Excerpt from A PLACE FOR US
Beginning of Chapter 1 "Why This Child"
Annette Wolf looked through the glass partition at the angelic face of her four year
old daughter. Golden curls fanned out around the child's perfect features, the heart shaped mouth,
the perfect little turned up nose, the deep brown of her almond eyes. Annette pictured her skipping
rope with her shapely young legs, posing her glistening young figure in the wading pool, and cradling
her dolly in strong and loving arms. This child that was the embodiment of beauty, this child who
trusted so implicitly and never complained, this child who now lay stricken and helpless in an iron
lung, the victim of polio.
Why, of all children, had God seen fit to visit a crippling virus on this particular
child, to render her totally paralyzed, incapable of performing even the simplest of human needs for
herself? Had Annette and her husband Abe displeased their God, failed in their religion and efforts
to be good human beings? But why would God punish a beautiful and innocent child for the sins of her
parents? Annette's faith in a loving and fair God was sorely tested as she listened to the inexorable
wheezing and puffing of the giant machine that engulfed her four year old daughter.
Abe paced the hospital corridor, unable to witness his small daughter being trapped in
an iron lung. He was a courageous man when it came to defending his diminutive stature against taller
men or defending his Jewish heritage against bigots, but he was helpless and impatient with the doctor's
inability to do anything for his polio stricken daughter. He had been blessed with a beautiful wife and
four children born beautiful and healthy. Perhaps God thought him too fortunate. He searched his
character to find the flaw or failure for which he was being punished, and his heart railed against
what surely appeared to be an unjust God.
The door down the hall clicked open and shut, echoing as did Annette's footsteps as she
left the waist-high glass partitioned room where Wendy lay imprisoned in her iron lung machine. Annette
tried to walk softly, as if Wendy could still hear the clicking of her high heels, and slowed as she
approached Abe whose teary eyes looked at her questioningly.
"She's asleep now, Abe. She showed me all the funny faces she had practiced making in
that mirror above her head. I praised her profusely for the bubbles she blew with the bubble gum I
Abe took Annette's hands in his. "Did she move her limbs? Her hands, her feet, her
fingers, her toes?"
Annette's lower lip trembled and her perfect chin wrinkled. "Oh Abe, our little girl
can't move a muscle, except for those questioning eyes in that beautiful little face. But for that machine,
she can't even breathe."
Annette broke down into tears and lowered her head onto Abe's shoulder. He felt so helpless,
unable to do anything except pat her shoulders and say, "There, there, baby."
The Hospital For Contagious Disease in Brooklyn was one of those traditional institutions
built in the first half of the twentieth century, all brick on the outside and all frosted glass partitions
and greenish light on the inside. The interior smelled of lead paint and rubbing alcohol, and the hushed
sounds of the evening reverberated through the masonry hallways as in a subway tunnel.
Abe and Annette turned apprehensively as Dr. Klein approached them. He was looking at a
chart before his eyes raised to meet theirs. He stopped, looked down, removed his glasses, then resumed
walking towards them with a stoic expression on his face. Abe impatiently took the remaining steps between
them, started to touch his arm, then returned his hands to his hat brim which he constantly rotated when
he was not gesticulating to punctuate his speech.
Abe tried to smile cordially at Dr. Klein while his brow remained wrinkled in grave concern.
"Doctor, how is our little girl?" Before the man could answer Abe interrupted with, "Is she better? Is she
worse? When will she begin to move her limbs?"
Annette was gently reproachful. "Abe, let the man speak. You ask, but you don't stop to listen."
Without taking his eyes off the doctor's, Abe said, "Quiet, Sweetheart, I'm talking to the doctor."
His eyebrows raised imploringly, "Is she any better, Doctor?"
Doctor Klein's eye contact darted back and forth between the two parents before him. "Wendy
is no worse, but I'm afraid she is no better."
Abe punctuated his speech with waving hands. "She's no worse, that's good. But better, why
isn't she better?" Again, before the doctor could answer, Abe held up an index finger and inclined his head
thoughtfully. "Maybe she doesn't have polio. Maybe this is just a cold after all," the hint of a hopeful
smile on his face as if he had solved the terrible problem for the doctor.
