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Sister Kenny and the polio epidemic

Monday, November 1, 2010

Very early pre-history Egyptian paintings and carvings have depicted adults and children walking with canes, with the withered legs common to Polio victims, and doctors have described the symptoms of the disease named Poliomyelitis since the 1700s, yet wide-spread outbreaks of that disease were rare until the 20th century. Ironically, the poor sanitation practices of earlier times caused people to build up a natural immunity to the disease, and that natural immunity lessened as sanitary conditions improved.

In the 1930s, '40s, and into the '50s, Polio, or Infantile Paralysis, as we called it then, was of epidemic proportions in the United States. It was known that the polio was worse in the summertime, and it was assumed that it was caused by a virus carried by mosquitoes. It was also known that 95 percent of the people who contracted the disease were affected very little, other than mild flu-like symptoms. Perhaps only one person in a family, very often a child would suffer lasting effects, or death from the disease. Yet, here in the United States every year thousands of cases were reported, reaching a peak in 1952, when some 58,000 cases were reported and 3,100 people died of the disease. Many thousands more suffered damage of full or partial paralysis of the limbs or central nervous system, very often affecting the lungs, requiring the use of an iron lung machine to keep the patient alive. It seemed that every town had cases of the dread disease, which could strike without warning, leaving victims, if not dead, crippled with lung or debilitating limb damage. There were various theories, but no one knew just what caused the disease, and methods of treatment were largely ineffective. People were terrified.

From a 1946 issue of Time Magazine: "As inevitably as warm weather breeds poliomyelitis, polio breeds panic. This year's epidemic, now nearing its peak, is bad-- 50 percent greater than last year, the worst since 1934. Health authorities, faced with demands to DO SOMETHING ... have outdone previous efforts to exorcise the disease ...

Into this maelstrom of fear and disease in the United States came Sister Elizabeth Kenny, of Australia. Elizabeth was born in the back country of New South Wales in 1880. A fall from a horse and her subsequent treatment, by a caring Doctor McDonnell, caused her to become interested in the medical field, and with a minimum of formal medical education, she began working as a Bush Nurse, delivering babies and tending to the medical needs of the poor folks in her region.

She eventually established a country hospital in the village of Clinton. It was here that she saw her first case of polio, a young girl. By telegraph wire she communicated with her mentor, Doctor McDonnell. He instructed her to "treat the symptoms". Since she observed that the leg muscles of her patient had become very tight, she applied hot moist towels and weights to the legs to keep them straight and warm. The little girl recovered with no ill effects. In her autobiography Sister Kenny reported that the little girl continued to ask, "Please, maam, I want them rags that well my legs!"

Thereafter, that was her standard treatment for polio victims, along with mild exercise and stimulation of affected muscles. She became quite well known for her treatment of polio, but angered the Australian Medical Association, who called her a "quack." They insisted on putting polio patients in rigid casts and keeping them immobile. It was to be a common reaction of the medical community, worldwide.

During World War I Elizabeth volunteered for service in the British Army, and spent much of the war (16 trips) serving on ships carrying men and supplies to England, returning to Australia with wounded men and trade goods. For her service she was given the title of "Sister" (the British term for head nurse), a title she used the rest of her life.

At the beginning of World War II Sister Kenny came to the United States, where she was treated like a "Rock Star", as the lady that had the cure for polio. Of course, she did not have a cure for polio, nor did she claim that she had, but her results with patients were far superior to the results being achieved by the U.S. medical community, who still insisted that patients be immobilized for months on end, in casts and braces. She doggedly promoted her method of treatment, hot packs during the critical stage of the disease, then mild exercise and "muscle retraining" thereafter.

Though she was criticized widely in the press by many doctors, she did gain some followers in the United States, who were eager to emulate her results with polio patients. Among these was Dr. Richard Owen, himself a polio patient, who later became director of the Sister Kenny Institute in Minneapolis. He observed that Sister Kenny patients "Are more comfortable, have better health and nutrition, are more receptive to muscle training, have superior morale, require shorter bed rest and hospital care, and ... have less residual paralysis and deformity than patients treated by older conventional methods."

There were enough doctors in the Minneapolis area who were convinced that Sister Kenny's methods were sound that they were able to "give" her a hospital for the treatment of polio, which became the Sister Kenny Institute in Minneapolis. One of the doctors that took training in the treatment of polio at that hospital was McCook's Dr. John Batty. He remembers Sister Kenny very well. "All of the patients loved her, and she had the respect of all the staff at that hospital. When she came into a ward everyone greeted her by name and the patients were required to sit up---as part of their therapy". The hot moist packs, wrung out until they were quite dry, were scrupulously applied and the patients seemed to welcome their treatments, as a path to their recovery.

In the years immediately following World War II there were a number of Sister Kenny Medical facilities, which were established around the United States to treat victims of polio, giving credence to Sister Kenny's methods.

In 1946 Sister Kenny's story was dramatized in the well-received movie, Sister Kenny, starring Rosalind Russell. Sister Kenny and Miss Russell had become close friends during the production of the film. Miss Russell's nephew was successfully treated for polio using the Kenny method, as was Alan Alda, of MASH fame, who gives full credit to the Kenny treatment for his complete recovery of the disease.

Elizabeth Kenny's fame and popularity continued to grow throughout the 40s, worldwide, and in 1951 she was chosen by the Gallup Poll as "The Most Admired Woman," displacing Eleanor Roosevelt, who had won the honor 10 times before.

Sister Kenny was very popular, personally, but her work remained controversial, and her reputation as a determined and outspoken woman often angered even the people who were responsible for funding her hospitals and research work. Her last years were spent traversing the globe -- to the U.S., to Europe, to Australia, to Japan, always promoting the Sister Kenny method of helping polio patients. But the cure of the disease, and the very eradication of the disease worldwide would be done by others.

Sister Kenny finally returned to Australia for good in 1951, suffering from Parkinson's Disease. She died from complications of that disease in 1952, and is buried beside her mother in a tiny back-country cemetery in New South Wales.


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Walt Sehnert
Days Gone By