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Karl D. Surber

Age 15, 1954, I entered Antelope Valley High School in Lancaster, CA., 10 miles south of our home in Palmdale. It was on my second day of school that I feel ill (which was not unusual) and a few days later I began to experience significant weakness in my legs.

The following Saturday, my folks got our family doctor to drop by the house. I was now in pain and having trouble breathing. After a brief assessment he phoned for an ambulance which felt more like a badly sprung lumber truck. It was an 80 mile trip to LA County Hospital. My parents were present as I underwent examination, including a spinal tap which confirmed the doctor’s suspicions. They gave me a tracheotomy and placed an iron lung outside the room. I was fed liquids and soft foods through a tube that went up my nose and down my throat. Around midnight the doctor told my parents that they had done all they could. The next morning dad announced from the pulpit that I was hospitalized with Polio. While at LA County Hospital I was treated with hot wool packs several times per day. Being allergic to wool, I had to have cotton blankets placed between my skin and the wool.

I spent 23 days at LA County Hospital in the Communicable Disease ward before being sent to the California Rehabilitation Centre in Santa Monica. The doctor advised my parents that I was old enough to be put on the eighteen-bed men’s ward rather than on the children’s ward.

The physiotherapist ‘s routine alternated every other day, first starting at my head and neck, assisting with my exercise as far down my body as I could manage. The next day she started at my feet and ankles, working as far up as she could go. I was so weak that I could only do a half hour session each day, but during those 2 days my whole body got exercise. Shortly thereafter, they started me on the Tilt Table to get me standing again. This was an exceedingly painful process as they strapped me on and tilted it as close to vertical as they could until my pain and nausea reached their limits. Soon after they started me on Tanks & Stretch, a process of soaking in a tank of water reading 102 – 104 deg. Fahrenheit then was stretching my leg and back muscles as far as possible. I did not deal with pain very well, and saw all of the above as forms of horrible torture. In addition, other forms of physical therapy continued for ten months at the CRC.

We were provided with a teacher to help us keep up with our schooling. I completed a half year of English and a full year of History. I got full credit for Phys. Ed as my therapy was seen as a full requirement. I was at CRC for so long because it was an 80 mile trip home which I could only make on occasional weekends. After 10 months at CRC I went home in August 1955, starting a routine of therapy at home and learning to drive. My father bought me a 1946 Oldsmobile with automatic transmission as I couldn’t handle a clutch with my weak left leg. I had therapy each morning for the next two years. Then by the third year, I completed 4 hours of classes in the afternoon. The next year I continued with therapy in the mornings, taking 5 classes in the afternoons. By adding summer school I managed to graduate the year after that, and in my senior year I attended a full day doing some exercises before and after school, and using Kenny Sticks all through High School. For those not familiar with the term “Kenny Sticks”, they were crutches cut off at the elbows with a leather cuff attached.

At age 19, summer of ‘58 I had a semi-stabilization procedure on my left ankle, therefore did not have to wear a leg brace for years, and after the surgery I had no assistive devices whatsoever. My daily exercising was so successful that I worked in the funeral business doing a lot of heavy lifting; spent one summer working for an uncle’s business with oil and auto parts, lifting 50 pound cases of oil, then worked in the food service industry while completing my Theology course at San Francisco Theological Seminary in San Anselmo, California.

In 1973, I was ordained by de Cristo Presbytery, Synod of the South West of the United Presbyterian Church in the USA. I then moved to Canada serving in six pastoral charges in Saskatchewan, Manitoba and Alberta through the United Church of Canada. In 1994 I went on disability with Post-Polio Syndrome and other health issues. I still do some exercises and help with household chores. It takes longer to get up in the morning and longer to go to bed at night. I have been a member of the Post-Polio Awareness & Support Society of BC for a number of years, attending one of their symposiums in 2006. I have been a current active member of the Post-Polio Network of Manitoba, attending most meetings since I moved to Winnipeg in 2003.

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