The power of one fights an epidemic
Polio, an infectious viral disease that is also called infantile paralysis, reached its peak in the United States in 1952 with 58,000 cases, causing 3,145 deaths and leaving 21,269 people with varying degrees of paralysis. Beginning in 1916, the disease had been at epidemic levels somewhere in the country each summer. Into this culture of fear and suffering stepped Elizabeth Kenny, a self-taught Australian bush nurse. Kenny, who had earned the military rank "Sister" while serving with the Australia Army Nursing Service during World War I, had developed a successful program of massage and exercise that restored polio patients' strength and mobility. But the Australian medical profession did not support her unorthodox treatments.
In 1940, she came to the United States, seeking acceptance for her practices. The American Medical Association spurned her--her term for the cause of polio-related paralysis, "mental alienation," wasn't found in any medical dictionary. Nor was her system of "muscle re-education" a standard procedure. Instead, polio patients were isolated from others, their limbs immobilized with braces or their bodies encased in iron lungs.
Kenny made her way to the Mayo Clinic, where doctors were receptive to her ideas. There were few polio patients for Kenny to treat in Rochester, however, so she went to Minneapolis, a city particularly hard-hit by the disease. There she met three doctors--Miland Knapp, John Pohl, and Wallace Cole--who were desperate to find effective treatments for their patients. Knapp invited her to treat one of his patients, a grocer's son, with hot packs to relieve his pain and physical therapy to restore his mobility. The treatment was successful, Knapp became a convert, and Kenny was given permission to treat patients at Minneapolis General Hospital. Fifty-five percent of her patients returned to normal function; the rest regained varying degrees of mobility.
Sister Kenny was a force to be reckoned with--a statuesque woman with snow-white hair who did not suffer fools gladly. Her zeal yielded results--she convinced a group of Minneapolis businessmen to back her efforts, each donating $412 toward what eventually became the Kenny Rehabilitation Institute. Her ideas are still in use around the world and in Minneapolis at the Sister Kenny Institute.
Dr. Jennine Speier, a rehabilitation physician at Allina Hospitals, occasionally treats some of Kenny's former patients. "Every patient I talk to who was treated as a child says to me, 'I was her favorite.'"
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