Colleen’s Story: Part I – My Childhood Years
Colleen’s Story: Part I – My Childhood Years

Categories: Community Life, My Story

A photograph of Colleen M. Feldman

By Guest Blogger Colleen M. Feldman    

This is the first in a three part series by Colleen M. Feldman, who contracted polio in 1941, just prior to her 13th birthday. In this post, she describes her childhood & teen years living with polio and her rehabilitation. The next two posts in the series will address her experiences later in life as a wife and mother with a disability raising three children, and eventually entering the workforce. Mrs. Feldman brings a unique perspective to Disability.Blog, having lived with a disability more than 50 years before the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) became law. She is also the mother of Disability.gov’s Web Content Manager, Bob Goldstraw.

I am 83 years old, and last year marked my seventh decade of living with a disability. During the “dog days” of the summer in 1941, I became infected with polio, just a few days before my 13th birthday. To this day, I remember it all very well – the high fevers, headaches, neck pain, sore throat and not being able to raise my head up. I remember my father at my bedside, looking like a very old, worried man, when he was probably still only in his 40s, and the doctors coming to my home to tell my parents what was “wrong with me”– labeling it everything from sun stroke to “growing pains,” and one simply saying, “I don’t know.”

After three weeks at home flat out in bed with no real medical care, on August 25, 1941, I was taken to Children’s Hospital in Baltimore. They put a card at the head of my bed that read “acute poliomyelitis.”  I was actually happy to be able to tell my parents what was “wrong” with me. By then, I’m sure they already knew, but they seemed shocked to hear me say it.  I don’t remember signing my name on any dotted line or some official document, but everyone kept saying – “she ‘contracted’ polio.” During that time, my dad was making plans for a motor trip to Kentucky. His relatives warned him not to come, because of this dreaded disease called poliomyelitis spreading throughout the south, not realizing at the time that his baby daughter had been infected with this very disease.

I was paralyzed from the neck down and put in a Bradford frame – right arm in a splint, a collar around my neck and my legs in shell-like casts with a bar between them to keep them separated and my feet held in place.  I remember seeing a long list of figures written in red on the doctors’ clipboard. I later learned that red wasn’t good – it meant a level of weakness below what the goals were.  One day, I took the neck collar off.  It had an itchy wool cover on it, and I hated it. I showed everyone that I could lift my head off the bed. It was removed, and I never wore it again.

In the 1940s, the physical therapy I received consisted of a sun lamp and massages with cocoa butter cream.  I still love the smell of that, but hate the smell of ether.  A woman would come to our home three times a week and massage my legs and right arm.  She was a kind, gentle woman who would tell me about her other patients. She connected us through correspondence, and at one point, I was writing letters to more than 70 people, including many of the soldiers who had gone off to fight WWII.

That summer, several weeks before I came down with polio, my father bought me green bike from Sears.  He took me along and let me pick it out.  It was beautiful.  Needless to say, it was like new when I went to the hospital, and not long after that, a neighbor approached my dad to ask him if she could buy it for her daughter. After all, she figured the girl with polio had no use for it!  My dad was not known for his diplomacy, but they told me that was shown at that moment. I never did ride that bike again.  No more bike riding, ice or roller skating or running through the woods with my big dog, Teddy.

In a few years, I went from a child to a young lady, started to wear lipstick and put ribbons in my hair.  With my left hand, I would brush my black hair straight up against the white sheet. I had blue eyes and black hair, and people said I was pretty.  I always felt that such compliments were given because people felt sorry for me, but I went from the “ugly duckling” of the three girls to a pretty teenager. My mom used to say, “Your sisters will have many, many dates and boyfriends, but the one who likes you, will like you for who you are.” As it turned out, that proved to be true.

Despite the compliments, there were certainly some ugly things said and discrimination, too. The mothers of some of my classmates burned my letters. They told me not to write anymore – they feared “catching” polio from my letters. It got back to my mother that a woman she knew had said polio was caused by “uncleanliness,” which hurt her very much. (The same woman who said these things also said that a wealthy, “upper-class” woman in our home town had a child come down with polio the following year.)  Only two boys and one mother of a classmate visited me, and I never reconnected with my classmates after seven years of being together.

