By Barbie Porter

Editor, Frazee-Vergas Forum

A six-year-old Anna Mae Vetter sat on her mother’s lap in the back of a 1943 cab. With cruel intent, the driver poked fun at Vetter for sitting on her mother’s lap, noting she was a big girl and could sit in her own seat.

Neither Vetter nor her mother responded. They kept quiet, just as they had been directed.

Earlier that day, Vetter’s  mother phoned the doctor as her daughter had become lethargic and had trouble moving her legs. The doctor  had a simple test to give. After getting the direction, Vetter’s mother asked her to touch her chin to her chest.

“I couldn’t do that,” she recalled. 

The next directions from the doctor were as simple and as clear­—wrap her daughter in a blanket and get to the hospital, but do not tell anyone; not even the cab driver, until you get to the hospital.

“When we got out at the entrance of the hospital, we told the driver he and the cab needed to be quarantined  for two weeks,” she recalled, noting she had the polio virus.

The New York Mills resident survived, but not without a lifelong disability and wisdom that has continually tied today’s pandemic with what happened so many years ago.

Vetter explained the virus now, much like then, left some hospitalized while others had just flu-like symptoms. Point in case, Vetter was so ill she was hospitalized, while no one else in her family contracted the virus, as far as they know. 

Research has shown that it may be more likely no one else showed symptoms, as it has been reported about 72 out of 100 with polio had no visible symptoms. Those with symptoms, tend to see the flu-like result disappear on its own in a week. 

Then there were those like Vetter, who developed severe symptoms: some endured feeling as if there were pins and needles in their legs, others fought meningitis and Vetter was one of 200 that had paralysis as a result of polio. Paralysis was the most severe as it came with the potential of permanent disability or death. Reports stated, out of 100 people between two and 10 people with paralysis died.

Another similarity are the potential for long-term effects. Vetter recalled it was not known if the virus would strip her from having children, but doctors back then told her to be prepared for that reality.

“We just didn’t know the damage it would do long-term.”

Anna Vetter on the Polio virus

One big difference between the two pandemics is the vaccine. When Vetter contracted polio in the 1940s there was no vaccine (it was developed in the 1950s). COVID-19, on the other hand, has a vaccine. Vetter has had her two COVID-19 shots and plans to get her booster soon.

Perhaps Vetter’s past experience  shaped her view of the current pandemic, or maybe it was because she watched a Perham family go through losing a loved one. Either way, she said she simply doesn’t understand those who refuse to get the vaccine to protect themselves, and others.  

Vetter, who is turning 84 in a few weeks, encouraged those who have yet to get vaccinated to hear her story and draw their own parallels between the polio virus and the state of affairs today.

Polio pandemic hits U.S. in the 1940s

When stricken with polio, the NY Mills resident  was living in Chicago with her two younger sisters, as well as several extended family members. 

“There was a war going on and we couldn’t afford staying in our apartment,” she recalled. “So we got on a train and went to live with family in a suburb of Chicago.”

At the time, polio and measles were ravaging the country. Both were highly-contagious viruses that impacted everyone, especially children, and had flu-like symptoms. Vetter recalled hearing about the polio epidemic, as well as the measles.  But, what she remembered most were the baths in the galvanized tubs on the porch. 

“We went youngest to oldest, and then once inside the house, we had another bath,” she said, noting they took recommended precautions.   

Still, Vetter contracted the virus. At first, she just appeared a bit tired and with a headache, or as if she had the flu.

“I was in first grade and walking to school with my aunt and uncle,” she said. “The school had elementary through ninth grade and was maybe three blocks from my house.”

After sharing her head was hurting and her legs tired, her uncle gave her a piggy back ride the rest of the way. Shortly after, the call to the doctor was made and the cab ride to the hospital followed. 

At the hospital, Vetter was taken into a quarantine room that had three solid walls and one made of glass. Only nurses and the doctor could enter the room; her parents and family were only allowed to visit on the other side of the glass door.

Before 1955 there was no polio vaccine, but there were treatments that gave severe cases a chance at a life without a wheelchair.  The method Vetter was given was developed by Sister Kenny Institute and used heat to revive movement in the muscles.

She recalled vivid memories of laying in bed and watching nurses wheel in something that resembled an old wringer washing machine. It was placed at the foot of her bed and woolen rags were pulled from the machine.

“I’m thinking they had something on my legs, because I could see the steam rise from the wool rags,” Vetter said.  

As the hospital staff worked on bringing her legs back to working order, Vetter was eventually cleared from being contagious and brought to a ward. There were plenty of other children in the ward where beds were separated by a curtain. Entertainment was often gifted over the intercom when a T.V. program or radio show was played.

“I was in the quarantine room for two weeks and then the ward for a total of 11 weeks and two days,” she said, noting she eventually regained the ability to walk with a limp. She explained one leg is shorter than the other as a result.

Time has shown that some children who appear to fully recover from polio developed new muscle pain, weakness and even paralysis as adults (up to 40 years later). Vetter said in that regard, she lucked out and has remained healthy.

Vetter noted had there been a vaccine, and she was given it, that part of her life may have been very different with more enjoyable childhood memories filling those days. Instead, her athletic abilities were limited, as well a her fashion choices as she needed to wear special shoes to accommodate her shorter leg.

After polio, Vetter has enjoyed a fruitful life

Aside from surviving polio and the aftermath of the virus, Vetter said her most memorable moments of life thus far have included graduating college, getting married and raising four children.

Her husband Jim made a career in the Air Force as a radar controller. While family wasn’t always able to travel with him when he was stationed in foreign lands, Vetter did get to move to Germany for almost three years.

When he retired from the service in the late ‘70s, the family decided to move to Perham. The two began teaching careers, he taught small engine repair and she taught English. Later he became manager of the Perham Liquor Store and she took a job cuing for a deaf student.

Vetter explained, her children were ages: 3, 6, 9 and 10. With regular instruction came the expectation of taking on additional duties, such as extracurricular coaching or chaperoning events. 

“I realized I had four children that I had to be nice to at the end of the day,” she said, adding when the cuing job opened, she quickly applied and was hired. 

Vetter explained cuing for the death was a way for hand shapes to  be used by the mouth to allow their child to speak more accurately than with sign language. Vetter attended classes with the child and the child’s parents before the school lessons began.

“I was 42, or 42 around then, and thought this would be a fun way to challenge myself,” she said, noting she held the positions for nine years before retiring.

The grandmother of six and great grandmother of one has enjoyed retirement by spending it with family and her sisters (who are all in their 80s).

“Some might not think that is a big deal, to see all my girls turn 50 and be here with my sisters when we are in our 80s,” Vetter said. “For me, when I had no idea what my future would be because of polio, I see it as a big deal.”