulance that would take him to Iowa City. He never walked again, and could hardly move after that. It brings tears to my eyes just remembering the image of that courageous football and basketball player, the robust young man only 20 years of age, who was a hero to all of us in the neighborhood. His sister would recover; he would not. Both of them were red-heads, and that was researched as a possible factor, but it could never be proven to be a cause.


Teresa spent just two months in the hospital and remembers all of it vividly. For a few weeks she was paralyzed, and one day a nurse gave her a glass IV of tomato juice with a clamped straw. She could barely swallow. The nurse left her unattended for a moment with it unclamped. Soon the red liquid was squirting all across the bed. These patients were totally helpless. Sometimes they went for therapy to the pool. She recalls the board on which they were strapped being immersed in a pool. A fellow invalid fell off once, and Teresa had to help save her. Another day a fellow patient, a young boy, was taken to therapy, but he never got there, dying along the way. Finally, Teresa could again move. She had (barely) been able to breathe on her own, so she hadn’t needed the iron lung which constantly stood outside of her room. She was allowed to go on an outing to a party that Christmas, but she didn’t have a winter coat, so a nurse lent her a fur coat.


Pinky spent many months at Iowa City in an iron lung, then traveled for therapy to Warm Springs, Georgia, in a valiant effort to recuperate. Pinky would later recall many of his friends at Warm Springs mentioning what they, as young adults, had in common; namely, that they were often guilty of burning the candle at both ends. But then, youngsters became paralyzed too -- and of ALL ages!


Many people back then didn’t realize that we had a United States President who’d once been a polio victim and could no longer walk, as a result. Franklin Delano Roosevelt frequently hid his debilitation from the public eye. People in those unenlightened times didn’t understand and would often look askance at “a Cripple.” However, the courage of Roosevelt, Pinky McDonnell, and others helped to change that perception. Today’s terminology would be “person with a handicap.”


When Pinky got home in 1950, the family set up his bed in the living room, from which he nodded as all passers-by waved. Often Pinky’s room would be filled with kids watching television in the dark, because he had one of the first ones around. Naturally, he had one of the first air-conditioners, too. His family and the whole neighborhood helped out over the years by taking him to ball games and to many of his civic commitments. Somehow, everyone who knew him seemed to learn of compassion and caring for others through Pinky’s plight.


Indeed, Pinky McDonnell went on to great success in life. He served on many state and local civic committees and was Clinton’s Councilman-at-Large in the late 1970’s and early ‘80’s and even acted as Mayor Pro Tempore several times. He received many honors.


Despite being paralyzed for nearly forty years, and only barely able to move his head and one hand, Pinky became a successful and influential citizen, who gave great example to the thousands of people whom he met and worked with and for.


Every family, in those days, was likely to be touched by the dread disease known as “polio” -- until Dr. Jonas Salk (and Dr. Albert Sabin) became famous in 1954 by being the first, out of many hundreds searching, to find the cure. It was they who developed a vaccine which all but eliminated the disease that had plagued the world’s youth. Oddly, Salk didn’t even patent the discovery which carries his name. Actually, many other scientists, like Harvard’s David Enders, contributed to the rapid development of the cure for this disease by learning how to grow the polio virus in test tubes. Late in life, a doctor asked Teresa why she had not got inoculated. He was young and didn’t realize that it hadn’t been invented when she was stricken.