From August through December of that year, I was in the hospital. Much of my time was spent listening to the radio, singing along with popular singers of the day like Sarah Vaughn, Ella Fitzgerald and Eartha Kitt (Watch a YouTube video of Colleen singing.). To this day, I remember FDR’s announcement of the bombing of Pearl Harbor on the radio. (Roosevelt, too, had polio, and one of his biographers called his attempts at hiding his disability his “splendid deception.”)  I will never forget that I had visitors in the room that day, and dad asked us all to be quiet, as that somber voice came over the radio announcing the attack.  I remember later saying Pearl Harbor and I got “attacked” the same year. Just before Christmas, I said I would “tie sheets together to get out the window to go home,” and a few days later, I was discharged.

Back at home, it was a very difficult time for my mother. Our dining room was turned into a bedroom for me so I could be on the first floor.  Over time, with physical therapy, I was measured for braces, orthopedic shoes and crutches so I could learn to walk again. The heavy, steel-leg braces back then were nothing like the lighter, “high-tech” ones of today. Years later, I would walk without them with a limp and serious drop-foot in both feet. I never regained the muscles in my feet, and had a surgery called posterior bone-block to help with that.

My schooling was interrupted for close to two years, and when I returned to school, I had to repeat the last half of the seventh and eighth grades and then, was off to high school. My dad again stepped forward and took me for an interview to a very small, all girls private school.  I wore slacks to hide my braces.  I was told by the principal, “You will not wear slacks to this school young lady.”  That “cured” me of being ashamed of my braces.

My father stands out in my mind as a very strong influence in my life.  He always described me as strong, brave and beautiful – after awhile I began to believe it!  I never wanted to show feelings of weakness for fear of disappointing him, having always felt protected by him and his strength.

In those days there were no accessible movie theaters, social halls, churches or other places for me to go to socialize, and certainly no curb cuts for those who used wheelchairs – nothing was accessible! So my dad looked for other things for me to do. He would drive me to Ft. Meade, Md. with a USO group to sing for the WWII soldiers, and even tried to get me on the Arthur Godfrey Talent Show. (I’m sure most of you are way too young to remember that show!) I even sang “Together” live on a local radio program for teens.

To be continued….

Visit Disability.Blog next Tuesday for Part II of Colleen’s story.

44 Responses to Colleen’s Story: Part I – My Childhood Years

  1. Maria S. says:

    Siento k no se comunicarme en ingles, pero si alguna persona se quisiera comunicar conmigo podria contar mi historia, es muy interesante, porque contraje polio en 1941. En Spain en aquellos ańos no savian mucho de esta enfermedad. Me tuvieron 3 ańos en el hospital d la Beata Mariana d Jesus, hice mi primera comunion en una cama de Hospital con mi yraje blanco y otras 29 nińas. Bueno mi vida es como para hacer una pelicula. Me gustaria q alguien se comunique conmigo. Me case con un Americano tengo dos hijos preciosos y dos nietos. Vivo en Los Angeles, CA.

  2. Mary Lou P. says:

    Thank you for sharing your story. I contracted polio as an infant in 1935 or 1936, and I have had disabilities all of my life. In fact, my mother told me they didn’t even know how sick I was at the time, and I wasn’t diagnosed as having had “infantile paralysis” until I was more than two years old and still made no effort to walk. When I did walk, both of my feet were disfigured and I waddled as I walked. Both of my feet and legs were affected.

    When I was five years old, I was hospitalized at the Crippled Children’s Clinic in Birmingham, Alabama, and had surgery on both of my legs to straighten my feet so I could walk on the bottoms of my feet instead of the sides. I barely remember that time in the hospital – I just remember there was a huge room with cribs side by side filling the room. I remember no emotions I felt during that time, even though my family lived much too far away to come and visit me during the three months I was in the hospital.I do remember our cribs being rolled out into a sun room during the day.

