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My Most Unforgettable Character

Editor’s Note:  At a recent social function,  I found myself talking to a friend whom I see only once or twice a year.   But she is an avid reader of Trail Talk,  and when I finished telling her a personal anecdote she said to me   “That would make a great Trail Talk!”   So here it is,  Nancy Sloan of Talbot Tours.

I had the misfortune of contracting polio just a year before the Salk vaccine changed the biosphere.   I’m not complaining.   I didn’t even know I had it.   And neither did any of the adults in the room.   I was sick,  and my parents were worried,  but it took medical science six more years to correctly diagnose it  –  ironically,   after I grew enough to start having muscular problems. Actual polio treatments were still in the experimental stage by then  (1958),  and the doctors recommended surgery,  while admitting that if it worked they would do the same procedure on my other foot,  and if it didn’t work,  they would forget the whole thing.   (It didn’t work, and I was off the hook.)

But that’s certainly not what this story is about.   In college,  I met a woman who  –  it turned out  –  had had polio the same year I did,  although she was two years younger than I was at the time.   And she was on crutches.   Still.

We naturally had a lot in common,  but in our conversations I did most of the listening because her experience was far different from mine.   She showed me a photo of herself at the age of three,  standing very tall and erect with both legs encased in heavy steal braces and tiny little crutches under each arm.   She was a little blond beauty with a radiant smile that I was already familiar with.   I was amazed however,  that at three she was standing straight and today  (this was in the early seventies)  she was sadly hunched over.   She explained to me that because polio paralyzes the muscles and tendons,  when your body tries to grow they can’t adjust,  and will actually contort your body into grotesque shapes.   That is if your doctors don’t intercede on your behalf.   It turns out she had had dozens of operations over the years  (courtesy of the March of Dimes)  and not just on her legs,  but hands and individual fingers,  and back  –  I’m probably forgetting something here.   And some of these surgeries had even had to be repeated after she grew some more.

My experience  (and later observations)  was that polio affected the legs.   It had never occurred to me that polio had such a far-reaching impact on a growing little body.   In fact,  when we met she was preparing for back surgery again as the doctors were trying to give her a more optimistic life span by straightening her back  (polio  –  or actually those stunted muscles and tendons –  had given her a double curvature of the spine.)   If they hadn’t,  there simply wouldn’t have been space to fit all her organs and give them a chance to function properly.   This surgery is a BIG DEAL.   It meant six months in traction followed by two surgeries,  spaced six months apart.    This whole process was still experimental and was written up in medical journals.   She had the distinction of wearing the very first polyurethane body cast with slits up the sides and fastened by Velcro  –  both innovative materials at the time  –  and a marked improvement over the previous plaster of Paris.   I remember seeing her toward the end of this period and she was heartily sick of that cast where she had spent 2 years and 3 months of her young life.

OK,  it gets better from here,  so hang in there with me.

Even before the back surgery,  she managed to convince the Managing Director of our Black Hills Playhouse that she could maneuver the rugged terrain,  gravel pathways,  and considerable distances between the workshops of the outdoor campus.   She even offered to do a “tryout” on campus.   She passed with flying colors,  of course,  and the Playhouse was the beneficiary because she was a marvelous makeup artist and even managed to land a role onstage that summer.

Also that summer,  my husband and I fixed her up on a date with a neighbor and good friend of ours.   They immediately hit it off and were married within the year  (and are still married today  –  which is more than I can say for the couple that fixed them up!)

Being an artist,  of course,  she designed her own wedding dress and the sketches included her elbow crutches because they were integral to how the dress would function and flow.   Did I mention that in addition to being tough,  and dynamic,  she is also very smart?

The happy couple went on to live near us for several years,  had two lovely children,  and lived happily ever after  (though sadly, not in South Dakota anymore).

Is there a moral to this story?   Well, certainly there was for me.   “There but for the grace of God” comes to mind.   But it’s more than that.   Pookie (I’m using her Playhouse nickname now) would have probably had an impact on me no matter what.   She didn’t just overcome every obstacle throughout her life,  she obliterated them!   With a gigantic smile on her face,  her indomitable spirit,  and sincere concern for her fellow man,  she enriched the life of every person she ever met.

The world needs more Pookies!

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