Growing Up with Post-Polio
A Man Name Bubba
By James E. Davis - Written 2002 and Revised 2018
I'm not much of a writer but I hope this will give you an idea of the person I am. First off, I hope the name "Bubba" does not offend anyone, if it does you may want to leave now. I will explain later the significance of that name.
I was born in January of 1956 in Elberton Georgia, known as "The Granite Capital of the World". I was the younger of my parent’s children. I had 8 half brothers and sisters along with 3 whole sisters, Joy, Wanda and Sherry.
In October of 1959 I was stricken with the polio virus and was treated for three months in Warm Springs, Georgia. When I first became sick the symptoms were very much like the flu. I recall having a fever, throwing up and just an overall ill feeling. When I didn't get better from the treatment for the "flu" by the local physician, I recall my father taking me to a prayer revival. With him holding my hand we walked into the revival tent and my legs became like water and buckled under me. That is the last I remember until I arrived at the Warm Springs Foundation Hospital about 150 miles from Elberton. I was severely affected from the waist down by the polio. They called it "infantile paralysis". As I was growing up I often prayed asking the Lord to let me walk again but he never seem to answer. One day, it dawned on me: "He DID answer my prayers! I CAN walk, maybe not like others but I CAN walk!"
Here is what I do remember:
- I had to wear a cotton material vest with straps attached. These straps were tied to the sides of the bed to prevent me from turning over. Underneath the vest I wore a back-brace which was called a corset. The corset went from the shoulder blades down to the lowest part of the lower back. It to was made of a thick cotton material with strips of steel sown vertically in. The steel strips is what braced my upper extremities to keep me from sagging and toppling over and it protected my spine. There were straps and buckles to secure the corset around my upper torso. I had to wear one of these 24/7 until I was about 12 years old. While in my wheelchair my mother had to use cushioned clamps at my sides to prevent me from falling out of the chair.
- From just below the buttocks I was fitted with metal leg braces which locked at the knees, all leather oxford shoes (shoe strings) with steel shanks in the thick leather soles for attaching the stirrups to the leg braces.
I had to sleep in my braces and shoes until I was about 12 and to this day I still wear these types of metal braces and leather shoes. They have always been a part of me but thank God I don't have to sleep in them! There was a metal bar attached to the two braces near the ankles to lock them together. This allowed me to stand and with the aid of crutches I could swing both legs forward to walk. Eventually the bar came off and I could move each of my legs forward individually. Compensating for the loss of leg muscles, I relied on the muscles in the hip area. This caused me to swing a leg forward giving me a very odd self-conscious gait. Many times, even to this date, I have been stared at and as a kid other kids would mock my walk laughing loudly. Soon after the lock bar was removed both my feet would slip out from under me with one leg going horizontally to the right and the other to the left. Odd but now that I think back on it, I was never injured and eventually I learned to compensate and that type of fall stopped.
- I vaguely recall the pool at Warm Springs was very comforting. I was taught how to walk with the leg braces and crutches by swinging both legs forward. You can see from a picture of me what a great feeling it was to be able to stand.
- When I came home from the hospital my mother gave me physical therapy. She would lie me flat on an ironing board, bend my leg over and over at the knee. For my paralyzed feet she would place the palm of her hand flat on the sole of the foot, slowly pushing it forward then letting it drop, she repeated this many times. The pain from these exercises was excruciating. My Mother, I think, cried even more than I did.
- Every evening she would put me in traction. A chin strap was placed under my chin. The strap was then attached to a long horizontal steel bar which was attached to a pulley. At
the end of the pulley my Mother would place a brick or two. I sat like this in my wheelchair for about an hour.
Long before I can remember my sisters began to call me "Bubby" (Pronounced "Bubbee", in later years I spelled it "Bubba"). I don't know which one started calling me that name but as the years went by, it was used with affection by most family and friends. Even though I walked in an odd way wearing the steel leg braces and using crutches, it didn't slow me down! My father was constantly shaking his head saying, "That boy has a hard head!" One things for sure, he never hesitated to take a belt to me when I was really, really bad.
