The Clinton Herald, Clinton, Iowa

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September 11, 2013

Polio and Pinky McDonnell

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.

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