    I too wore the heavy braces and high top shoes, and though I don’t remember being made fun of, I never fit in with the other groups of children and I longed for a friend. I was the middle child, and I had an older sister and a younger brother. My memories of my childhood are not very clear. I would go to clinics for evaluation periodically, and had more surgery to fuse my ankles because they would turn over and I fell down often. They tried many different things to try to straighten my feet. I remember one summer I wore a cast on one of my feet to see if it would grow straight. It didn’t help. At another time I remember having to wear my big high top shoes day and night to try to make my feet grow straight. I just took things as they cane and do not remember being upset about not being able to take off my shoes, but I do remember how good it felt when I finally was able to walk without them, and now I prefer to go barefooted in the house.

    After high school, I went to work in an office and after working for a few years, got married and had two sons. After my sons got older, I returned to work at the same place I had previously worked. I retired in 1995. I fell and broke my right hip in l997 and my disabilities started to return – post polio syndrome. I began using a cane, then fell and broke the other hip and used a walker. Then last July, I fell again and broke my hip again and had to have a hip replacement. My legs are extremely weak and I tire very quickly. Now I use a motorized wheelchair at home and can walk short distances with my walker – I can put my walker in the back seat of the car and drive to physical therapy where I am trying to strengthen my upper body.

    I have been a widow and have lived alone for over 20 years. I am blessed to have a wonderful family, am mostly self sufficient and have no physical problems other than mobility. I will be 77 years old in July.

    I am looking forward to reading your next chapter. You are an inspiration.

  3. Lynae says:

    What an uplifting story! Can’t wait to read the next chapters.

  4. Debbie says:

    Colleen,
    I just read part one of your life story.

    I’ve learn so much about you through this site.

    I’m looking forward to reading Part I and II.

    May God use your testimony for His good.

    Love you girlfriend,

    Debbie

  5. Mardell K. says:

    Colleen – I was touched by your story. It would make a wonderful novel and help to raise awareness of the human behind the disability. My father’s best friend had polio he contracted at about the same age. He remained my father’s best friend until he died. He lived in a small town and was well received by his school mates, but there was the “adult” gossip that his mother did not do enough to prevent him from getting the disease. I remember many times watching him put on his brace (only one leg was affected). He never let his condition be a disability to him and led a very full life. His four children were my best friends. He died at the age of 38 from kidney failure due to his lifelong diabetic condition.

    Thank you for sharing your story.

  6. Mildred F. says:

    Amazing story…God Bless you and all that have disabilities…

  7. Francesca T. says:

    I was much older when I had my disability. I often thought how I would have coped if I was much younger and been disabled. I guess pretty much the way I do now. People are a lot nicer or maybe feel more free to express it. I’ve had strangers walk up and pray with me. That’s very nice and kids ask questions or stare and I tell their parents that it’s OK. When I smile and make a funny story about being good it takes the pressure off everyone. I feel most people are curious, but if I felt they were being nasty or rude I would ignore them. Life must be a lot easier for the disabled and for that, all the good people, and most of all The Lord Jesus, I ‘m very thankful.

  8. Patty C. says:

    My Dear Colleen, Your story stirs up so many emotions; I am so touched by the amazing ability to reveal a life so mixed with trials and so full of blessings. Yes, your Dad was your Hero, but I know that your Mom was the one ministering every day and providing the nuts and bolts of your care. I can’t help but think that your story would be so enhanced if Bob or friends could blend a sound tape of your singing along with this print of your document. Your voice is a beautiful gift which you have used so generously in sharing with others.

  9. Barb says:

    Thank you for sharing your story. My uncle contracted fulminating polio in 1949. He lived 2 weeks, all the while my aunt caring for him. It is one of the great tragedies of our family’s story, as he left a young widow with a severly disabled 3 year old and a newborn. This is one of the reasons I am so adamant about vaccines. Looking forward to hearing more from your story.