Doctor Klein folded his glasses, put them in the breast pocket of his white coat, and said,
"Let's go into my office."
Abe looked at Annette questioningly as she gripped his arm and the two of them followed the
doctor into the translucent glass cubicle of an office. Abe solicitously ushered Annette into the only armchair
in front of the desk saying, "Here, Baby," then took an examination stool from the corner, swiveling the seat as
high as he could before sitting.
The doctor dropped his clipboard on the desk with a clatter, sat in the throne-like wooden
desk chair, and placed both his hands palms down on the green desk blotter. "I'm afraid there is no question
that Wendy has infantile paralysis, properly known as poliomyelitis."
Annette broke into tears, stammering between sobs, "I knew it. The instant she couldn't lift
her hand. See, we had just come back from seeing The Greatest Show On Earth and she was so happy. She had a
little sore throat and didn't eat much dinner, so I gave her an aspirin at bedtime. Then she woke in the middle
of the night saying she was hungry. I brought her a cream cheese and jelly sandwich and.....and.....she couldn't
raise her little arm to reach it. That's when I knew. I knew instantly she had polio."
Annette sobbed uncontrollably as Abe comforted her in his arms. "Shush, Baby, everything is going
to be alright." His own eyes brimming with tears, he turned his face to the doctor. "Are you absolutely sure,
doctor?" Again Abe didn't wait for an answer. "We called our family doctor that night and he said it was just
Doctor Klein touched his fingers together in an almost prayer-like position. "Did he examine her."
Abe looked back at Annette sobbing in his arms. "Yes, and when my wife asked about polio, he
said 'No, it was just a cold.'" Abe looked back at the doctor and removed one hand from Annette's shoulders to
gesture imploringly, "But the next morning Wendy was worse, so I stayed home from work and we called Dr.
Fleischman. He came and examined her again."
Doctor Klein opened his praying hands and raised his palms questioningly, "And......?"
Abe's hand and eyes returned to Annette. "He said," Abe paused and sighed slightly, "He said
we should get her to the hospital right away."
Doctor Klein leaned back in his chair and folded his arms. "So when did you decide to bring
her to the hospital?"
Abe's eyes widened and he turned both his palms up. "We came immediately."
The doctor lurched forward in his chair, put on his glasses, and started writing on the
clipboard. "And that was how many days ago?"
Abe stammered, "I...I don't know. We've been here...I dunno."
Annette raised her head and dried her tears with a damp handkerchief. "It was two days ago,
I mean, two evenings ago."
Abe waived his hands in the air questioningly. "So my little girl has polio. What does
that mean? Does it mean she's going to die?"
Annette tried to stifle a new outburst of crying as the doctor set down his pen and hastened
to answer. "Not necessarily. She is still in intensive care because the virus has attacked her muscles,
including those she needs for breathing, but, if she can recover the use of those muscles needed for basic
life support like breathing, she will live."
Abe patted Annette on the back and turned to her with a weak smile. "See, Baby, the doctor
said she will live. She just has a virus and needs to recover. See, Baby, everything is going to be alright."
The doctor frowned at Abe's oversimplification, and began the little lecture he had to deliver
to so many desperate parents during the recent epidemic. "To answer your question, 'what does it mean,' it means
your daughter has contracted one of three poliomyelitis viruses, unfortunately, the most virulent 'bulbar' type.
Polio primarily attacks children by entering the mouth and invading the bloodstream, but most children suffer
only mild symptoms, if any, and recover within three days. Even among those in whom the virus invades the
central nervous system, 50% fully recover. In the remaining half, however, the virus attacks motor neurons
and causes lesions that result in half of the group having mild disabilities and the final half sustaining
severe permanent disabilities."
Annette clutched at Abe's arm. "I knew it. The instant she couldn't raise her arm I thought
about all those children in Manhattan Beach who got polio recently. It's like an epidemic."
