Saturday, March 23, 2013

Roosevelt's fight against polio


On our recent visit to Warm Springs, Ga., we were surprised to learn how much President Franklin D. Roosevelt had influenced present physical rehabilitation treatment programs for people with handicaps.   When as a polio victim he started treatment here in 1924, he was impressed with the amount of improvement he felt when he spent time in the warm waters.  The Indians in the area, who had used the waters to treat various ailments and wounds, felt a special healing spirit was here.  Roosevelt agreed and decided to buy land and start a treatment center.  To help finance a center he originally wanted to provide a resort for well people also, but quickly discovered that many well people avoided physical contact with polio victims from fear of catching the illness themselves.

We toured the campus of the Roosevelt Warm Springs Institute of Rehabilitation with a delightful lady guide, Linda Creekbaum, who had been closely involved in the program for years and had met many of the people who had been here as children who returned to visit as adults because the treatment program had been so important in their recovery.  They had often cried when their parents left them, but then cried when they were taken home because this place had been so important not only for their physical rehab but also their mental rehab. 

Franklin Roosevelt had the Warm Springs Institute of Rehabilitation designed to look like the University of Virginia

Little rehabilitation had existed before the institute had been established.  Roosevelt felt that attention was needed not only to physical treatment but also to the individual’s mental attitude.  As the children had often been treated as cripples whose lives were over, Roosevelt tried to present an image of someone who was successful in spite of his paralysis. The seriousness of his handicap had not been made known to the rest of the world and only three pictures taken by family are available of him in a wheelchair.   Roosevelt’s paralyzed legs would not allow him to stand without braces, but in the waters he found he could.   A movie shows him playing happily in the water with children who had polio--a movie that was never shown to the general public during his lifetime.

In describing the facility the term campus is used rather than hospital and the campus is structured on Roosevelt’s orders to look like the University of Virginia with covered walkways and connecting hallways.  A special area gives the hall of fame of polio with the work of A. B. Sabin and J. E. Salk being highlighted.  With their work on vaccines the need for polio treatment diminished, leading the institute to develop into a treatment institute for stroke victims and others who need physical and mental rehabilitation. 

 The Polio Hall of Fame honors those people who contributed to the eradication of polio in most of the world. 

The concept of treatment was so new many treatment techniques and much of the equipment used here needed to be developed from scratch.  Because mental attitude was important, Roosevelt felt self sufficiency needed to be developed, resulting in the children being given considerable freedom to try different activities.   One of the patients from Missouri was Congressman Ike Skelton whom our guide knew well.   In her stories about him she stressed how he had worked to make a handicap friendly environment with low curbs, wide doors and elevators eventually becoming a national priority. 

We examined one of the small pools.  The 88-degrees water comes out of the ground at over 900 gallons a minute.  Visitors for a small payment can experience what it is like to use one of the pools. The campus is now a National Historic Landmark.  The dining hall by Roosevelt’s order was upscale for the patients with waiters in coat and tie and special attention to the quality of the food.   Roosevelt drove his own car around the area and used it as an opportunity to talk to the locals, which introduced him to a whole new way of life he had little way of knowing about from his rich, protected background.

Roosevelt’s work had a wide influence.  For example, his ideas were used when the University of Missouri became the eight-state center in the Midwest to become environmentally friendly for handicapped students in 1960s.