Living With Polio
Not Just Polio: My Life Story
Excerpts from the autobiography Not Just Polio: My Life Story of Richard Lloyd Daggett, polio survivor and ventilator user:
My mother drove to the hospital to visit almost every afternoon and both pafarents came in the evening. I’m sure it was a difficult time for them. I was their youngest child, and I was very, very ill with bulbospinal polio, the most severe form of this disease. I learned later that, in addition to polio, I had a life-threatening case of pneumonia.
It was probably more difficult for all the parents. Imagine entering a room filled with these huge metal tanks. The tanks are making their whooshing sound. All you can see are heads sticking out one end of each tank, and you know that one of these heads belongs to your child.
My father began a daily journal of the events surrounding my illness and hospitalization. He never mentioned it, and I didn’t know about it until after his death when I was going through his papers. I believe this journal was his way of coping with the strain and sadness he and my mother must have endured.
Here are some excerpts from the first few entries:
Friday, July 17: Dr. Hershey examined him and gave us an order to take him to the CD building at the General Hospital. Arrived about 11:30 a.m. They asked us a lot of questions and gave Richard an examination. He said he felt “Pretty good,” The doctor told us he had no muscular weakness at that time.
Saturday, July 18: Arrived at the hospital at 2 p.m. Richard was suffering some discomfort and said, “I have it”, meaning polio. He showed us the difficulty he had moving his arms. We returned home somewhat apprehensive. At 9 p.m. Dr. Miller called and said Richard developed some difficulty breathing and they were planning to put him in an Iron Lung later in the evening. He called again about 11:30 and suggested we come there. We went immediately. We couldn’t see the doctor until 2:15 a.m. He explained they put Richard in the Lung as a precaution and to save his strength. We went home feeling pretty low.
Sunday, July 19: Called the hospital at 9 a.m. The nurse said Richard had a quiet night and that we could see him. We went right over and visited with him for 10 minutes. He seemed in good spirits, under the circumstances, and was comfortable. Talked to one of the Drs. and he explained some things about polio to us. As long as the patient has a fever it is still “working”. After that they can determine the extent of nerve damage. There is nothing to do but wait for two or three days for the answer. They will be anxious days for us. Went to the hospital again in the evening. Richard is a very sick boy.
Monday, July 20: I left work at noon. Went home for lunch and we went to the hospital. The nurse was working on Richard when we saw him. The Dr. said he had developed pneumonia. Still a very sick boy. We returned to the hospital at 7 p.m.. We were rewarded with the first hopeful sign. Richard seemed in good spirits and the nurse said his temperature was down a little. We came home clinging to that slim thread of hope.
Tuesday, July 21: Came home for lunch and went to the hospital. The nurse was working on Richard so we had to wait in the hall a few minutes before we could see him. He is very sick but the Dr. said his fever is slightly lower. He also told us that Richard has a better than even chance to pull through. Returned to the hospital at 7 p.m. Richard was asleep when we went in but the nurse awakened him. He seemed glad to see us. I asked him if he was discouraged and he shook his head to indicate a definite “NO!” That spirit can’t lose and I’m real sure he will win.
I treasure this journal. It is important historically, but even more important to me is the written record of my parents’ thoughts and concerns.
Through all the twists and turns my life has taken, whether public or private, I’ve had the support of my family. My parents always encouraged me in whatever tasks I undertook. Living with them was certainly to my advantage. Not just because they could provide the assistance I needed in daily activities, but because we enjoyed doing so many things together. I know I would not have traveled as much, nor had as wide a spectrum of experiences, if it were not for them. I’ve also had the support of my brothers and sister and the encouragement of many friends. In this respect, I have been blessed.
My parents were also responsible for how I dealt with polio. I never heard them say, “Poor Richard,” or any other expressions of pity. My father had a positive, no-nonsense attitude. His advice equated to, “OK, You hit a pothole. Now move on.” He would sometimes say to me, “Don’t say ‘I can’t do this.’ Say you’re having difficulty.” My mother was a little more protective. After all, she was my mother. But even she expected that I live my life positively.
I have been so fortunate. Yes, I had polio, but I contracted this disease in Los Angeles County. The county had the resources to give the best medical care possible. With additional funding from the March of Dimes, the county built Rancho Los Amigos, the largest and most up-to-date treatment facility for respiratory polio patients in the nation. Rancho gave me the finest rehabilitation available and continues to monitor my pulmonary health. I doubt I would be alive today if it weren’t for Rancho’s timely medical interventions.
I was asked once by a television reporter what I thought my life would have been like had I not contracted polio. I replied that people can’t, or at least shouldn’t, dwell on things that might have been, because no one knows what, “might have been.” You just do the best you can. You make decisions based on the information you have and the circumstances at the time.
And, almost every time I’m interviewed by a reporter, they say something about how “brave” I am. I find this statement embarrassing. The first time I heard it I didn’t know how to respond. It took me by surprise. Now I tell them, as politely as possible, that bravery has nothing to do with it. Bravery is when a person consciously puts their own life in danger to save or protect someone else. A person who happens to have a disability has not made a conscious effort to be disabled. It just happened. They still have the desire to live as full a life as possible. Just like everybody else. You don’t have to be brave to do this.
Over the past several years I’ve received a few letters from polio survivors who are angry. They feel that they were encouraged, even pushed, to go out and make an active life. They feel this is why they are having trouble now. While I certainly sympathize with them, I don’t agree with this outlook. I’m not sure I would have done things much differently even if I’d known about polio’s late effects. I’m a richer person for the people I’ve met and the things I’ve done.