Poliomyelitis, called Polio by most of us, was a contagious disease that was not eradicated in this country until the polio vaccine was developed by Jonas Salk, distribution beginning in 1955.
In 1952 alone there were nearly 60,000 cases of polio in the United States with 3,000 deaths reported; however, it is in 1947 in Comanche County, Texas that our story begins, for it was in this year that baby Billie Nelms was born to Bill and Bobbie Nelms of Beattie, Texas where Bill was a successful farmer.
All went well with the young couple and their new baby, and as it seems to do, time passed quickly, bringing little Billie’s first birthday with it.
“On that day, Mother had gone to town and I was staying with her mother, my grandmother. I had gone down for a nap and when I woke up, I had a high fever and I couldn’t move.”
Billie’s parents grabbed her up and headed for the Gorman Hospital where Dr. Rogers knew immediately what was wrong. He called John Petersmith Hospital in Fort Worth and sent the Nelms off with their baby.
Billie does not know how long she was in the hospital, but she knows that her parents stayed there as long as they could, able only to see their tiny daughter through a glass. Eventually, they had to leave because they could not afford to continue to stay in Fort Worth.
I can’t even imagine what it must have been like the day they were forced to turn their backs on their daughter and make what must have been the horribly long trip home.
“Mother would ride the bus back and stay in a boarding house near the hospital until the money ran out then return home. She said it was horrible becaused I would cry when I saw them, and they could never come in and hold me.”
Eventually, the baby Billie Nelms was ready to come home. She could no longer walk, but she was alive and she was coming home! The learning to walk again could wait. And here’s where our story of true Texas spirit begins.
On the day that Billie was stricken with polio, her family home had no electricity. Beattie had no electricity. It was coming, and the REA had families scheduled for when they could expect those beautiful poles to show up on their property, but it was not the Nelms’ turn, not yet.
And then Billy Nelms was stricken with polio, and the entire community knew that she could only be released to come home if she could lie under a heat lamp, a lamp that required electricity. From what I understand of the story, the workers worked, and worked, and worked, and believe it or not, the Nelms had electricity in their home by the time Billie was discharged from the hospital!
The prognosis was not good. Billie had walked early, at eight months to be exact. However, on the day she left the hospital her parents were told that it was unlikely that she would ever walk again.
“It did take me a long time to learn to walk again, but I guess I was very happy to be home. My grandfather said that the first night I was there I crammed my food in with both hands. I guess I missed my grandmother’s cooking!”
Billie did eventually relearn the skill of walking, but it was hard. The Polio had left her with a limp, and today Post-Polio Syndrome causes difficulties such as pain, extreme fatigue, and, of course, the limp, but Billie is still thankful.
“I’m so thankful that I was able to have my children and raise them. I also know how blessed I was. There were lots of children in the hospital when I was. Some of them didn’t make it.”
Billie also praises the people of Beattie as wells the REA for the time when they all came together when a little baby needed them.