Betty, Bill Gates, and Beer Pong

young-betty2Originally, today’s post lamented the lack of beer pong at baby showers.

No, really, it did. This is an important conversation to be had.

However, I recently also realized that today is World Polio Day, which is another subject that speaks to me, although it occupies a different part of my consciousness than beer pong.

You may remember that my grandmother lived with us for the better part of five years when the kids were little. Before that, I knew her mostly as the curly haired lady who lived far away, watched a lot of Lawrence Welk when she and Grandpa visited, and sent one or two crisp dollar bills in a card every birthday.

When she moved to town, after the death of her second husband, it didn’t take long before her regular anxiety attacks and inconvenient trips to the emergency room helped us realize that independent living wasn’t her thing. We had moved our little family into a much larger home, down the street from my parents, and there was space for a full apartment in the basement.

The boys were three years and just about six months old when grandma moved in. They had the opportunity to grow in those early years with a basement-dwelling fairy godmother who doled out popsicles and candy, and had two televisions on at all times in case her cat couldn’t decide between Fox News and Lifetime.

When she’d moved in, I dreamt of change for Betty: images of senior yoga and long walks with the baby stroller in the warm evenings to calm her anxieties. She would come around from her better-living-through-chemicals lifestyle and realize she didn’t need a different pill to keep her calm, another to help her sleep, and allergy medications that could knock out a horse. Of course, she was a heart patient, with blood pressure and cholesterol issues, but still a whole lot of the pill thing could be mitigated by a few changes in lifestyle.

Well, that worked out for Betty and me just about as well as you’d expect. Fortunately, I gave up came around to accepting her just as she was before I completely lost my marbles.

Mom and I coordinated her regular trips to the doctor, to which I would take a list of her medications as long as my forearm. She’d sit on the paper-covered table and recite her medical history while getting her blood pressure taken.

It was completely different every time.

If you’d had the number of open-heart surgeries, bouts with pneumonia, and various and sundry chronic ailments of this woman, you’d probably have a hard time keeping track, too. I know I did.

One thing she loved to share with every doctor was the story about her recovery from polio.

She’d been a young woman in 1951, not the typical child polio patient. In fact she and Jerry had two young children of their own. Polio came and went with the summers, back then, and outbreaks would alarm entire communities. The virus was incredibly contagious and fickle. It would leave one child with the symptoms of a flu, and another in an iron lung.

Betty and Jerry must have been terrified at the time, that one of the children would catch it, that she’d end up paralyzed for life, or dead.

But listening to Grandma in the doctor’s office – even as a mother of young children myself – I was far more focused on making sure I had the correct list of medications, frustrated that the medical professional quizzing us never seemed to have more than a passing interest in what we were telling him, and exasperated with Grandma’s tenuous recall of her own medical history.

One consistent tale she would tell was of the Sister Mary Kenny treatment she received. As a polio patient, she’d had access to a treatment with which no one since has seemed familiar. Grandma recounted hot and cold packs, and a strict physical therapy regimen that she said was the reason she didn’t end up with shriveled muscles and leg braces.

Years later, I heard a presentation in my Rotary club about a man who’d had polio at about the same time as grandma, as a child in the early 50s. Peak years for the virus. He’d been blessed with the same access to the Sister Mary Kenny treatment, had been fortunate enough to have the care of someone who believed that total immobility – the prevailing recommendation for polio patients at the time – would more likely lead to muscle atrophy and braces, than a full recovery.

Sister Mary Kenny was a nurse from Australia, who championed and was often ridiculed for the strange treatment she developed. Today, she’s all but forgotten by the young medical professionals who listened patiently to my grandma’s stories about why she’s still walking today, about how she could live a full life after nearly succumbing to a scourge to which so many at the time were losing their children.

young-bettySo today, on World Polio Day, instead of bemoaning the distinct lack of beer pong at baby showers, I’m reflecting on Grandma and Sister Mary Kenny. On Jonas Salk and shots and sugar cubes. On the fact that we as a united, human front have all but eliminated this blight from the face of the earth, which just a few short decades ago presented a reason for barricading our children inside sweltering homes each summer. On Bill and Melinda Gates and their little Foundation, which has helped Rotarians around the world further their cause.

This week’s all about Betty and Bill Gates and an end to a virus that still leaves families devastated, but for which we have a means of prevention. Here’s to closing that gap and becoming completely polio-free.

Next week’ll be beer pong. Pinky swear.


Learn more about World Polio Day, Rotary, and just how close we are to ending Polio: #EndPolio



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  1. The Sabin vaccine was on the sugar cube. The Salk vaccine is an injection. The Sabin vaccine hasn\’t been used in the US in almost 20 years. It had a side effect rate that effected about 500 people a year, or way more than the Salk or Polio itself.

    Polio scared mom. She was the perfect age. It is unimaginable what the vaccine did for America.

    I have a friend who is one of the few (around 1,000) people surviving with polio. There are very few doctors who teat polio in the US. I don\’t think it is even taught in medical schools anymore.

    1. Ah, I see. Got confused by my mother getting nostalgic and remembering being given sugar cubes in school.

      Thanks for the clarification, and for reading.

  2. i loved this post. I\’m all about story telling, and this was so interesting. And yeah, it\’s never a bad thing to recollect on the technology and medical advancements that we have. I am looking forward to the beer pong post as well though.

    1. Why thank you! I\’ll do the beer pong one, soon. That one\’s been waylaid again in favor of a Halloween post, dangit! Beer pong must have its time in the sun!

  3. Interesting the things you can learn from the elderly, but how easy it is to be in such a hurry and then totally miss out. Thanks for sharing this story.