When I was eight, this was around 1964, we moved to Okeechobee Florida because my father needed to find a better paying job as a heavy equipment operator. We were a poor family and literally going hungry in Georgia, even though my father worked every day, it just wasn't enough. While my Dad was in Florida looking for work, my Mother, sisters and I were in Elberton awaiting word from my Dad that it was time for a relative to move us over 600 miles to Okeechobee. We had no food other than a loaf of bread. One day I began to cry because I was hungry. My mother asked my sisters, "Are y'all alright with me giving Bubby a piece of bread?" Even though I'm sure they were just as hungry as me they all three agreed I should get that piece of bread. This was one of many sacrifices my sisters made for me.
Before we moved from Elberton, someone said to us, "In Florida the houses have no chimneys" and "the land is flat"! My sister's and I had a hard time believing a house could not have a chimney! Back in those days we never heard of central air and heat, that was only for the "rich bugs" as my mother would say.
Starting the second grade in Okeechobee, my teacher called me her "Georgia Boy" because of my heavy Southern accent. It was about this time I became shy and self-conscious but not because she called me Georgia Boy, that to me was a compliment. All through my school years I would panic if I got called on or had to go before the class to read a book report. Once, in the third grade I remember standing before the class and began crying like a baby! That only made it worse as it was open house and my best friend's family was there! Now that I think back on it, this was likely the beginning of my social anxiety but in those days there was no word for it other than just being bashful.
I loved growing up in Okeechobee, it was a small town and everyone was friendly and "country". I saw citrus trees everywhere I went. What a treat it was for a Georgia Boy to just reach out and pluck an orange, tangerine, comquat or grapefruit off a tree! This is when I found out I hated grapefruit! In 1966 we moved from town into the country to a place located between Okeechobee and Fort Pierce FL. The area we moved to was called "Bluefield" with the most beautiful Florida vegetation and wild life you could imagine. There were swamps, ponds and canals with snakes, alligators, raccoons, armadillo, possums, deer, wild hogs but best of all there was the fishing. In the summer months during the rainy season we often got stuck on the long stretch of white sandy road to our house. The country road had many potholes that would flood and fill with water. The mosquitoes were so thick we would try to get into the house as fast as we could but still clouds of them would follow us in.
What fun it was when my sister Sherry and I would catch tadpoles from the ditches and ramble through the thick vegetation with neighborhood kids. We had no thoughts of snakes and alligators getting after us. I loved sneaking off with a cane pole to go fishing. There was lots of canals in our area and fish were plentiful, mainly brim and fresh water catfish. We would occasionally go to Lake Okeechobee, the third largest freshwater lake in the continental US, to swim on hot summer days. Since we lived on the edge of St. Lucie and Okeechobee County we were forced to take the long ride on the school bus to attend school in Fort Pierce. I believe I was in the fourth grade.
We moved into the town of Fort Pierce, Florida around 1968. Ft. Pierce is located about 30 miles to the east of Okeechobee. It was love at first sight! The town is located on the east-coast of the Atlantic Ocean. On the way to the beach we had to cross the beautiful Indian River. When my sisters began to date, their boyfriends would often allow me to tag along with them to the beach, sneak me in the Drive-In by putting me in the trunk of their cars and often treat me to McDonald's for a Big Mac topping it off with a 16-ounce bottle of PEPSI from the 7/11.
Around 1971 or 72 we returned to Georgia and as much as I loved my home state it was never the same after growing up all those years in Florida. I missed my friends in Fort Pierce, I didn't see much of my father as he was away in another town working. In Fort Pierce I completed the 8th grade and made "B" honor roll. In Elberton GA I began the 9th grade but the education system was much more advanced than in Florida. For the first six weeks I made straight "F's"! This almost destroyed me psychologically (I was only 15) so I quit school and stayed home. A few years later my father retired and I was forced to go on disability.
In 1979 my life changed forever when I returned to Fort Pierce staying with my eldest sister Joy and her husband. I had told my parents I was only going to visit but I felt this was where I could change my life for the better. There was no future for me in Georgia.
While I was staying with my eldest sister she sensed how unhappy I was. I didn't like being on Social Security Disability and I wanted an education. Without hesitation she walked a few blocks to an agency called the Florida Vocational Rehabilitation to inquire if they could help me. The counselor she saw wanted to see me immediately. From the time I shook the Rehabilitation Counselor's hand, with my head held down, my life changed! I stayed in Florida, even though my father and mother begged me to come home. I was 21 it was time I grew up and began to live an independent and productive life.....
