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Remember When: Shehan’s Polio story

  Dan Shehan’s “My Polio Story” is continued in this week’s column. The dread disease of the 1950s, polio, was a pandemic similar to today’s Coronavirus, but there were no quarantines of families or shut-downs of businesses and vaccines were soon developed. There were warnings which families heeded in order to try and keep their children free of poliomyelitis.

     Dr. Morgan Moore remembers that Dr. Kenneth Moore Hannon was the orthopedic doctor who came regularly to Andalusia from Mobile to work in the Crippled Children’s Clinic held in the downstairs of the Scherf Memorial Building on Opp Avenue. Appointments were made at the Red Cross. The medical doctors in the Andalusia area often referred their patients to Dr. Hannon at the charity clinic before there was Medicaid and later to Dr. Lawrence Bowness, the orthopedic doctor who moved to town from Chicago. He had been the Chicago Bears orthopedic physician.

     Shehan as a ten year old child had been struck one morning upon waking with a stiff neck and terrific headache that progressed to weakness, an inability to breathe, and paralysis.

He was taken by his parents in the back of their car to Pensacola and shortly thereafter placed in an iron lung which aided him in breathing and feeling better. His parents had contacted his uncle, Dr. Robert Earl Vickery, a student in medical school at Birmingham and his professor who flew in a plane to Pensacola in the middle of the night to assist and consult.

     Dan later placed on a Navy plane and flown to Birmingham, was accompanied by his two maternal uncles, Norman and Henry Everage, who took turns pumping the iron lung during the flight since the plane did not have electrical power.

     The doctors told his parents that he would never be able to walk again and would be in a wheelchair the rest of his life! He was eventually transferred from Jefferson Hillman Hospital to Crippled Children’s Hospital next door where he stayed for the next six months. He gradually gained the use of his arms and legs and celebrated his 11th birthday while he was being given physical therapy and whirlpool baths. It was during therapy that a therapist noticed a slight curve in his spine, the onset of scoliosis, which began his life-long struggle to overcome that further curving.

     In the spring of 1954, his parents moved to the community of Gonzalez, Florida near Pensacola where his father, a master carpenter, had built the family a new house with wide doors to accommodate a wheelchair. By this time, Dan had proved the doctors wrong and was walking on his own. He attended junior high at Tate High School.

     In 1957, it was decided that the family needed to move to Warm Springs, Georgia, the center established by President Roosevelt, and that Dan would be admitted to the Warm Springs Clinic for treatment of scoliosis and for fitting of a brace which consisted of a corset with a steel bar on the back and a mechanism to hold up his chin and head. He wore this brace until he finished high school in 1960 at the Brent Christian High School in Pensacola.

     After Shehan’s freshman year at Bob Jones University in Greenville, South Carolina, he underwent a final fusion with Harrington rods after which he resumed college and was graduated with a B. S. degree in secondary education in January 1966. He found a teaching position for the 2nd semester in DeFuniak Springs, Florida. By the beginning of the next school year, he was hired by Andalusia High School Principal Murray King as an English teacher.

     After his first year of teaching, he chaperoned eight high school students on a six-week tour of England, Ireland, Scotland, and France. During the next three summers, he attended the University of South Alabama and was graduated with a Master of Arts degree in English education.

     This is what determination did for one person who suffered with polio as a child, but his bout was not over yet.

      Around the year 1976, Mr. Shehan began to feel quite  fatigued by the end of each day. Then one night, he realized that he was having difficulty breathing when he reclined in the bed to sleep. He ended up in the emergency room and then admitted to the hospital to be given oxygen. By the next day, he was barely conscious. He was given a tracheotomy and placed on a breathing machine for about a week until his condition improved. When released from the hospital, he found it necessary to sleep elevated in a recliner.

     After consulting with a doctor in Houston, Texas, it was prescribed for him to return sleeping in an iron lung. His  mother called around and finally found help at Emory University in Atlanta which maintained a March of Dimes equipment center in Augusta, Georgia.

     The March of Dimes shipped an iron lung to his home in Andalusia which “stabilized my life,” Shehan stated. Someone (his mother) would have to latch and unlatch it. One day for a nap, he was latched in by his mother. She went to visit a friend and forgot to come back on time. When he awoke and discovered that she had not returned, he had to extricate himself by tearing the flexible collar around his neck in order to unlatch the lung. Upon relating his story to the March of Dimes equipment center, he was informed that the iron lung could be modified with latches operating from the inside. He was shipped the modified lung in exchange for the one he had. This new iron lung gave him the needed independence.

     By 1995 when Mr. Shehan retired from the field of education, one of the doctors tried him on a bi-pap machine. It took a little time of getting used to wearing a mask, but he was finally free of the iron lung.

     For many years, Mr. S. Daniel Shehan collaborated to write  music with English teacher friend Joseph C. Wingard, lyricist and poet. Together they hosted annual Christmas Sing-a-Long events for 25 years and published a booklet of their original Christmas songs. Shehan served as an organist for many years at the First Baptist Church and also after his move at the Bull Street Baptist Church in Savannah. When asked who taught him to play the organ, he stated that his father built him a little playhouse in the back yard. He bought him a portable fold-up organ and made foot pedals with strings wired to the keyboard. His mother taught him “Old Rugged Cross” and then he just kind of figured things out for himself from there on – another amazing accomplishment of one who almost died several times from the complications of polio.

     While residing in Andalusia after his teaching career, Dan Shehan, historical society member, became an historic preservationist purchasing and restoring the First National Bank Building on Court Square as well as some other downtown buildings and apartments. He once resided in the upper floor of the FNBB as landlord of fully occupied apartments where he emphasizes, “The view from above was  outstanding!”

     This polio survivor of great magnitudes is retired at last and living in Savannah, Georgia where he is an active member of the Coastal Empire Polio Survivors Association.  He desires to donate his iron lung to the Three Notch Museum where this artifact might be housed to interpret the polio pandemic of the 1950s for the enlightenment of future generations. If anyone who might be traveling across the state of Georgia in the near future can arrange to transport this back to Andalusia, Alabama, please contact this writer.

     Yes, we need to Remember When that unfortunately, these pandemics come and go. They are part of our history to learn from. Many recent stories are being preserved, I understand, by the University of New Orleans in partnership with Arizona State University. The goal is to create an historical record of the pandemic as it unfolds so that future generations will remember what people experienced in this unprecedented time from the mundane to the extraordinary.

     Dr. Connie Zeanah Atkinson, AHS Class of 1965 graduate and history professor at UNO, is co-director and site curator of this online project. She welcomes any stories from Covington Countians who would like to contribute to this collection so that the economic and cultural effects of the Coronavirus  Pandemic will not be forgotten in the future. Contact midlocenter@uno.edu.   

     There have been many responses from this area on social media and surely more will follow. Maybe with the arrival of spring and summer, the world can look forward to the return of our normal lives, happier and healthier times ahead! As Dickens’ Tiny Tim once observed, “God bless us everyone!”  Thanks to S. Daniel Shehan for allowing his poignant story to be told.

     Sue Bass Wilson, AHS Class of 1965, is a local real estate broker and long-time member of the Covington Historical Society. She can be reached at suebwilson47@gmail.com.