The Other Mothers

A True Story of Loss, Survival and the Largest Public Health Experiment in History

Small-Town Michigan, 1951. An energetic seven year old boy named Michael experiences flu-like symptoms and headaches. They don’t go away. Within a week, he is feeble, lethargic, severely aching all over. His mother prays as his father notices his stiffness, his slowing reflexes, and they both know they must rush him to the doctor.

David Kelly in iron lung, with sister, at Rancho Los Amigos.

Big-City Hospital. Michael is in an iron lung. His mother’s fears have come true: Michael has polio, an extremely contagious virus for which there is no cure yet. She rushes between long-distance visits, caring for her toddlers at home, and daily mass. She is pregnant and has no idea what this means for her baby, but she knows she must visit her son. Once-strong, athletic Michael cries for her when she must leave – but he is not alone. He shares his hospital bay with countless other boys and girls suffering from the same illness. During his six-month hospital stay, he sees many of them come . . . and go.

polio 2
Iron lung machines (1957) Cincinnati, Ohio

In time, Michael’s condition improves. His parents dare to hope – will he survive polio? What are the statistics on that, exactly? There were about 28,000 total cases of polio in the US that year. They would not have known it yet, but Michael was the only child from his shared room to come home alive.

Until now, I had always focused on my Grandmother’s part in this story: how hard it must have been for her to raise my mother and aunts while caring for my Uncle Mike. I tried to imagine my brusque, silent-strong-type uncle hanging on to life. I can’t see it; I can only see him as I know him. I return to thoughts of my Grandma. I have always admired her strength and courage, her steadfast prayer, her fervent hope for all her children. Not to mention the fact that she went on to conceive twins as Michael was recovering, and she raised them all with style, patience and grace. But now I turn my thoughts to the Other Mothers.Read More »