Polio Place

A service of Post-Polio Health International



Jane Thatcher Hickenlooper; St. Louis, Missouri

We lost my little sister, Lolly, when she only three years old. She had been a patient at St. Louis Children’s Hospital for six months before she died. We children only got to see her from a high-up window in the hospital; we were too young to visit. There was great fear of contagion.

At the time Lolly got sick, we were living with my grandmother in her large, pre-Civil War home, Glen Owen, in St. Louis County. I remember one morning Lolly simply couldn’t move in her crib. Our doctor came and carried her in to the hospital so she could get treatment. Lolly had one of the first iron lungs there. Eventually, the paralysis moved from her legs to her lungs and Lolly died, just as my parents were frantically trying to get her into Mayo Clinic. My mother even had a bottle of holy water from Lourdes meant to effect a cure. I don’t know if it was even used.

My godmother, Aunt Peggy, came to our school to get my sister, Becky, and me to tell us the sad news. She told I should be strong as I was the oldest. That night my sister and I snuggled together in a big bed in my great aunt’s house and cried. We had just had our first experience of death.

We went to visit Lolly who was laid out in a white casket in my grandmother’s big parlor. She had grown quite a bit during her long stay at the hospital and was wearing a long, white first communion dress and holding fresh flowers Mom put in her hands. Mom said Lolly even had a little bald spot at the back of her head where her hair had rubbed against her pillow. At Mom’s suggestion, we children had written little notes to Lolly telling her we loved her and knew she was in heaven. They were tucked into the casket too. The parlor was filled with beautiful flowers from family and friends sending their condolences. I vividly recall a large cross made out of purple pansies hanging from the ceiling.

Later, we attended a funeral Mass at St. John and St. James, our parish church, Becky and I watching from the choir loft. Afterwards, we were quarantined for several weeks at Granny’s before we could return to school. It was the 1940’s and before the polio vaccine. Polio was a real epidemic, and no one knew how it was caught. We simply avoided big public places, such as movie houses and swimming pools.

Even though my parents had more children, Lolly always had a special place in our family. She has not been forgotten. For years my parents had a framed photograph of Lolly on their bedroom wall. She’s wearing a pretty quilted robe and waving from her hospital bed. And she’s smiling and looking at the viewer with her big brown eyes, little sweetie. I have her picture to this day on my dad’s old dresser in our house. I still have a tender spot in my heart for the little sister I lost so many years ago, God’s special little angel in heaven.


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