The Monster

By Billie Holladay Skelley

The Monster

One of the worst epidemics in the history of the United States occurred in 1952. That year a monster virus stalked the country. It inflicted a disease called poliomyelitis, which often was called simply polio. This particular virus was unique because of its specificity for humans and its highly contagious nature. Nearly 58,000 people fought the demon that year. Over 21,000 came away with some degree of paralysis and more than 3,000 lost their fight.

Beyond the disease, this monster spread fear. Since healthy children and active adults could be stricken, there appeared to be no rhyme or reason to this fiend. Anyone anywhere could be affected. People tried everything they knew, but previous remedies did not work. Because it struck so indiscriminately and no one knew how to stop it, polio was both demoralizing and terrifying.

In 1954, my father succumbed to the monster. I was only two at the time and do not remember his death, but I do remember the campaign that arose across the country to find a weapon to defeat this scourge. It was called the March of Dimes, and for the first time, people felt there was something positive they could do to contribute to the polio monster’s demise.

My mother encouraged me to save my dimes so I could drop them into a canister on the counter at one of our local stores. The cardboard cutout attached to the container featured a pretty little girl with crutches and braces on her legs. My dimes, my mother said, would be used to create a vaccine. I did not know exactly what a vaccine was back then, but I knew it was something to stop the villain that took my father.

Fortunately, at that time, the world had two monster-slayers, Dr. Jonas Salk and Dr. Albert Sabin. By the mid-1950s and early 1960s their vaccines were proving effective. The battle against polio was turning.

One morning, during those years, I distinctly remember my mother waking me before sunrise. She had me put on my best dress and my black patent Buster Brown shoes. Hand in hand, we walked to the local elementary school just as the sun was coming up. The doors were locked, but we waited. Holding my hand tightly, my mother and I stood there for what seemed like hours. A long line formed behind us.

At last, the doors opened.

Maintaining her vise-like grip, my mother led me to a table where a nurse was sitting. The nurse asked many questions.

“And the child’s father?”

“Deceased. 1954. Polio,” my mother answered.

Pausing, the nurse took a pink-colored sugar cube from a silver tray. She placed it on my tongue. It tasted good.

Reassuringly, the nurse looked at my mother. “The vaccine has been administered.”

Finally, my mother relaxed her grip on my hand. As we turned to leave, she bent down close to my ear and whispered.

“Your father was enough. Now the monster will never get you.”

About this writer

  • Billie Holladay Skelley

    Billie Holladay Skelley

    Billie Holladay Skelley is a registered nurse by profession and received her bachelor’s and master’s degrees from the University of Wisconsin in Madison. She has written several health-related articles for both professional and lay journals, but also enjoys writing poetry, short stories, and historical essays. In addition, the author has written three books for children.

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One Response to “The Monster”

  1. Linda O'Connell says:

    Billie, I enjoyed reading your story which brought back so many memories.

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