By Father Dennis Meinen
View from the Scooter
Were you living when the polio epidemic raised its ugly head in the 1950s? I had a funeral for a woman named Louise, who caught this dreaded disease in 1952. (I asked folks if they knew someone who had had polio and many raised their hands.)
Louise told me her brother and she joined many others (732) at St. Joseph Mercy Hospital, who were afflicted with polio. She saw some people there in iron lungs, a device which encased the patients in an MRI-type capsule, because they had paralysis of their respiratory muscles. This device helped them to breathe until they could do so on their own. She said she would never forget the rhythmic push-pull sounds of this life-giving machine. A Sioux City Journal article dated Jan. 25, 1953, examined the impact of the disease in the summer of 1952 and said, polio marched through Woodbury County last summer in its most ravaging and destructive epidemic of all times.
Both her brother and she had eyes that glistened with tears when they heard on March 26, 1953, that an American medical researcher Dr. Jonas Salk announced on a national radio show that he had successfully tested a vaccine against poliomyelitis, the virus that causes the crippling disease of polio. Alas, there is still no cure. People infected with polio need supportive therapy, such as bed rest and fluids.
Louise’s suffering was part of her life, but so was her joyful spirit. She called her afflicted legs “her teenagers” because they wouldn’t always obey her. One time I went to turn into her room, and my power chair started to pull her television set behind me and off its stand. Her legs came to life, as she rescued this priceless contact with the outside world from falling to the ground. She looked down at her two shanks and said, “Why don’t you work all the time like that?”
I remember anointing her near the end of her life. I could see that she, and those who suffer a lot, are really presented with the awareness of what it means to be a fully human being.
The Christian knows that suffering is never to be sought as a good in itself. To do so would be wrong. Louise knew that life was not trouble free and without the cross. Suffering comes to all of us. My question is: how do we respond to the suffering which comes our way?
I prayed that Louise would someday tell us: Love transforms suffering into an opportunity for growing closer to Jesus and those in need. As the reading from Corinthians tells us, the greatest of the virtues is love.
Yes, in Louise’s moments of real suffering there was the cross. But, it is important to remember that God’s own son was not spared. The new covenant, written on our hearts, does not excuse us from life, service and the cross. The Christian will have his or her own cross to carry. However, it is in carrying our cross with an obedient, suffering love that we come to be perfected in God’s unbounded love.
As many left the chapel to go to the cemetery for the grave-side service, it was pouring down rain. I commented that Louise probably did not have the pull yet to influence the weather.
Soon, the coffin would settle down in its temporary home, until Christ, in his omnipotence, will raise up her body to “New Life.”
I mused, “Did Love transform her suffering into an opportunity for growing closer to Jesus and those in need?”
It is an answer Louise and those who die before us must give to the Just Judge. I pray that Louise will run with new, strong legs into the warm embrace of Jesus, her Suffering Servant.
Father Dennis Meinen serves as chaplain at Holy Spirit Retirement Home, Sioux City, for Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts in the diocese, and Faithful Friar of the Garrigan 4th Degree Assembly of the Knights of Columbus, Sioux City.