Former patients remember Rosemount hospital
Jackie Wolesky-Pedrow and Carol White met under the worst circumstances. Both had polio and were patients at the University of Minnesota Polio hospital in Rosemount.
Nearly 60 years later the women, who both have led full, active lives since their time at the hospital, met under much better circumstances. Five years ago the women, who had cribs next to each other at the hospital, reunited in Amboy. These days the two friends keep in contact through letters and phone calls.
The women finding each other again after so many years was serendipity. White, whose maiden name was Breitbarth, accompanied her husband to a doctor's appointment in Mankato. During their appointment they had a nurse with the last name Wolesky. White commented that she had been in a polio hospital with a woman named Jackie with the same last name. Turns out Jackie was a relative.
"Can you believe that's the way we found each other?" said White. "It's a small world."
Both women were 4 years old when the contacted the virus. According to the World Health Organization Polio is a highly infectious disease caused by a virus. It invades the nervous system, and can cause total paralysis in a matter of hours. The virus enters the body through the mouth and multiplies in the intestine.
The Rosemount polio hospital, which was located in the former Gopher Ordnance Works infirmary, opened in April, 1947 and treated patients until July, 1948.
Rosemount Historical Society member Maureen Geraghty-Bouchard said the hospital was funded by the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis. After the hospital closed the patients were either sent home or to the Sister Kenny Rehabilitation Institute in Minneapolis.
The 80-patient hospital provided care for non-acute polio cases based on the then-controversial methods of Sister Elizabeth Kenny. According to the Sister Kenny Rehabilitation Institute web site, now owned by Allina Hospitals and Clinics, Kenny challenged traditional polio care which involved strapping people with the disease down, and encouraged patients to move. Kenny, an Australian nurse, is credited with pioneering physical therapy. Sister is a British term for a head nurse. Kenny was not a nun.
"She fought like the dickens to help us," Pedrow said of Kenny.
Both Pedrow and White were sent to the Rosemount hospital to receive the specialized care offered there, which included vigorous exercise of the affected body parts and heat therapy. At the time Pedrow's family lived in Owatonna and White's family lived in Truman. White still lives in Truman while Pedrow has relocated up North.
Family ties and faint memories
As war binds soldiers, illness tends to bind families. Pedrow said their mothers befriended each other while the girls were in the hospital and kept in contact for years through letters. Pedrow said she and White both have letters and trinkets their mothers had kept.
Both their mothers have passed, though, taking what they knew about the hospital and the girls with them. Neither Pedrow or White remember much from their time in the hospital.
"I only know what I was told and my mother blacked a lot of it out because it was a hard time," said Pedrow.
White said she remembers Jackie and a Native American girl who stayed in a crib near them but other than that her memories of the hospital are few as well.
"When my mother died a lot of those memories were lost," said White.
Pedrow said her mother also kept in contact with the nurse that treated her, Margaret Sherman. Pedrow said as she got older she also started corresponding with Sherman. She kept contact with her until 1999, when Sherman died.
Faint memories are common among the patients who stayed at the hospital. Avonne Bakken, who now lives in Cannon Falls, contracted the virus when she was 2 and stayed at the Rosemount hospital for a time. She remembers being in a room filled with cribs, eating a lot of apricots and seeing her parents occasionally.
"I still can't eat apricots to this day," said Bakken.
She also recalls getting to go home for Christmas night.
"I cried because I missed the hospital. It broke my mother's heart," said Bakken.
That Christmas Bakken received a doll which her mother kept at home for her. All the toys and trinkets she received at the hospital had to be thrown out. Bakken said she still has that doll. She also has an embroidered handkerchief one of the employees at the hospital made for her.
Bakken's mother also corresponded with other families they met at the hospital, although she has no contact with them now.
All three women came out of the hospital in pretty good condition and have lived fairly normal lives.
"I feel like I was one of the luckier ones because I was able to carry on a normal life," said Pedrow.
For Bakken contracting the disease opened up opportunities for her that she otherwise might not have had. Due to the illness she was able to receive funding to go to college and get a teaching degree.
While she still walks with a limp, Bakken said she's grateful for some of the blessings that came out of the situation.
"I grew up with difficulties but I was able to go a long way because of them," said Bakken.
Now in their 60s all three women are experience post polio affects. White said the virus affected her left side and her speech, both of which are getting worse.
Despite it being somewhat common among former polio patients Pedrow said there has been little medical research done to help them.
"I guess they don't see much use in it because when we die it's done," said Pedrow.
The building that housed the hospital still sits on the UMore property. The U-shaped building is located East of Dakota County Technical College on Audrey Avenue. Now used for storage, the building served as a hospital for the Gopher Ordnance Works plant and then as the polio hospital.
According to a pamphlet published about UMore in 1948, after its time as a polio hospital, it was supposed to be used for patients with other diseases and research. Those plans apparently fell through.
While there's not much left over from it's days as a hospital University of Minnesota staff did recently find an iron lung, which the Rosemount Area Historical Society displayed at last month's UMore open house.