  10. Anne R. says:

    My mother had polio when she was about 9 years old. She was born in 1922. I’m not sure when polio first showed up and I’m not sure of her exact age as I don’t remember that detail. She didn’t talk about it much. One of the few times she talked about was about when she first came down with it. She lived on a farm with her parents and 3 older brothers. Anyway, she said she woke up on this particular morning with a terrible headache. She was still in bed when her mother came into the room to get her up for school and to tell her to go get the eggs from the hen house and then left the room. She said she couldn’t get up and she felt terrible. Her mom came back in the room and was mad at her for not getting to the hen house, but then she realized something was wrong with her. She was in a hospital somewhere, not sure where, and it was probably pretty scary because I don’t think she had many visitors.

    She was left with one leg shorter than the other and underdeveloped. She talked about walking to school – I don’t know how, but on the way home one day she fell in a pond or something, and said she would have drowned except one of her brothers pulled her out and I think he was always special to her on account of that. My mother never went on disability. She stayed home with my brother and sister and me until I was maybe 7 years old or so, and then she went to work in a hospital as a nurse’s aide and sometimes she worked in the emergency room. I remember going to work with her one night and helping wrap instruments to put in an autoclave for sterilization.

    When I was about 15, she decided to go to school to become an LPN and she had to study and know a lot to do that, but she made it. She did that for probably 15 years at least, the latter part of which she worked in the OB/GYN Floor helping deliver babies. I missed her a lot after she died and I remember hoping that finally she could dance and run like she had wanted to before. If there is a heaven, I hope that’s the way it is, whatever our problems here on earth are, they will all be gone and our bodies and minds will be healthy and whole.

    My mother’s mother died when she was about 13 or so, and then she had to be mother to her little sister who was only about 3 years old, so she took on a lot of responsibility. I remember her being very serious when I was a kid and we didn’t talk a lot, that’s why I don’t know more. Not sure why she was that way, maybe it was because of all the adversity, not really sure. But she worked hard all her life, was an excellent cook and tried to do everything everyone else did. Maybe not as well, but she tried.

    She got braces one time specially made when she was 50 or so, but she never wore them, not sure why, probably because they got in the way and also sort of stand out in a crowd. One foot was smaller than the other and she did have problems with foot drop. Because of the difference in length of her legs, she always had to buy certain shoes that were made so they could be built up for her. Not all shoes would work because of the way they were made. She died of bone and lung cancer (she never smoked) and when she started having the extreme pain from the bone cancer, she ignored it for a while thinking it was some post-polio syndrome or something. I’m not sure I could have handled it as well as she did. I guess none of us knows what we are capable of ’til we are put to the test.

    I’ve been on disability since I was 55 or so, but no one can tell by looking that anything is wrong with me, but I know inside.

    Thanks for sharing your story. It gives me some insight into what my mother’s care must have been like, but it was well before the 1940’s and I’m not sure how much treatments changed, but probably some. You were very brave and sounds like your father helped you out a lot. I’m glad you had him as an advocate, he sounds very special.

    • Michele says:

      Hi Sweetie..what a nice writing about your Dad. Ray was a very talented man and it was so nice to hear his deep resonant voice when he spoke and to hear him sing to your Mother, her voice was beautiful, also. I am sorry not to have heard them sing together. You must have fond memories of that. Your Dad and Mom were always so kind to us and your Mom used to save and give Tom the ends of her wonderful homemade bread. That was Tom’s favorite part of the bread. I would freeze them and he had end toast for a long time. We had many a fellowship around your table. It was a blessing. You have indeed become a star and proven you abiities over and over. It is so sad that all teachers cannot be encouragers instead of so many being discouragers. How nice to have had Mr. Wilhelm around to encourage so many. She is a doll. Dee Dee had her issues with teachers also. She, is a brilliant woman and has been a marvelous teacher and Mom to her four. She recognized dyslexia in one of her children and got her help. She went to A &M at 16 and graduated with two majors and minors. So, you gals all hang in and keep right on going upward. You all do so well. Take care, and again the article is very thought provoking and hopefully some of those who may have thought negatively of you have seen the light. Love you. Annette Joseph

  11. Ken says:

    Colleen,
    Your story touched off a series of flashbacks for me. I got polio in 1939. I had a mother (God bless her) who was much like your father. I remember the many, many hours she spent rubbing my legs with cocoa butter and telling me not to be discouraged and that she believed I would one day walk again. I remember also the many nights she sat by my bed to help me deal with the pain of those early days. Sadly, she went to her grave thinking that she was to blame for my sickness because she did not take enough precautions. I look forward to reading the rest of your story. Thank you for sharing it.

