It was the worst headache ever.
While waiting for a bus at 63rd and Paseo to take her home from work, Mona Randolph’s head felt like it was going to split open. She had a fever, chills. The sights and sounds of the world intensified. Her nerves were on edge. She was 20 years old, three days into a new job and three months away from getting married.
It was 1956. A year before, the government had approved a vaccine for polio, but kids were the priority recipients. An adult, Mona was thought to have been at little risk.
Today, she has limited use of her right arm, though the fine motor skills needed to feed herself peas or write letters to loved ones have left her in recent years. She hasn’t had the use of her left arm for more than 60 years. She gets around in a wheelchair.
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Before she got sick, she loved playing piano. Sheet music stored in the piano bench often was her first stop when visiting friends’ homes. Sometimes she still feels Beethoven’s “Moonlight Sonata” in her fingertips.
When she describes her initial symptoms back in 1956, she even discusses it in musical terms.
“Everything was off-key,” she said. “I couldn’t stand to hear people talking in the kitchen. They’d whisper and it would hurt my ears. I couldn’t stand any light. Mom put blankets over the windows.”
After her bus trip home that day, she weakened more and more over the next several hours. On the second or third day, she couldn’t breathe. Doctors at St. Luke’s immediately put her in an iron lung.
“They happened to have one in the basement because people were not using them much then,” she said.
For many years, she was able to live without the iron lung. Mona compares the paralysis to being trapped in the body of a newborn — except a baby can at least flail her arms and kick her legs. Becoming so dependent on others was a blow to an independent young woman in the prime of her life.
After her initial hospitalization, she received treatment at Warm Springs, Ga., the same facilities where Franklin D. Roosevelt was treated. When fellow patients gained more muscle use than she did, she was discouraged and depressed. Then there were those who were just left behind.
Over time, and with the unwavering support of family and friends, she was able to regain some semblance of an independent life.
In the ’80s, post-polio syndrome worsened her condition to the point where she had to go back to the iron lung at night. She describes breathing — something most of us don’t give a second thought — as an effort of concentration, like lifting weights.
Six nights a week, Mona Randolph sleeps up to her neck in a long, noisy, airtight, 75-year-old iron tube — one of only three “iron lungs” known to still be in use in the U.S. It’s a six-foot-long immersive breathing apparatus that resembles something like an industrial oven or, as Randolph calls it, her “yellow submarine.”
During the day, she uses a modern respirator — a CPAP machine — but those alleged improvements in technology have their own problems. For one, they force air into her lungs. Hardly a comfortable feeling. And, though she and husband Mark Randolph own three of the contraptions, one’s almost always on the fritz.
The iron lung, on the other hand, creates a negative pressure inside that allows Mona’s chest to expand and contract more naturally.
Getting into the machine every night takes more than an hour. It requires assistance from Mark, plus at least one friend, volunteer or hired hand.
Someone has to help Mona dress for bed. Someone has to get her into the sling that hoists her from her bed and swings her across the ceiling of her Waldo home and over to the 700-pound machine.
Someone has to cover her with blankets for warmth, adjust her arms and head and legs so she’s comfortable — a wrist resting on a pajama button in the wrong place can cause a fitful night’s sleep. Then someone has to tighten the seal around Randolph’s neck and turn on the half-horsepower machine that powers the thing, as it chug-chug-chugs all through the night like a slow-idling lawn mower.
In the morning, someone has to repeat the process in reverse after she wakes up.
This has been her routine for about 36 years.
Despite all this effort, she has one word for being sealed up in the machine for the night: “Relief.”
She won’t say much of her intended fiance from when she was younger, only that he “drifted away.” Mark and Mona met at a church dinner more than 30 years ago, and they may have discovered the secret to complete marital harmony.
“She gets the thermostat,” Mark said. “I get the remote control.”
In the movie of their lives, their “meet cute” moment came in the 1980s, when she was a sort of house mom for young women at their church and he was new in town. The women hosted dinners each Friday night for the young men who attended church.
Free spaghetti and the company of the opposite sex; it’s easy to see the appeal for a young bachelor.
Before each meal, the weekly tradition was to hold hands and say grace. Without thinking about it, Mark reached over with his right hand and did something few had done before: He grabbed her paralyzed left hand.
As Mark told the story, Mona smiled while breathing through her forced-air respirator.
With a gleam in his eyes, Mark said, “She noticed.”
Their marriage hasn’t always been perfect, of course, but they’ve been together ever since. He’s had to adjust to doing so much for her, and she’s had to adjust to being able to do so little. Now as they’ve both gotten older, he’s had to adjust to being able to do less for her. His back prevents him from lifting her. They don’t get out much.
When she reads or hears stories of today’s anti-vaccination movements, she has her own complicated feelings.
Religion helped get her through rough times; if doctors had a better understanding of the virus, science might have prevented her ordeal altogether. Both science and faith sustain her today.
“I believe getting vaccinated is the thing to do, but I also believe people ought to act according to their faiths,” she said. “It’s a personal decision. But something like vaccinations that you can see the proof of with epidemics just seems more logical.”