Survival in a Northern Wilderness: A Mother's Story--Part XLIII

Violet was just going out the door when the phone rang, it was a hot day in August of 1981. It was her daughter-in-law Mardell in Orr, Minnesota where she and Violet’s third son Floyd resided. Mardell told her that her son Bill and wife Audrey and two infant sons who lived in Duluth were out on a canoe trip when Billy was stricken suddenly with fever. Violet suspected polio, however polio was a thing of the past and who wanted to believe that her Billy had polio.

What had started out as a two and a half weeks before as an ideal canoe trip on the Seagull River ended in a desperate, determined rush for help. Bill laid in the intensive care unit in St. Mary’s Hospital a respirator helping him breathe, he couldn’t move his legs or right arm, and he would clench visitors’ hand tightly with his left. The Doctors were not sure what happened, but Violet knew that he had contracted polio because in the forties and fifties while the great polio epidemic was going around she had studied the symptoms and reactions of polio from Bernarr McFadden’s Encyclopedias on Health and Natural Methods, according to Violet if caught right away the disease can be treated.

Bill and Audrey were trying out a new canoe with their children, Grant 27 months and Cole just over a hundred days old. Halfway into their trip in the Boundary Waters canoe area wilderness Billy became ill. The trip ended with Audrey helping her nearly crippled husband over portages as they rushed to reach the nearest hospital two days away in Grand Marais. Audrey said Bill didn’t sleep those two nights because of severe back pain and headaches. At first they thought it was a pinched nerve and everything would be okay when they got back, but it quickly became clear something much graver was wrong. By the time Audrey had paddled through Maraboef and Saganaga Lakes Bill was quickly losing his strength before they found help, two groups who between them had two nurses and a paramedic. When they landed at the Gunflint Trail Billy could hardly walk and he was rushed to St. Mary’s where they waited for the results of the diagnostic tests, but over the phone Violet knew from the symptoms it was polio. Bill talked with Audrey about his work and what mattered, telling her that everything he had done he had used his hands and told her he wanted to be whole again. He iterated, “there is something there though he said with hope” and hope is what he held on to. When the tests came back they discovered he had contracted polio from his infant son, the baby was given the live vaccine and Billy caught it from changing the baby’s diapers. Per Violet there is an incubating period of about three weeks that you can catch the disease.

Billy re-educated himself by attending the University of Minnesota and with his left hand he was able to work from home in his wheelchair. He was employed by the Duluth Community Action Program and later was named acting director for Project Start (science and technology for access rehabilitation and training) at The University of Minnesota Duluth. Billy sang in the church choir, was a co-founder of the U.M.D. disabled persons organization, a founding member of The Great Lakes Writers Guild and other distinguished organizations. Billy designed a multi-terrain wheelchair named the “Ranger Ascent” which traveled over gravel as easily as carpet and allowed disabled people to retrieve objects from the ground and floors. It could travel up hills and was equipped so it could be lowered to the ground to allow him to play with his children on their level. Bill said he developed the chair to allow handicapped people to better enjoy outdoor activities. In January of 1987 Billy became sick and was diagnosed as having a tumor as big as a football in and around his pancreas, he was getting better but contracted the flu and he passed in August of that year.

Next up Violet looks back and talks about a few regrets, her good times, her neighbors, friends, her kids and some of the everyday adventures that befell her.

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