  12. Karen says:

    Yours is a very inspiring story told well. Even though you and your parents experienced such different times and struggles, I think I can share the relief you felt when you heard the real diagnosis. I have 2 boys with disabilities, and just knowing there was an explanation for each, as hard as it was to understand or cope with, was a blessing. Thank you so much for sharing your story.

  13. Adrianne G L says:

    Thank you for sharing your story, I find it fascinating and inspiring.

    I look forward to parts 2 and 3!

  14. Niq says:

    Beautifully written!

  15. Nancy and John says:

    Our Dear Colleen…You are my inspiration…you have helped me through my problem with your prayers and thoughtfulness…now I know so much more about you…I am looking forward to the rest of your story…true conquest. I will never forget how we met…Love, Love, Love you…O.J. and Honey John

  16. Doreen D. says:

    Colleen: You are a great author. Thank you for sharing your story. I look forward to the next two. I know you are an amazing woman as I had the pleasure of your frienship in Fl for several years.
    God BLess

  17. Ed says:

    Durring my teenage days I knew Colleen very well. What a beautiful and vibrant young lady. She had determonation, consideration, and empathy for almost evryone. I was proud to know her and will carry her memory with me always. If you did not know she had poliomyelitis, you would never had guessed she was ill. She brought pleasure to my life.

    Looking forward to her next installment.

  18. Kay and Clarence says:

    Thanks for the connection, Colleen. Can’t wait to read more. Such a pleasure to actually know you personally. You are very strong and living proof that a disability doesn’t stop you from daily living. Well said.

  19. Ted says:

    Beautifully written account of your interaction with polio as a youth. Your writing of the green bicycle is poignant to me. I learned to ride my best friend’s blue bicycle and was promised a red one just like it for my next birthday by my Dad. I came down with polio in 1953 and was out of isolation just prior to my sixth birthday. My parents were given special permission to visit and celebrate my “special day.” I asked Dad about my bike and was told I was not getting it as I was getting braces. My brain understood the braces had replaced the bike as my birthday present. It took a few years for me to understand that was not the case but was not good timing to be told about my need for braces to be able to walk. I had not understood until then what polio had been doing except making me sick and in pain – not that it had robbed me of the use of my legs. You mention you were ashamed of your braces; I downright had an instant “hatred” towards them that left me almost as paralyzed as the polio itself. I was angry about not getting the bike and when they were brought to me, they were white like all the girls instead of brown like the other boys. I did not want braces and I did not want braces I thought belonged to some girl. It made for a rough beginning for me. I have wondered how others felt when they had that moment of realization. I am looking forward to your next instalment of your success over the years.

  20. Steve L. says:

    Strength and self-determination. As a father of a young woman with a disability, I recognize the directness of your coping style, and the devotion of your father as he accepted that while you needed an advocate, he knew how to promote your abilities. He protected you and let you grow at the same time. You both exhibited the courage that we should all embrace, thank you.
    Steve

  21. Mike G. says:

    Bob, your mom is a born story-teller! Her optimism and determination just shines through this blog. I cannot wait for the next chapter.

  22. John C. says:

    Hi Colleen, Thank you so much for your story. It took me to a very special time in my life in 1943 when I also had polio. I was nine years old and in god’s hands. Your story affected me deeply. Will stay tuned for more. Sincerely, John C.

  23. N. Uribe says:

    Working with people with disabilities gives us a different meaning for life experience and the many possibilities to overcome any condition, regardless of appearance and limitation. Your story is a reflection of the power within. Thanks for helping us reaffirm that we have choices designing our life path.

