Polio Epiedmic in NC 1940s


Polio epidemics and NC nurses

“The nurses caring for patients in iron lungs had to be attuned to their respiratory needs at all times to keep them alive, which meant being with the patient physically and psychically. Decisions had to be made regarding suctioning, postural drainage, giving oxygen, and the need for emergency tracheostomy, and nurses had to make these minute-to-minute decisions.”
—Lynne Dunphy, family nurse practitioner, 2001

            Health care personnel and resources were seriously depleted to meet the needs WWII imposed  in the mid 1940s, just when severe epidemics of polio swept through cities and towns in North Carolina crippling and killing thousands. Polio cases peaked in the state in 1948, with 2,516 cases and143 deaths.  Because there was no way to prevent or cure polio these epidemics created medical emergencies in stricken communities.  In responding to the polio epidemics of the 1940s, many North Carolina communities abandoned their racist, segregationist policies in emergency and open air polio hospitals.  Nurses and other health care professionals as well as  patients were all welcomed without regard to race and wards were only segregated by gender and type of treatment needed.  Dr. Jonas Salk developed a vaccine to prevent polio that became available to the public in 1955, and in 1959, North Carolina became the first state to require that all children be inoculated with Salk’s vaccine.

            In 1944, Hickory was the hardest hit town in North Carolina. It was soemtimes referred to as the “Polio City” by newspapers and radio stations across the state.  Families with stricken children left the mountains and northern foothills heading toward Charlotte Memorial Hospital and the polio ward of that large institution. Charlotte Memorial Hospital was quickly overcrowded and closed its doors to new patients.   Many of the families from the Catawba River valley made it no further than Hickory before they learned there was no room in Charlotte for their children.  In what became known as the “Miracle of Hickory” in early June, 1944, citizens of Hickory and the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis decided to act. In less than three days they turned a local camp for underprivileged children into an emergency hospital. The first patients were admitted within 54 hours of the decision to create a polio hospital.  For nine months, regardless of race, hometown, or ability to pay, the hospital received hundreds of young people whose lives were disrupted by this disease.  55 African American children and one Native American child were treated.

            Greensboro area citizens suffered from a polio epidemic in 1948. The community came together to confront this acute crisis, and the custom of racial segregation was temporarily set aside to provide emergency care to all affected children. While healthcare facilities in Greensboro would remain officially segregated for another 15 years, during the summer of 1948 in the emergency polio hospital, white and black patients shared wards, and nurses of both races worked side by side to treat the sick.

            An article in the Kansas City Plain Dealer conveyed the need for African American nurses to help in the 1948 North Carolina epidemic:

In response to the urgent need for nurses in sections of North Carolina seriously affected by infantile paralysis, Negro nurses in scattered localities throughout the country are following the lead of twelve Southern Negro nurses volunteering for polio duty, the American Red Cross reported this week.  All Negro nurses available for service are urged to register as soon as possible with their Red Cross chapter. The Red Cross functions as a recruiting agency when local nursing resources are depleted; salaries and transportation of nurses assigned are paid by the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis.

                Three Negro nurses recruited through Red Cross national headquarters during the past few days are among those who will serve on polio duty in N.C. Mrs. Gladys Johnson of Fort Worth, Tex., former Red Cross itinerant nursing instructor in Midwestern States, will serve as supervisor in the polio wards at the Kate Bitting Reynolds Memorial Hospital in Winston-Salem and Estelle Coles, a recent graduate of Freedman’s Hospital School of Nursing in Washington, DC, has also has been assigned there. Earlier in the week Manna Beaman, Richmond, volunteered for service and was assigned to St. Agnes Hospital, Raleigh.

               Plain Dealer; Date: 08-13-1948, Volume: 25; Issue: 31; Page: [6]

            The Central Carolina Convalescent Hospital opened on Oct. 11, 1948.  116 patients who had been cared for in the Overseas Replacement Depot and a second makeshift hospital in the former offices of The Greensboro Record  "were transferred by ambulance with the nurses hand-pumping iron lungs to the new hospital."  Many patients spent weeks or months at the polio hospital as they slowly regained the use of leg muscles and began to walk again with the help of crutches, leg braces and even corsets to straighten their spines.