In June 1944, polio was sweeping across the country with devastating swiftness.
Children would leap out of bed in the morning, and by nightfall, they were unable to feed themselves. It was only a matter of time before it swept through Hickory, NC “like a tidal wave.”
“Youngsters with painful, useless limbs,” Life magazine reported at the time, “some unable to swallow or scarcely able to breathe, they came from mining villages up in the hills, mill towns in the valley, from outlying farms and urban centers.”
Fear reigned, but it was no match for the citizens of Hickory.
The lives of their children were at risk. They could lock up their homes, isolate their children and hope for the best. Or they could spring into action to fight a peril with no known cause and no certain outcome.
David M. Oshinsky, author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning book, Polio: An American Story, describes what happened next in the Miracle of Hickory:
“A call went out for volunteers. Hundreds showed up, ‘hiding the fear,’ said one, ‘that had [us] quaking in our boots.’ Merchants donated building material made scarce by wartime rationing. Carpenters, plumbers and electricians brought their own tools to the site.
“Floodlights were installed to allow round-the-clock construction. The telephone company installed a switchboard. Families loaned their electric washing machines and vacuum cleaners. Carloads of toys appeared. Farmers trucked in meat and vegetables. County convicts cleared brush and dug water mains, watched by shotgun-toting guards. The governor paroled 32 female prisoners to help with the domestic chores.
“It was up and running in 54 hours: a ‘rough pine board hospital’ containing an admissions center, a kitchen, and a laundry; a laboratory and an operating room; isolation wards, dormitories and a therapy wing …”
The hospital treated 454 patients before closing its doors at the end of summer. Two-thirds of them, Oshinsky writes, “were said to have ‘recovered completely.'”
The people of Hickory were scared, but they harnessed their fears to save their children.
We are still that America. We just have to act like it.
Our country is facing a new epidemic. President Obama described it in a news conference Wednesday as an “epidemic of gun violence.” We must learn many lessons from the massacre of those young children in Connecticut, but the immediate threat is clear: If this can happen in Newtown, it can happen anywhere.
Once again, we face tough choices. We can throw up our hands and surrender to a gun culture fueled by one of the most powerful lobbies in the country, or we can spring into action. By “we,” I mean we the citizens, because it is up to us to embolden our legislators to stand up to the National Rifle Association and make them pay if they don’t.