By Daria Anderson-Faden
The Observer 

Another Time, Another Virus

'I'm Not Quitting,' Polio Survivor Shirley Tank Combs Vowed


April 2, 2020

Daria Anderson-Faden / The Observer

This iron lungs sits in the Banner County Museum in Harrisburg. It was used at St. Mary's Hospital in Scottsbluff.

The front page of the February 20, 1953 issue of the Sidney Telegraph read: "Potter Child Polio Victim". The article began: "Cheyenne county's first polio fatality of 1953 was a 14-year-old boy from Potter who, during the first few days of his illness, gave every indication of having the flu which has been so prevalent in this area."

The disease, which took the life of the 14-year old youth and afflicted many other area residents in a variety of ways, was poliomyelitis. Poliomyelitis, more commonly known as infantile polio was named because it generally attacked young children and youth in their prime. The effects of the disease had a broad range, many people were not even aware that they were infected. They had few if any symptoms, meanwhile they spread the disease. Others suffered paralysis or even death. Individuals, families, and communities across the country had to face and learn to deal with the devastating emotional, physical, social and financial effects of polio. 

The small town of Potter, Nebraska in the panhandle was no different than the rest of the country in 1953, when two young residents and their families were forced to deal directly with polio and its aftermath. These two cases represented both ends of the spectrum of polio in the 1950s, one resulted in a very quick death and the other exhibiting a long slow recovery. 

Terry Dindinger, a freshman in high school died very suddenly and quickly from the virus polio, while 12-year-old Shirley Tank contracted the disease and struggled for months to regain her strength and movement. People in the first half of the 20th Century lived with the horrible fear of contracting polio. Doctors and nurses were themselves surrounded by the illness.

Polio was an acute, infectious disease caused by a virus that attacks the central nervous system. It was caused by any one of three polioviruses and spread by an infected person, it entered the body through the mouth, invaded the bloodstream and was carried to the central nervous system, causing lesion and inflammation in the gray matter in the spinal cord that resulted in paralysis.

The United States was especially hard hit by polio in 1916, when 27,000 caught the disease and 6,000 died that year. In 1921, a polio epidemic broke out in New York state. Thirty-nine-year-old Franklin Delano Roosevelt became ill with polio, when the illness had subsided FDR had lost the use of his legs. FDR became the most famous polio survivor. FDR's fame and fortune helped fight the disease and through his influence the March of Dimes was created.

The poliovirus usually began mildly but it could ravage the muscles of a human body. By 1953, research on the virus was progressing but still no widespread safe vaccine existed. Once polio was diagnosed, treatment and therapy for the damaged muscles began immediately. Polio mimicked a cold in the first stage, but as the illness progressed so did the symptoms like fever, headache, chills, sore throat and even stiffness in the back and neck. Treatment and rehabilitation for the effects of polio consisted of wrapping the needed limbs in continual hot wet packs and working and stretching the affected muscles. By 1940, Sister Elizabeth Kenney, an Australian nurse, found that hot wet packs and therapy could strengthen and re-new damaged muscles. The Sister Kenney treatments became common for polio patients in hospitals throughout the United States.

Polio epidemics usually hit in the warm summer months and swimming pools were considered a breeding ground for the virus, but 14-year-old Terry Dindinger became ill in February. As a freshman at Potter High School, Terry fell ill on Friday, but it seemed like a nasty case of the flu. Terry stayed home from school on Friday, but his fever and aches continued throughout the weekend and he continued to lie in bed. On Monday, Terry attempted to get down some broth down, but he choked and made "sort of a gurgling noise." The doctor from Sidney was call but Terry "was gone" before the doctor arrived.

Terry Dindinger died from bulbar polio, which paralyzed the throat and lungs. Bulbar polio attacked the motor neurons of the brain stem therefore reducing breathing capacity and causing difficulty in swallowing. The iron lung was used to sustain patients with bulbar polio who had lost the ability to swallow and the ability to breath on their own. Terry's life might have been extended with the use of the iron lung, but his family still believed he was suffering from the flu.

Fear was rampant in the small town, but neighbors came to the house and quickly washed the sheets with bleach. Funeral service was held privately for him at the home and the casket remained closed.

Meanwhile, in August of 1953, small, thin and young for her eighth-grade status, Shirley Tank lay on the couch of her home in August of 1953. Shirley's father farmed five miles north of Potter and her mother, Arlene, took care of the children, Shirley and her younger brother Lanny, the house, the garden, chickens and whatever else needed done. School would soon start and the pre-school details such as piano lessons had been scheduled. The new brick school in Potter had been completed and Shirley was looking forward to the school year and the new building. Shirley hadn't had any energy for the past three or four days and had just laid around. Her mother began to think perhaps Shirley was just trying to get out of some work, but then that wasn't really like Shirley.

After three or four days on the couch with "no pep", Shirley developed flu-like symptoms, aching, sore throat, and a headache. Mention of the headache causes Shirley to frown and crunch up her face in pain, she remembers the headache. "It hurt so bad." Not knowing what was wrong, the Tanks had Shirley to the doctor in Kimball by 7:00 Saturday morning. Dr. Shamberg asked Shirley to touch "her chin on her chest", when she was unable to do this simple take, Dr. Shamberg informed the parents that it appeared Shirley had polio, but he would not confirm it until a spinal tap was completed.