The doctor leaned back in his chair. "It IS an epidemic, Mrs. Wolf. There has been a polio
epidemic every eight to twelve years in America since the early 1920's, 1922 to be exact, again in the thirties,
in 1944, and now again in 1952."
Abe got up, tried unsuccessfully to raise the stool higher, then sat down again. "But isn't
there a cure, I mean, after all this time?"
The doctor leaned forward again and looked down at his hands. "There has been a lot of
testing to find a vaccine that would prevent polio, a lot of controversy over using live or killed virus
in the vaccine. Early tests with live virus vaccine crippled 17 people, so researchers are very reluctant
to try again. Pittsburgh University is doing a study headed by Dr. Jonas Salk who believes the killed virus
technique would be safe, but testing is a momentous task with horrendous risks and no one wants to move
faster than proper research permits."
Abe's eyes brightened. "But this Pittsburgh research, this killed virus vaccine, can't you
use it on Wendy?"
The doctor laced his hands together and sighed. "I'm afraid it's a little too late for Wendy.
A vaccine would prevent children from ever catching the disease, but Wendy has already contracted polio."
Annette patted her nose with her hanky. "But, if not a preventative vaccine, don't you use
some kind of medication after a child catches polio?"
Dr. Klein pursed his lips and looked over Abe and Annette's heads at the shadows of hall
foot traffic on the translucent glass office partition. "Well, we're testing gamma globulin, a blood protein
that hopefully increases the antibodies of the immune system to help the body defend itself against the virus."
Again Abe's eyes brightened with hope. "So that's the shot they gave Wendy when she arrived."
The doctor cocked his head to one side, "That or the placebo."
Abe squinted at the doctor. "Placebo? Isn't that a phoney medicine, just salt water or
something to make people think they're getting the real thing?"
Doctor Klein's eyes skipped from the glass partition to the green blotter. "Every other
patient suspected of having polio is given GG, gamma globulin, and every other one in between is given a
placebo. This is called a double blind test. No one on our staff knows which injections are GG or placebo.
Only the test researchers know so they can seek a correlation between those who got GG and those with a higher
Abe and Annette looked at each other with increasing horror. Abe spoke first. "You mean that
little boy who came in emergency right before Wendy with the same symptoms? When I pulled up to emergency,
nobody came out to help, so I looked around for a parking space. That's when the boy's father pulled up to
the door beside me and, leaving his car blocking the entrance, he carried his son into emergency, while I had
to go look for a parking space like a proper driver."
Annette clutched Abe's hands, continuing his sentence, "Headaches, sore throat, high fever.
The poor boy couldn't move a limb."
Abe looked at the doctor. "How is that boy doing?"
Annette answered his question. "I saw him walk out of here with his parents this morning.
I was so happy for him. I prayed it might be a sign that Wendy would recover, too."
Abe's face wrinkled and his voice began to crack. "He got the GG. Wendy got the placebo.
And all because I was a good driver and didn't want to block the emergency entrance." Tears welled in his eyes
and he looked at the doctor accusingly.
Doctor Klein looked up from the green blotter into Abe's accusing eyes. "I don't know."
Annette turned to look at the doctor with tear stained eyes. "My little girl was a guinea pig
in your experiment."
Doctor Klein looked at Annette with all the compassion his face and voice could muster. "Mrs.
Wolf, no one on this hospital staff would begrudge your daughter or that little boy the advantages of a proven
medicine, but gamma globulin or the Pittsburgh-Salk vaccine cannot be proven to be effective without tests
like these. Such testing is the basis of modern medicine, and without it I might be nothing but a witch doctor
with a bear tooth necklace and paint on my face chanting over your daughter's afflicted body. Please don't
torture yourself with the thought that Wendy failed to receive the best proven treatment we could provide, or
the thought that parking your car was a mistake in a roulette game. It may well be that that little boy got
the placebo, but was just one of the fortunate majority of children who recover from the virus within three days.
And Wendy may have received the gamma globulin, but was one of those few children whose constitution was just
vulnerable to the virus or did not receive treatment early enough."
FIND OUT WHAT HAPPENS NEXT!
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