Kelly: Polio survivor perseveres -
Published Sunday, January 22, 2012 at 1:00 am / Updated at 10:50 am
Kelly: Polio survivor perseveres

The Omaha girl had endured mumps, measles and chickenpox the year she turned 7, so she wasn't overly worried when sent to then-new Children's Hospital for something else — polio.

"I didn't have any idea this would go on the rest of my life," said Mary Beth Coate, who turns 70 on Thursday.

From 7 to 70, she has never walked without support. Polio from the waist down meant her muscles couldn't support her.

She nonethless graduated from Creighton University, married, raised three daughters and taught math, physics and chemistry for years before retiring in 2009 from her alma mater, Mercy High School.

Hers is one of many stories from the old Children's Hospital on the grounds of the University of Nebraska Medical Center. UNMC officials last week announced a $370 million plan — the med center's largest ever — for a cancer center on the midtown campus. The original Children's, now known as Swanson Hall, would be razed.

In 1981, Children's opened a new hospital at 83rd and Dodge Streets, with gleaming additions in recent years for what is now called Children's Hospital & Medical Center. But the original hospital opened in 1948, south of Dodge and west of 42nd Street.

UNMC historian John Schleicher said so much of the campus has grown up around the attractive red-brick Colonial-architecture building with the pillars out front that it is somewhat hidden from public view. Before it would be demolished, he said, he imagines there would be "a good-bye party, where people could walk through and reminisce."

It's an important piece of Omaha history — a hospital built not just with donations from civic leaders but also with a "penny drive" in which more than 30,000 residents of Nebraska and western Iowa contributed pennies, dimes, dollars and high hopes.

"Cleaning ladies" at Mutual of Omaha donated $20. Three young magicians contributed $17.65 from a basement show. Halloween trick-or-treaters gave $14.10. A neighborhood sale netted $9.97, and a backyard kids show added $3.48.

"It was contagious," one Omahan recalled in Hollis Limprecht's 1973 history of Children's. "There was something in the air."

The 100-bed Children's Memorial Hospital, as it was called, opened on March 14, 1948, but something else was in the air — an insidious contagion that became an epidemic of polio, a viral-based disease that could cause paralysis.

Parents were advised to keep their children away from crowds, including movie theaters and swimming pools.

In August, Children's opened its entire north first-floor wing to polio patients. By November, the polio count for the year at Children's totaled nearly 150 patients, with varying degrees of the disease.

In the summer of 1949, Mary Beth, the daughter of packinghouse millwright James Petersen and his homemaker wife, Monica, spent six weeks at Children's, the first two in isolation. Today she imagines how her parents must have felt: "If it was my child, I would have been terrified."

She recalls seeing children encased in noisy iron lungs that helped them breathe. "To see their little heads sticking out is what was so frightening."

Up to 95 percent of those infected with poliovirus would have no symptoms, and most recovered without long-term problems. Mary Beth's husband, Arthur Coate, whom she met in college, got through a mild form of polio in his youth.

Nationally and locally, the worst was in 1952. That was also the year Omaha and Council Bluffs fought off an epic Missouri River spring flood, though The World-Herald reported by year's end that the summer and fall battle with polio "undoubtedly saved more lives than were actually endangered in the Missouri's mighty rise."

Children's admitted 322 polio patients, and had as many as 27 at one time in iron lungs. County Hospital also took in many polio patients, and other hospitals admitted some to convalesce. In all, the newspaper later reported, the polio outbreak that summer sickened 489 and killed 10.

Polio finally was conquered in 1955 with the injected vaccine developed by Dr. Jonas Salk. Dr. Albert Sabin later created an oral polio vaccine.

Children's Hospital through the years has treated many thousands of complicated cases. Kids today may not even have heard of polio. Mumps, measles and chickenpox, once common, also have been nearly wiped out by vaccines.

Some people, like Mary Beth Coate, treated long ago with hot packs at the original Children's, have lived their lives with polio. Now she suffers the effects of post-polio syndrome, the muscles in her arms weakening.

"I walked on crutches for most of my life," she said. "The last year or two I've used a motorized scooter."

She credits a stubborn streak with preventing her from ever giving in to polio, and she said: "It's by the grace of God I've gotten this far."

With her 70th birthday this week, has she thought of how she might celebrate?

"My granddaughter and I," she said, "are talking about getting our ears pierced."

Contact the writer: Michael Kelly    |   402-444-1000

Mike writes three columns a week on a variety of topics.

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