- After three months of study in Adult Ed at the local college I obtained my GED with high scores.
- During the first year (1979) I took college vocational courses to prepare for a career.
- In early 1980 I obtained a car and Florida driver's license. I bought my first Chevy with a loan from a friend. Florida Vocational Rehabilitation had the car equipped with hand-controls because I could not use my left foot on the brake or gas peddle. I rented my first house, even though I had to have a roommate to share rent and opened my first ever checking account!
- I began working in January 1980, part-time with the Community College as a Vocational Evaluation Aide and later hired full-time as a Vocational Evaluation Assistant in October 1980.
- Funding ended in 2002 for the College's Vocational Rehabilitation Department. Primarily from 1980 to 2002, I worked closely with adults & College Students who had physical, mental and psychological disabilities. We also did vocational assessments for Workers Compensation and later Welfare Mothers, when the welfare reform act began. When grant funding ran out I was transferred half days to doing manual work in the College Print-shop and in the afternoons as a General File Clerk in the Human Resources Department. For nearly a year, every 3 months, I didn't know if there would be grant funds to keep me on. Thankfully, around 2004 I was hired full-time on a "permanent" (guaranteed funds) basis as a Human Resources Specialist! Unfortunately for 24 years I did not know from one year to the next if I would have a job. You can't imagine how anxious this made me through those years of being told I might be laid off at anytime due to no grant funding to pay my salary.
- At age 45 I was diagnosed with Coronary Artery Disease and my Cardiologist insisted I needed to quit smoking. I had been smoking since I was 15 and knew deep down it was a bad thing and even worse since I was a polio survivor. Through trial and error and being involved with online support groups, I finally stayed quit and have been for many years. I ran an online quit smoking support group and website called "Freedom Village Quit Smoking" for a number of years.
- In 2006 I began a website called "Polio Survivors In The 21st Century" which continues to this day as a non-profit and ad-free website. It is dedicated to Polio Survivors, not only for those in the USA but throughout the world.
- Due to Post-Polio Syndrome the day came when I knew I had to to stop working after 34 years of service with the Community College, now a State College. Not only was my physical condition deteriorating quickly because of the PPS but so was my mental health as I was dealing with clinical depression and social anxiety.
My father passed away from heart bypass surgery on July 15, 1989 and was always asking "When is Bubba coming home?" Before he died he did tell me, "Son, I love you and I'm proud of you."
My younger sister Sherry died suddenly on July 1, 2003 at age 48. She was my best friend and was always telling me how proud she was of me. She and my other two other sisters help teach me there was nothing I couldn't do as long as I set my mind to it. When she passed away it felt like something broke inside me.
My eldest sister Joy passed away August 2004 at age 52. Even when we were kids she was firm, forgiving and loving. She and my other sisters never ever thought of me as having a disability.
I talk to my sister Wanda often. We argue all the time and she is like a mother hen always worrying about me. I can't imagine her not being in my life.
My mother passed away on January 12, 2017 in Elberton GA at the age of 85. She was my rock as she was the one who loved me unconditionally and got me through those formidable years of being stricken with polio and nursing me back to health. She gave me the painful exercises when I was recovering. Her compassion was unending, not only for me but for everyone. She planted a seed in my sisters and I from the time of our birth. That seed was to believe in the Lord and always have faith in him. Just a few days before she passed away, we spoke over the phone and she continued to encourage me to hold strongly to that faith. She was and will always be an inspiration to me.
At the time of this update I am 62 and live with my adopted dog Birdy who I've had for about 6 years now. Post-Polio Syndrome began to creep up on me around the age of 45. Several years ago the PPS escalated and my psychological health began to deteriorate. Dealing with depression and social anxiety has become a part of my life that I have learned to live with. Physically the aging process and the Post-Polio Syndrome is giving me the greatest challenge of my life but that too I have learned to live with. God has blessed me throughout my life and it has been and is a good one. I am thankful every day for all I have been given and try never to take it all for granted.
Thanks for taking the time to read my story.
James aka Bubba