  24. Kitty says:

    Colleen, very nice so far. My brother also had polio and had many surgeries. My mom worked at a roller rink in the “50’s” and could take us to work with her. When they got his new shoes fit for the brace, my mom also took a pair of roller skates. The orthotist said he’d never made a set up for skates before. Mom just said, “Well we are going to try.” And try he did. And many other things thru out his life. God Bless you for your courage.

  25. Theresa H W. says:

    Dear Mrs. Feldman,
    You are an amazing, amazing woman. Never a complaint about your Polio, just looking out so that you could get home to help others. You must have also been a wonderful mom…. God Bless and Keep You. I’ll be back next week to see the continuation of your wonderful story on Disability Blog.

  26. Paula P. says:

    Your story brought tears to my eyes. I think that many people can learn from your struggle. Thank you for sharing it with us.

  27. Gladstone T. says:

    Great success story told by a person blessed by God. Your father was a great man.

    Thanks for sharing.

  28. Susan says:

    Colleen,
    You are a brave lady. I also have a disability, for which I was made fun of and called names. As I got older & wiser, I was still called names at my place of employment, however I never took it to Human Rights or the EEOC. I was let go of my job because of my disability. There are so many of us that have disabilities, yet your story is truly beautiful…

  29. James says:

    Awesome, thank you ….

  30. Kathleen D. says:

    I, too, had polio at age 4 in 1946. I wore braces, built up shoes and the whole bit. Had to re-learn how to walk, very weak, one leg shorter and smaller with so much weakness never would hold my body up. But we always find a way whenever possible. Have the drop foot. Had surgery to freeze ankle and never able to get around without crutches from that time on. Married, had 3 children and have worked at the last job for the past 32 years….Still have to use crutches or wheelchair, but God has been good to me. I’ve gone thru a triple by-pass and a bout with skin cancer, but I am still going. Took care of my husband for almost 15 years as he had cancer that would go into remission and then rear it’s ugly head. I lost my love almost three years ago and at times Life doesn’t seem worth living, but God brings me thru and I pick myself up and get back at it. GOD BLESS YOU AND KEEP YOU…..

  31. Rose says:

    Thank you for sharing your story. Your story brought back a very vivid memory of the Polio scare which I imagine continued into 1960. I was six years old. My dad was afraid to take us anywhere for fear we would contract it. I remember we had been invited to a friends house from school and I was so excited to go and my dad changed his mind and said no. Later on I would have a friend in Jr. High School who was affected by Polio, but it had just affected one leg and not both.

  32. Michael Patrick says:

    I am Blessed to have grown up in this family……I’m the 72 year old baby brother.

  33. Melanie B. says:

    A moving and inspirational story.

  34. James T. says:

    Dear Ms Feldman,

    You are a great story teller also. Can’t wait for your continuation of this story. I became disabled and put in a wheelchair 27 years ago and it’s nice to watch time go by and see the slow progression to accessibility for the disabled.

  35. Alysha C. says:

    You are an inspiration!

  36. Ellen J. says:

    You had wonderful parents! You were very brave, but your classmates abandoned you out of ignorance. I love your story and can’t wait to read more.

  37. Arlene A. says:

    What a heart warming story. Thank you so much for sharing.

  38. Marieli A.-U. says:

    Collen, thank you for sharing with us your story. I admire your courage. Blessings.

  39. Phyllis says:

    I look forward to reading more…

  40. Debra says:

    You have a flair for writing and I really enjoyed your story. Funny, I was just thinking before I read this how that everyone has a story and usually it’s pretty interesting – ha. Please continue to share more about your journey because it is encouraging and inspiring to those of us out here dealing with disabilities. Bless u.

  41. Christina S. says:

    Thanks for sharing this story. I have an elderly uncle who had polio in the 1950s, and now has post-polio syndrome. This really helps give me perspective on his disability.

  42. Gail says:

    Look forward to the next article. Thank you for sharing.

  43. Bret says:

    Thanks so much for sharing this wonderful story!