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Remembering Polio From The 1950s

By Staff | Apr 29, 2010

Polio has been eradicated in the United States, but memories linger.

Ruth and Marvin Duhn of Emmetsburg remember the day in August 1954 when their two-year-old daughter was diagnosed with polio.

“She had a high fever, so we took her to the doctor,” remembers Ruth. “The doctor thought it was the flu. So we took her home and gave her aspirin. The next morning Marlene walked out with her hand against the wall.”

With that rapid loss of muscle tone in her legs, the little girl was rushed back to the doctor. Polio was diagnosed with a spinal tap and Marlene spent six months in a Fort Dodge hospital.

The first  month, Marlene was in isolation. Even her parents could not go in to see her.

“We could stand in the door and talk to her,” said Marvin. Their little girl was in a crib all the while for the first month, then she was transferred to a ward with other polio patients.

The rest of the family had to take gamma globulin shots.

“We always wondered, if that was going to protect us, why wouldn’t that help others?”?wondered Marvin. “We had to wait for the Salk vaccine.

While Marlene was hospitalized, she couldn’t keep any food in her stomach.

“She couldn’t come home until she could keep one meal a day down,” said her mother. “We went to see her every night when she was in the crib, then every other night after she went to the ward.”

Polio affected Marlene’s legs, but mostly her left leg. The disease affected each child differently.

In January 1955, Marlene got her braces. There was a tummy band and two full braces that locked at the knee. She had to walk stiff legged.

If Marlene wanted to get down on the floor, she had to release the lock on her braces to bend. She also had to take off her braces to use the bathroom. To complicate the problem even more, the Duhns had an outdoor toilet. Eventually they installed indoor plumbing.

Young Marlene wore her braces for two to three years. She was still wearing one brace on her left leg when she started school.

It was hard for Marlene to play outdoors. If she got dird in her braces, they had to be taken off and cleaned. But they built up the sandbox so Marlene could stand beside it to play.

Her brothers were very good to Marlene. To help her ride a bicycle, Chuck would run along side her.

“She would always say, ‘Mine can do it mine self’,” her mother remembered.

Memories of the stretching exercises are still hard for the Duhns to recall – there was such pain for their young daughter.

At ages four and five, Marlene had several surgeries. Her right foot had weakened and turned out to the side. This was improved with surgery.

In Iowa City, Marlene had surgeries on her good leg at the growth plates to keep one leg from growing much longer than the other. And, Marlene had to wear two different sizes of shoes.

Marlene Duhn grew up to work as a secretary for a survey company. She was also an accomplished seamstress and sewed draperies.

As an adult, Marlene went back to school to study psychology. She had a Christian business in Alexandria, MN, helping people with problems.

Throughout her life, Marlene worked to make people aware of polio and its effects.  She spent time raising money in the fight against polio.

As a child, she was runner-up for the national poster child. Another time, with braces and crutches, she raised “a dollar a step” all the way from the Chamber office location to Wigdahl’s corner. That money went to the polio foundation.

Emmetsburg held a polio drive and the Duhns remember Ted Girard sitting outside in the cold collecting donations.

As an adult, in the 1990s, Marlene organized a group affected with post-polio syndrome. She wondered if the affects of polio were affecting other people.

Polio affected one of the Duhn’s five children. When Marlene was diagnosed with the disease, Tom was four years old and Chuch was an infant. Children born to the couple later were Kurt and Jeanne.

Hog Roast Fundraiser

Emmetsburg Rotary will host a Hog Roast Fundraiser this Sunday. Funds raised with help Rotary International eradicate polio in four countries around the world.

A photo in a 1957 Emmetsburg newspaper pictured six-year-old Marlene Duhn with her father, Marvin, and Cecil Smith.

Marlene was holding Basil Jr., a Pig-For-Polio. Basil Jr. was the second generation in a family tradition which donated one piglet of each new litter to the March of Dimes.

Marvin Duhn said they took that piglet home and raised several litters with her.

Emmetsburg’s Polio Plus Hog Roast Fundraiser is this Sunday, May 2, at the VFW in Emmetsburg. Serving is from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. A free will donation will be accepted. The public is invited to be a part of the effort to eradicate polio worldwide.

This is the second whole hog barbecue Emmetsburg has sponsored. All funds will go towards meeting the Gates Challenge. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation offered a $200 million challenge grant to Rotary Cubs around the world to help underwrite Rotary’s commitment to eradicate polio worldwide.

The public is invited to attend the fundraiser.