Miriam acquired paralytic polio in the late 1940's and required an iron lung or other breathing assist devices continuously ever since. She was one of the first patients placed in a new Commonwealth of Massachusetts Hospital built in Boston for rehabilitation. Built for 600 patients, it had fewer than 200. All employees were state civil service. The budget was adjusted each month depending upon the average census. I was the chief of Medicine and principal administrative medical officer. In this capacity, I supervised Miriam's care for five years starting in 1968. A Chief Executive Officer (CEO) managed the budget and approved all hiring; patronage was rampant.
Miriam was slight, weighed less than 100 lbs and required total care. Most nights, she was in her iron lung. Days were spent on a rocking bed which rocked her head down, feet up, then rocked head up, feet down; that provided breathing, and permitted access for necessary care. While on the rocking bed, she could speak clearly; she had daily bathing, skin massage, muscle exercises and help with toileting and feeding, all by external hands. She read books using a special device that held her book and turned the pages when she moved her head to the side. She listened to music and news on portable radios adjusted by staff or visitors. When her door was open and she was on the rocking bed, she encouraged and welcomed visitors. She acquired polio at age 19, and now almost 30 years later still looked 19 years old. Her skin was pale and wrinkle-free. Her attendants did her hair nicely and applied makeup, and at her insistence often changed her hair style. She adored most staff and they loved her, everyone feeling uplifted by her cheerful positive outlook despite her handicap. She knew most staff and visitors by the sound of their footsteps or voice. My presence in the corridors was always recognized by my rapid footsteps or my voice. She loved and invited conversation from anyone who stopped by. She shared news about hospital and staff activities and willingly discussed what she heard on her radio or was reading. I was surprised when I first met her that she knew the names and interests of my wife and children. Her up-to-date conversation was remarkable but her craving for company was continual. She had no close relatives and few visitors from her distant past.
I initiated new programs in liver disease and alcoholism that doubled the occupancy of the hospital that increased both the budget and jobs to be filled. These endeared me to the CEO. A recovering alcoholic named Larry wandered into Miriam's room during his initial hospital stay and enjoyed her companionship. Each day he spent time with her while she was on the rocking bed, discussing the challenges of his and her lives. When he completed his 14-day detoxification and was to be discharged, he volunteered for a long-term research study that extended his stay in the hospital for three additional months. Thus he continued his daily time with Miriam. Their platonic relationship was considered important to both by all of our staff.
Larry was immature and playful and became a harmless prankster. The staff was mostly tolerant and amused by his antics. One morning he concealed himself behind the artificial greenery in the hospital lobby. When police officers arrived for a break from their squad car route to enjoy a subsidized breakfast and walked eagerly into the hospital, he jumped out with a toy pistol and shouted, "BANG, you're dead!" Since he was well known, this was taken as a joke by most policemen, but one sensitive neophyte placed him under arrest for assaulting an officer and took him to jail. In short order, he appeared before a judge and was sentenced to one year in the Suffolk County jail. Miriam was devastated by the loss of her daily companion and mad as hell about this unfair outcome. Like the smoke signals from warring Indians, she verbally mobilized her extensive contacts. They arranged an emergency hearing with the judge and organized the hospital to convey her in her emergency portable breathing apparatus to the hearing. The portable respirator was a metal device enclosing her chest like a partial ancient suit of armor and operated by a 200-pound battery pack.
Miriam and her portable respirator were loaded into a van to reach the courtroom. She was accompanied by the CEO, four hospital attendants and myself, and two police officers to support her. She astonished the judge by the widespread organization needed for her first and only departure from the hospital in nearly 30 years. She clearly presented the importance of Larry to her life and the true nature of his prank. The two police officers emphasized that the event was a harmless prank which they enjoyed. I certified the importance of her relation with Larry supporting her wonderful adjustment to her paralysis, and the CEO testified to the morale boost she provided to all of the staff with her continued optimism about her life. The judge changed Larry's sentence from jail to one year's probation under Miriam's daily supervision. The CEO responded with a paid part time job as a cleaner, including room and board at the hospital for Larry.
When this sentence was completed, Larry became an full time employee of the hospital and continued to visit Miriam daily until she died, 49 years after her paralysis first developed.
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Publication history: This article first appeared in "The Broadmead Journal of Poetry and Prose," Fall, 2016.
Dr. Iber is a retired gastroenterologist, a specialist in diseases of the liver. He has written widely and taught extensively. He maintains many active interests in addition to his profession, including the travels of Lewis and Clark. He and his wife live in suburban Baltimore MD.
“You will come to a place where the streets are not marked. Some windows are lighted, but mostly they're darked. But mostly they're darked. A place you could sprain both your elbow and chin! Do you dare to stay out? Do you dare to go in? How much can you lose? How much can you win?” ― Theodor S. Geisel