Shirley was immediately placed in isolation in the Kimball hospital where she would remain for ten days. The first few days of hospitalization are foggy for Shirley because she was sedated, but Mrs. Tank's memory is clear and precise during those initial days. Once Shirley was put into the hospital, they administered a spinal tap to make certain that it was polio, their fears were confirmed. Mr. and Mrs. Tank and little Lanny went to Scottsbluff to get gamma globulin shots. The March of Dimes provided the gamma globulin shots. Mrs. Tank used Lysol to wash the bedding and clothing, but many items, such as new school shoes, books and stuff animals had to be burned.

The illness that Shirley Tank would contract would be quite expensive due to repeated doctor's visit, extensive hospitalization and months of therapy. The Tank family was especially fortunate financially because years before Mr. Tank had taken out an insurance policy and the salesman had also sold him polio insurance. 

While in the hospital, Shirley, the nurses and doctor worked hard for her to get well. Isolated from other patients and unable to receive visitors, her family had to remain at the doorway because of her contagion. She received the famous Sister Kenney treatments, which consisted of very hot wet packs constantly placed on her legs and back. The packs were changed when they got just a little bit cool.

After two weeks in the hospital, a weak and frightened little girl was taken home to rural Potter to rest and regain her strength. In the first few weeks no visitors came to see her, people were afraid and the Tanks didn't need any distraction from the task at hand. Neither Shirley nor her mother kept a written diary from August 1953 until April 1954, but the events of this time period are etched in their memory with fear, pain and determination. 

The doctor ordered hot baths three times a day, the water was as hot as she could stand it. Shirley was so weak and her legs hurt so badly, her father carried her upstairs to the bathroom for her hot baths. On a return trip to the doctor in Kimball for a check-up, Dr. Shamberg noticed that Shirley was dragging her right leg. Shirley must have physical therapy.

The virus had left Shirley's leg and back muscles weak and shriveled but a determined Mrs. Tank was going to do everything possible to help Shirley recover completely. With no physical therapy in the immediate area, Dr. Shamberg ordered them to Cheyenne, Wyoming. Every day for a week, Mother and daughter drove the 190-mile trip to Cheyenne to received therapy on her legs and back. The following week they remained in Cheyenne for three days while Mrs. Tank learned the exercises to rehabilitate her daughter's damaged limbs. Having learned the exercises and back home, the family settled into a routine to get their daughter back physically and emotionally. A hospital bed was set up in the living room. Shirley got up only to do her exercises, twice a day she would lay on the kitchen table and with the help of her mother they would work together to do the 32 exercises designed to re-train her muscles. The hour long set of exercises began with the thumbs and worked at stretching and strengthening every muscle from the thumbs to the legs. The routine would last for five months. 

Shirley's grandfather sometimes interrupted the daily routine; he would be upset because Shirley often cried when the leg stretching was done. He told his daughter-in-law that she was hurting his granddaughter and thought his daughter-in-law should quit the intense recovery program. A mild-mannered but strong willed Mrs. Tank told him politely to stay away until they had completed their exercises for the day, she said: "I am not quitting."

Quitting would have been easy, but the Tanks began to see results. Shirley got stronger and they returned to the therapist in Cheyenne. The therapist demanded that they do more and said: "You have got make her cry." So they worked harder and longer. As Shirley began to show improvement, simple events like having the Sunday school class at their home improved her spirits and reminded her that life continued and soon she could join the life outside her home. Mrs. Tank took on the educational responsibilities, teaching English and history. Mr. Tank taught his daughter math. Everything else was given up, Arlene Tank spend the first half of the year 1954 "just taking care of Shirley." But finally in April of 1954, six months after 12-year-old Shirley Tank had initially fallen ill, she returned to school for half days. Though tired and worn out from the shortened school day, Shirley wanted to get back to a normal routine. She passed all the necessary tests to advance to high school with the rest of her class in May of 1954.

Even though Shirley had polio and is a survivor, she has complete use of her legs and back with no lasting handicap, although her calves and legs ache sometimes when the weather changes. At 79, Shirley Tank Combs is strong and healthy because of her family, especially her mothers' determination and commitment to her daughter's recovery.

Poliomyelitis killed, crippled and besieged thousands of children until the middle of the 1950s. Today, the iron lung that was used in the Scottsbluff hospital sits in a museum in Banner county, proof that polio is a disease that no longer threatens the population in the United States. 

The Dindingers did not have a chance to fight the virus that took Terry's life, so quickly but the Tanks overcame the initial contest with the virus and then worked and prayed for months to rid themselves of the horrors of the illness. Today, Shirley Tank Combs realizes what her determined mother and father had done, they would not give into the disease. 

The epidemics didn't just happen in New York or California, it happened to everyday people and everyday people overcame tragic circumstances and continued their lives. There are hundreds of thousands of common ordinary people who too have endured illness, whether polio, cancer, MS, or a  mental disorder, and they too have learned to accept and overcome roadblocks and hurdles.

Combs Family / For The Observer

Polio survivor Shirley Tank Combs and her late husband, Al Combs, share a pleasant moment.

As we look towards history to appreciate struggles and strength of people in a another time with another virus, we too shall find strength and courage to overcome the current corona virus.


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